Pinkies

There’s a contemporary photographer whom I first stumbled upon well over a year ago; her name is Catherine Chalmers and she’s taken the most extraordinary pictures of creatures that most humans consider, shall I say, hard to love: flies and ants and cockroaches, and, yes, small rodents. At the time I read on-line the glowing reviews, the critical acclamations, the list of awards her photographs have garnered; I wanted to learn more about her work and immediately went to her website. While I was perusing her site I spotted a word that I couldn’t bring myself to click on: “Pinkies,” or newborn mice according to the newspaper articles—“Pinkies” was a sub-page to a series of photographs that she had called “Food Chain.” And I realized in an instant, from a mouse’s perspective, the pictures couldn’t have a happy ending; I had already seen the one she had taken of a praying mantis eating a caterpillar.

Today I finally get up the nerve to click on “Pinkies.” I had begun to feel like I had been ignoring Chalmers for making me feel uncomfortable before I even knew why. The first shot I see is of a pretty dark brown and white mouse, a “fancy mouse,” who has just given birth to a small mischief of mice. Well, okay. The next photograph shows the nursing mother staring in earnest into the camera as if to say, “Leave my babies alone.” And the photograph after that is of the litter, toppling over one another, huddling together; their warm pink skin make them appear not unlike a microscopic pile of newborn puppies, blind and helpless. I let out a breath that I didn’t know I was holding, and click on the right arrow again, and find the pictures I had been dreading, the ones that the menu’s title had alerted me to. In four or five consecutive stills, a snake constricts and swallows a baby mouse, and a frog gulps down his brother. Yet in spite of the horror the images suggest I can’t help think the artistry has gotten in the way. The vivid close-ups, shot against a pure white background, seem to say more Vogue than National Geographic, and make the predator and prey narrative surprisingly less convincing. But then I remember behind each picture a human hand has chosen a live baby mouse to be sacrificed, and I quickly close the site.

Chalmers was in essence giving her pet snake and her frog lunch; she calls the mice “nature’s Cheerios,” a nod to the rodents’ lowly place in the food chain. She readily admits it was hard for her to witness a “living thing being eaten,” but adds, true terror lies in a world without predators.[1] Thoughts no doubt of a population of fancy mice running amok. But wisely she points out, “What animal you want to live and die is entirely subjective, from person to person and day to day.”[2] I think it’s clear for whom I am rooting.

.


[1] Interview with Catherine Chalmers 
by Michael L. Sand, Food Chain, Aperture 2000.

[2] Libby Brooks, “A matter of life and death,” The Guardian, May 26, 2000.

Other sources: Will Cohu, “A bug’s life: The photographer Catherine Chalmers breeds insects and animals, then watches as they feed on one another,” The Independent, February 28, 1999; Alice Thorson, “Artist explores human/nature relationship through roach `executions’,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, September 29, 2003.

(Image Frog and a Baby Mouse by Catherine Chalmers, C-print, 40″ x 60″, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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