What a great honor to start off the week with a featured artist. Again, I had the pleasure of meeting Diane and discussing her work a bit in person. Furthermore, she was also kind enough to answer a few of my questions while allowing me to post the responses. Be sure to stop by her website to see the rest of the images from the series UnNATURAL History. It’s well worth a look. And again, many thanks to Diane for taking the time to share her work and thoughts.
The Artist Statement for UnNATURAL History:
I am interested in the ways we objectify nature, both positively and negatively. The dancing, happy pigs used as icons for BBQ joints and meatpacking plants have always struck me as deeply ironic. Plastic animals take us for rides in theme parks and animated versions sell us products. Nature comes to us, viewed through glass windows at the zoo, natural history museum or framed on television. Likewise, the photograph objectifies the world as seen through the lens of the camera.
We visit natural history museums for a glimpse of our natural world, a world we often do not experience first hand. We view animals from far off places and times at a safe distance. Dioramas (and photographs) create a framed moment of nature frozen in time. The more closely they resemble an actual space and event, the more closely the taxidermied animals appear to breath life, the deeper our sense of wonder and connection.
It is this dichotomy between the real and the unreal, the version of life portrayed and the actuality of death, the inherent beauty of the animals within their fabricated environment and the understanding of its invention, that finds me both attracted and repelled.
American traditions are often rooted in iconic images and advertising which manipulate nature by their own inherent qualities, how do you feel dioramas build upon or offer a new perspective into our relationship with nature?
When Carl Akeley created the first total habitat diorama in 1889 his purpose was to bring the wonders of nature to a public that, for the most part, could not experience it first hand. Natural history specimens before this time had generally been displayed on shelves within glass cases and without context.
Akeley not only provided an environment for his taxidermy based on casts, paintings and measurements taken in the field, but also created the method of taxidermy used today. Before Akeley animal skins were simply stuffed with wood or straw shavings. In Akeley’s method a clay model is molded onto the bones of the animal and sculpted in great detail before being cast and covered with skin. This approach made the animals appear even more “alive.”
Ironically, even though Akeley and his group killed thousands of animals to create his dioramas, he considered himself a conservationist, as did Theodor Roosevelt, an avid hunter who helped add to both the American Museum’s and Smithsonian Museum’s collections. Though animals are known to camouflage themselves within their natural environments, Roosevelt was among those who pushed for the animals to be prominent and unhidden within their displays. Thus many layers of the manipulation of nature were present from the diorama’s inception.
As a viewer I respond to reflections and physical elements in the museum included in the frame as they seemingly bridge the elusion between reality and imagination, how do you come to terms with these unique visual cues?
The first photograph I took was of a diorama of an underwater pond in the Exhibit Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I took the image thinking that it would reveal the kitschy construction before me. To my eyes, the pond looked utterly false. The surface representing the water was sagging and all the contents, from frog to fish to plants, appeared plastic. The light above the surface of the water was glaring. I was utterly surprised by the resulting photograph, which showed a magical, softly lit, underwater space. I had photographed for many years by that point and thought I knew exactly what to expect when my film was developed. The fact that I could be surprised by the resulting image completely fascinated me.
The third museum in which I photographed was the American Museum in New York (one of Akeley’s). At that point I was examining the relationships between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements within the frame and how, when photographed, they flattened into an illusionistic space that in many ways seemed more real than the dioramas themselves.
It was during this visit that I turned the corner and saw a chimpanzee and human skeleton reflected on the glass of a case containing taxidermied chimps. The reflection extended the meaning of the image and asked even more of the viewer. It was with this discovery that I understood how my work could push beyond a simple reframing of the case and place emphasis on visual cues that address the separation of nature and viewer.
One of my favorite images using reflection was shot recently in Bratislava, Slovakia. The photograph shows a family of deer in a forest; the doe and fawn eating grass while the buck stands at attention listening and looking out for danger. To the left, reflected on the case, a wolf approaches the group. It is interesting to consider whether this relationship between the displays was conceived by the exhibition designer or does my photograph reveal levels of meaning and associations that may have been accidental or subconscious.
When photographing do you have preconceived visions you would like to search out?
Working within the same photographic series, UnNatural History, for thirteen years has given me the opportunity to continually reexamine my subject and has lead me to many discoveries through the lens. Two of these have been discussed above; the blending of two and three-dimensional space and the use of reflection to extend meaning. I am also interested in playing with the merging of the painted background with the taxidermided animal; working with point of view to position the viewer face to face or within the path of the animal; and adding glimpses of elements which point to the diorama’s construction (the ceiling, lights, edges, etc.) to signal its artificiality.
I have recently begun working in color, something I have never really done as an artist. Unlike the black and white images, the color often points to the falseness of the scene. The decision to work in color came about in part because I switched from using black and white film to shooting with a digital camera. In doing so, I suddenly had a choice as to whether to leave the image in color or change it to black and white. The other aspect of the decision was that there are images that do not work as well in black and white because of the subject, the lack of contrast between the elements of the display and/or the beauty of the color within the scene. A couple of these considerations inform the first image I decided to leave in color, “Wrapped, Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” This shows a portion of the Africa area of the Public Museum in which a large display was leaking and several of the animals were covered in plastic for protection. Much of the poetry and edginess of the image was lost when changed into black and white.
American culture responds to the presented image and/or performance, yet your work goes beyond the American experience and looks at those museums abroad. Has this led to any interesting conclusions?
I have been fortunate to have had several opportunities to photograph in different countries: Rome and Florence, Italy; Bremen, Germany; Vienna, Austria: Bratislava, Slovakia; Toronto, Canada; and London and Bristol, England. Whenever I travel for work or play, in the US or abroad, I seek out natural history museums in which to photograph.
In many of the museums overseas the collections are quite old with the taxidermy arranged on shelves in glass cases and not within dioramas. This is not true for all museums, however. One of my most exciting shoots I have experienced was in the Übersee Museum Bremen in Bremen, Germany, which has beautifully composed dioramas. When there, I was so immersed in shooting that I did not notice that there was a fire and everyone had been asked over the public announce system to leave the building. Fortunately the fire was modest and contained to the museum kitchen, but I was escorted out by three visibly upset firemen.
One of the main differences I see in the museums overseas is the beauty and age of the architecture. In several images the architecture becomes a strong element within the image. This is especially true in Fish, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria in which the richly decorated ceiling occupies half of the image.
Where do you hope to take this work or where can the reader see it now?
I am very interested in getting this body of work into more solo and two-person exhibits. At this point I have thirty black and white pieces and thirty in color that are crated and ready to ship. The work just came down from the Haydon Art Center in Lincoln, Nebraska and I have several proposals out at this moment.
The best place to view the work at present is my website is www.dianefoxphotography.com