February 7: Cats rule social media, but if we accept the possibility of an ‘animal portrait’, then do we accept animal consciousness and personality?
Since it is so hard to get them to stay still, the pedigree of animal photography extends only from the mid-1840s. The only animals that appeared in the first years of photography 1839-1845 could not be classified as portraits any more than can Victorian post-mortem photographs, since given the slow materials available, they had to be fossils, plain dead, or stuffed, like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch.
Not until the mid-1840s could live domesticated animals appear in daguerreotypes by the Bisson Frères; Louis- Auguste (1814-1876) and Auguste-Rosalie (1826-1900), and others. Meanwhile, in Scotland from the late 1850s Horatio Ross (1801-86) ‘posed’ dead animals to make his hunting scenes and Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1837-1912) in India staged big game hunting scenes incorporating the corpses of tigers in life-like poses in the late 1870s. John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1888) used stuffed animals in natural settings in the early 1850s but turned to his own oxymel “dry” preservative process in 1856 to do live outdoor animal studies. Animals in the wild however remained impossible subjects as late as 1861-62, apart from the dead specimens depicted by explorer James Chapman (1831-1872) in Namibia using a French stereograph camera.
From 1851 with the development of faster wet-collodion plates, captive animals, such as those in the London Zoo, were photographed, though still with difficulty as Frank Haes (1832-1916) complained in a February 1866 article about his trails in preparing his series of stereographs of them. Meanwhile Spanish amateur Juan de Borbon Comte de Montizon (1822-1887) persevered in his own efforts in London between 1852-1858, and in 1860 Louis Godefroy Lucy-Fossarieu (1822- 1892) had become official photographer for the new Zoological and Botanical Acclimatisation Garden in the Bois de Boulogne. Zoolgical publications illustrated with photographs in the collodion process appeared, including a serial publication Zoologie photographique commissioned from the Bisson Freres by the Paris Museum in 1853
Specialist pedigree animal breeders who showed their prize animals were an eager clientele in the mid- 1850s for Adrien Tournachon (1825-1903, brother of Nadar) who managed to capture them on Adolphe Bertsch’s rapid collodion plates, though he could not compete with Jockey-Club member Louis Jean Delton I (1807-1891) who set up an equestrian ‘studio hippique’ near the racetrack in the Bois de Boulogne in 1860 to pose his clients in the saddle or with carriage teams outdoors against studio backdrops (above) and published his Album hippique (‘Equestrian album’) in 1870. .
Léon Crémière who was born on this date in 1831 came to specialise in animal photography. He had an advantageous entrée as an assistant to the famous André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819–1889), the inventor of the carte de visite who used the device, which could rapidly make several adjacent exposures on the one sheet, to produce quasi-filmic sequences of dancers and actors so that they appeared to be in motion. Was it Crémière who produced this picture, credited to ‘Studio of André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri’ of a poodle owned by Empress Eugénie (1826–1920), wife of Napoleon III? Given that it poses obediently on what looks like a prayer stool, there is something more than mere ‘cuteness’ implied!
Not long after, Crémière opened his own studio at 28 rue Laval in 1861 in partnership with German photogapher Erwin Hanfstaengl, where they made portraits of the aristocracy and produced the Album militaire de l’Empereur showing the different military corps. The project earned him official acknowledgement and the opportunity to photograph Napoleon III hunting with hounds, becoming editor and photographer to the house of Emperor Napoleon III in 1866. He joined the Societe française de Photographie, remaining a member until 1864, where he displayed official portraits and also Opera stage-sets “obtained with electrical light”, as well as his production of albumen and woodburytype photographs on lettered cards of pedigree dogs taken at shows using ‘rapid photography’.
Crémière’s particular interest in animals is evident in his editorship, using the literary pseudonym ‘Lazare’, of the short-lived weekly Le Centaure (1866-1869) a journal illustrated with engravings from photographs that focused on sport, hunting, agriculture and the arts, and the pictorial racing guide Le Petit Sportsman : bulletin quotidien et spécial des courses (1868-c.1871)
The Emperor commissioned him to document the breeding animals of the imperial farms and as a result the Societe française de Photographie showed his La Venerie française a l’Exposition de 1865. Given his interests, his are not animal portraits, rather, the creatures are living assets of the wealthiest individuals in France, a product of the lands on which they grow and his representations are structured so as to best illustrate their attributes.
Even at their most animated, in these strict profile views there is no interest in the ‘personality’ of the animal.
In 1882, Crémière created the Continental Stud Book (SBC) and became the director of Chenil : Journal hebdomadaire illustré du Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation, publication of the Paris zoo set up in the Bois de Boulogne in the 1850s and inaugurated by the Emperor Napoleon III in 1860 with the granting of further acreage.
From 1877 the Jardin also housed twenty-two temporary exhibitions behind bars of humans, mostly from Africa but including Indians, Lapps and Cossacks, presented as “savages”, starting with a small band of Nubians. The treatment of these people as exemplifications of their race reveals the true intent of Crémière and others producing this kind of photograph that are like “Paintings of animals…”, which as John Berger notes in Why Look At Animals? (2009) and earlier (1972) in Ways of Seeing Chapter 5, are;
“Not animals in their natural condition, but livestock whose pedigree is emphasized as a proof of their value, and whose pedigree emphasizes the social status of their owners. (Animals painted like pieces of furniture with four legs.)”
So is to photograph one’s pet of the same ilk; a mere representation of ownership?
That depends very much on the intention. Here is a very early example by Carl Ferdinand Stelzner, contemporary with the Empress’s poodle, that conveys a more—dare one say; humane?—impression. The studio background and the padded seat elevate Ulla, the Slezner dog, to the same status as Mother Albers, the Stelzner family vegetable supplier, for whom he uses the same picturesque painted backdrop of an alpine lake. It indicates at least a similar level of benign, though perhaps paternalistic, affection for both subjects.
The animal pictures by Walter Schels (*1936), currently showing at Galerie Peter Sillem at Dreieichstrasse 2, Frankfurt am Main in the exhibition Tiere (‘Animals’) until February 23rd., may serve to confirm the possibility, at least, of a true ‘animal portrait’.
So different from the resigned and averted gaze of Crémière’s lion behind bars is the intensity of Schels’ image of the lion, and its apparent engagement with the camera, that it is hard not to acknowledge that in its eyes is the evidence of sentience. Since the chimpanzee is so close in the evolutionary lineage to ourselves, we might go further, on looking at its 1992 image by Schels, as to venture that this is truly a portrait of a ‘someone’, an individual with memory, ideas and an opinion of at least the photographer, if not of us as we look back.
His pictures of dogs, if one is to attempt to define their effect, sit somewhere between; surely conveying personality, if not actual ‘personages’?
Through another body of work, Schels brings us full circle to consider the evidence of consciousness and personality in any portrait, human or animal. In 2003, with his journalist wife Beate Lakotta, Schels asked 24 terminally ill people if they could accompany them during their last weeks and days, resulting in an exhibition Life Before Death first shown at the Wellcome Collection in London, April – May, 2008. They were motivated in contemplating the 30-year difference in age between them, knowing as a consequence that Walter would most likely die before Beate, but that though we all know we are going to die, we find it hard to envisage or believe it.
The difference between these image pairs and Victorian post-mortem photographs is their proximity. Like the animal faces, these are tight cropped and confrontational, and upright, as if we are looking at our own faces in a mirror. Between the first image and its companion, life has slipped away, the eyelids hide the now stilled eyes, but though their engaged gaze is extinguished, the second image seems to retain all the same clues to personality. Having stood before the corpses of my father, brother and mother, I know that uncanny ambiguity at first hand.
Does such a comparison of life and death prove the potential of the still photograph to convey being? Is that the presence we seem to find in certain pictures of animals? Or is that only possible in the case of pictures of certain animals?