Category Archives: Photography

From a Mouse a Flower

Honebana Lycoris #2, 2009Hone = bone, bana = flower. Honebana, Hideki Tokushige calls his art: single-flower sculptures he makes from the bones of mice. Honebana might, to Western ears, sound like a sendup of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, if it weren’t for the fact that his work is a meditation on “nature and modern life.” It might appear a bit creepy if it weren’t for its beauty. The works are at once delicate and elaborate; each mouse bone carefully placed to complete the illusion of the stem, the petal and the stamen.

His use of bones emerges, Tokushige writes, from the knowledge that humans have been, since the beginning of time, connected to animal bones—converting them into tools and even houses (thanks to the size of the mastodon), not to mention musical instruments, jewelry and fancy footwear—and that all that we avail ourselves of today, from a sweater to the internet, stems from this “primordial consciousness.”[1]

For the Japanese artist, the mouse is the perfect conduit for conveying these ideas because, like us, it is a mammal and similar in form, that has lived through epochs of human history. And perhaps he chose the mouse too, because it was easy to find. He went to a pet supply company that raises domesticated mice whose sole purpose in life has been ascribed by man, to be raised only to be killed and frozen to feed people’s snakes. The chain of life with a man-made spin.

After he extracts the bones, transforming them into a lycoris, a lotus blossom, or an azalea for example, his work is only partially done. With a 4 x 5 format camera in a room on the first floor of his old two-story home, he painstakingly photographs the honebana to give it permanence. No sooner than he’s done, he turns around, breaks apart the flower and buries the bones to honor nature’s “systematic cycle,” and to honor the mouse.

“Spring comes after winter, flower blossoms and dies, evening follows morning, life returns to soil and [is] reborn—.”

 

.

[1] All quotes, according to Hideki Tokushige’s website.

[Image: Lycoris #2, 2009, copyright Hideki Tokushige]


Moonlight and Mouse

The Mouse, the Moon, and the Mosquito Photograph c Alex Badyaev, 2014The Natural History Museum in London has just announced the winners of their Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The mammal category goes to Alex Badyaev for his stunning picture of a deer mouse and a mosquito backlit by the moon.

Badyaev is an evolutionary biologist, and like numerous scientists and naturalists who have preceded him, the art and the science go hand in hand. “My career as a scientist and a nature photographer gives me a way to learn and convey the fascinating complexity and diversity of the biological world,” he told BBC Wildlife, after winning an earlier photography award—a list of prizes he’s received that keeps growing.[1] “I have always spent a long time observing animals. That’s when I think, get inspired, learn, come up with my best scientific ideas,” he said.[2]

For centuries wildlife artists with their closely observed, highly detailed illustrations informed us humans of the natural world, much of which was out of reach and out of sight. Before John James Audubon painted portraits of birds as well as quadrupeds, there was Maria Sibylla Merian, at the turn of the 18th century, traipsing through the Dutch colony of Surinam, capturing in brilliant colors insects’ metamorphoses. And before her there was Leonardo da Vinci, filling his notebooks with studies of wild cats and crabs, feathers and wings. The camera’s invention, however, was a boon to the animals; they no longer had to die and be stuffed in order for their likenesses to be rendered.

Badyaev was hiking through Montana’s Blackfoot Valley when he came across a giant puffball—an amazing mushroom that can inflate to more than a foot in diameter—which piqued the curiosity of a coterie of small animals. Running across the mushroom’s surface, the chipmunks and squirrels, like ancient travelers, made hieroglyphs with their tiny toes. The photographer lay on the ground, observing the nocturnal activity, patiently waiting for the right moment.[3] In an email he said that although he was in the midst of another research project, which included photographing mountain lions and beavers, “It was just hard to resist the combination of inquisitive mice, full moon and a giant mushroom that looked like a planet surface when a mouse stood on it.”[4]

One deer mouse hesitated. A mosquito had caught his attention. In an instant, an ephemeral, faraway moment was captured for the world to see.

 

.

[1] BBC Wildlife, July 21, 2011, Alex Badyaev’s website.

[2] Interview with Neil Losin, “Meet Biologist/ Photographer Alex Badyaev,” October 2011.

[3] London, England, Natural History Museum, “Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014.”

[4] Email with photographer.

(Image: copyright Alex Badyaev, 2014, courtesy of the photographer.)


A Perfect World

Crewdson Untitled (Leg and Mice) 1997The natural world in Gregory Crewdson’s early photographic series Natural Wonder is wondrously unnatural. The mice for example are stuffed; the leg is a cast of the artist’s own limb; the outdoor tableau is set indoors, in the photographer’s Brooklyn studio. It’s a highly detailed, meticulously planned and constructed diorama. “I’m not that interested in [nature] as subject,” the artist said, “as much as I’m interested in using the iconography of nature and the American landscape as surrogates or metaphors for psychological anxiety, fear, or desire. … [T]ropes to investigate my interior life.”[1]

The series took root in Crewdson’s imagination in 1992 in Lee, Massachusetts, where his parents had a nearby log cabin. After graduating with an MFA from Yale a few years earlier, he had been drawn back to the small town. Lee is only six and half miles away from Norman Rockwell’s Stockbridge, but for Crewdson it may as well be a million miles; his subjects are disillusioned, alienated, or largely inscrutable, a different species from the Saturday Evening Post illustrator’s apple-pied gentry. In search of what he called “single-frame movies”—not concerned with the narrative’s before and after—he roamed the terrain of precision-mowed yards, silent streets lined with workaday houses, porches dimly lit; his shoots would eventually become ever more elaborately staged, replete with klieg lights, cranes, production designers, a director of photography, a casting division, hair and make-up and a crew of upward of forty. The resulting pictures were at once lyrical and tense.

But for now, from July through October of ’92 he was obsessed with making piles of dirt in the cabin’s backyard to photograph, until the frost of New England’s fall days drove him and his dirt piles inside. He never developed those negatives but began to see “something larger,” akin to the dioramas in a natural history museum.[2] By the New Year he was back in his studio in Brooklyn, working out each painstaking detail of each model that would be constructed.

Over the five years of the project his vision became darker, its reality more bruised. He pushed aside the images of moths and butterflies, of birds and bird eggs and ordered a thousand mealworms for one tableau; he tossed in body parts, forensic photographs of murder and drowning victims and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés spurring him on. He continued to mine “the polarity between repulsion and beauty,”[3] to transcend immediate shivers of disgust. The mice and the leg look like a crime scene that landed in a Pre-Raphaelite’s brier patch.

.


[1] In conversation with Bradford Morrow, “Gregory Crewdson,” Bomb, 61, Fall 1997.

[2] Gregory Crewdson, Inside the Studio: Two Decades of Talks with Artists in New York, Judith Olch Richards, ed., New York: Independents Curators International, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

Additional sources: Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005, Stephan Berg, ed., Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2007 (rev. ed.); Amy Larocca, “Loneliness and Multitudes: Gregory Crewdson’s singular approach,” New York, March 30, 2008.

(Image: Untitled (detail), 1997, C-print, 36¼ x 45¼ in., reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


Between a Banana and a Mouse

Mac Adams, Empty Space, MouseThe photographer/conceptual artist Mac Adams references the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness when he speaks of his series “Empty Spaces,” which he envisioned in the mid-1990s. He grouped together disparate objects and shone a light from a single source. The shadow the cluster of items cast disclosed an actuality that was at once unexpected and familiar: a bird or a rabbit, a cat or a moth. A banana, a rock and a rope suddenly became a prostrated mouse.

What happens in the space between ‘what we know exists’ and ‘what we see’ has driven the imagination of this internationally acclaimed, Welsh-born American artist from early on.

Starting out in the sixties, he produced one installation after another that spoke of the aftermath of a physical encounter—a bed torn apart, a chair knocked over, things scattered across the rug on the floor. Adams later turned these three-dimensional scenarios into photographs, ‘meticulously staged.’ He moved on to creating diptychs and triptychs with shots hinting at probable acts of violence, before and after—part Weegee, part Cindy Sherman so it seems; and on to capturing similar images reflected in shiny surfaces of teapots and mirrors. Regardless, however, of the approach, he left the fuller narrative just off the page; he left his viewer-voyeur to fill in the blanks, to interpret the crime.

Adams’s “Empty Spaces” series is no different in the ambiguity it engenders. He writes, “These shadows, when projected, create a disjunction between the traditional concept of form and content as a unified ideal, and begin to suggest other parallel phenomena existing as an illusion.”[1]

.


[1] Schwartz Art Collection, Harvard University.

Additional sources: GB Agency, Paris; Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Luxembourg.

(Image: B&W photograph, 1997, silver print, 34 x 22 cm, Collection du Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


“This way I can’t fight.”

Louise Lawler, the highly acclaimed American photographer, first spotted Maurizio Cattelan’s mouse not in the cacophony of his Guggenheim retrospective (previous post), but ten years before in the pristine silence of a Chelsea gallery space. When she saw the small rodent clinging to a tightrope, she grabbed her camera and took a picture.

Since the early eighties, Lawler has been slipping in and out of museums, galleries, auction houses, booths at art fairs, and collectors’ homes, searching for the ideal composition. She’s often been linked to the Pictures Generation (named for a pivotal show that took place in New York in 1977), a loosely knit group of ‘theory-minded’ photographers, filmmakers, video and performance artists—Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, et. al.—who pinched existing images to visually snort at the mainstream culture of the era, post-Vietnam. But unlike the Pictures people Lawler eschewed mass media. She, instead, turned her lens on the art world, to make ‘art about art.’ She’s spent the past three decades mostly photographing in situ other artists’ work to comment on the subtle shifts in meaning and in worth and in viewers’ reception due to setting.

In the spring of 2002 the Paula Cooper gallery mounted a group show “From the Observatory,” inviting Maurizio Cattelan to hang his Untitled mouse and inviting Lawler to shoot the installation and de-installation of the exhibition. The show was “about the complexity of vision and its enhancement by a broad, inclusive view.”[1] The mouse was singled out; the New York Times critic Roberta Smith called him “overly cute but conceptually pertinent.” While he graced the gallery’s reception area, the mouse’s focus, we’re told, was on the nearby ink drawings of spiders and webs that Paul Thek produced in 1975. “Meaning,” Lawler said, “is also made through juxtaposition.”[2]

She titled her image of Cattelan’s mouse This Way I Can’t Fight.

.

_________________________

[1] Roberta Smith, “Art in Review: ‘From the Observatory’,” New York Times, April 12, 2002.

[2] Douglas Crimp, “Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An Interview with Louise Lawler,” Johannes Meinhardt and Louise Lawler, eds., Louise Lawler: An Arrangement of Pictures, 2000.

Additional sources: Elizabeth Schambelan, “Louise Lawler,” ArtForum, February 2005; Peter Schjeldahl, “Alien Emotions: Pictures art revisited,” New Yorker, May 4, 2009; Rachel Wolff, “Impressive Proportions: Louise Lawler photographs great art—then treats it like taffy,” New York magazine, May 1, 2011; Metro Pictures.

(Image: This Way I Can’t Fight, 2002, by Louise Lawler, Cibachrome print mounted on aluminum 40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm.), reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


“Appearances can be deceptive.”

What on earth does a contemporary Australian photo media artist have in common with an eighteenth century English painter? An inspection of Anne Zahalka’s photograph Untitled (mouse), with a bit of help from google, soon shows us the answer: a woman named Ann Ford. Thomas Gainsborough painted Miss Ford’s portrait in 1760; Zahalka appropriated it in 2001.

Since her graduate degrees in art, Zahalka had been mining the pages of art history to visually readdress works of the old masters, a post-modernist reaction to the way in which her predecessors depicted their subjects within the confines of traditional portraiture. In the mid-1980s the arc of her ideas began to form. The Australian artist first received broad recognition for her series Resemblance, photographic works where she restaged scenes found in iconic Northern European (15th – 17th century) paintings—such as Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait. From orchestrating the images of the Flemish and the Dutch, she turned to scanning old masters’ portraits, then set about rubbing out their subjects’ heads. In an interview she said, “By denying the significance of the face through its erasure, I wanted to show how the body, hands and objects continue to project character, power and meaning. This involved a stripping away so that the gesture might exist as a ‘sign.’”[1] But afterward she still saw, it seems, room for misinterpretation on part of the viewer. She noted, “We project onto portraits what we want to see.” And by 2001, she obliterated the gestures of the sitter as well; she cropped Ann Ford at her knees. She added an unexpected single element: a tiny white mouse.

If you take a peek at Gainsborough’s original you’ll see Miss Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) surrounded by a stack of musical scores and a couple of stringed instruments. As proper and prim as she appears, we’re told the twenty-three-year-old English lady was not exactly a lady. In the eighteenth century she was considered a ‘demirep,’ or a woman with a ‘half-reputation.’ Miss Ford was notorious for being combative, for performing her viola da gamba in public; her father even had her arrested. Twice. Gainsborough himself inordinately talented and unconventional ‘expressed solidarity’ with her; he, with Miss Ford’s input, gifted her image with the very things that made her critics crazy: her music and her French dress; he posed her ‘unladylike,’ her legs are crossed. She was a young society woman who was “navigating a changing world through skill and wit,”[2]—a perfect segue I find, give or take a couple of centuries, to Zahalka and her Untitled (mouse). In the tiny rodent’s forthright yet halting presence the contemporary artist captures what Ann Ford represented without the need to see her face; the mouse too imbues the work with the bit of humor that Gainsborough’s painting has lost on us today.

.

___________________________

[1] Naomi Cass, Director of the Centre of Contemporary Photography, in conversation with Anne Zahalka, “Hall of Mirrors, Anne Zahalka Portraits 1987-2007,” National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia.

[2] Christopher Knight, “Art review: ‘Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman’ at the San Diego Museum of Art,” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2011.

Additional sources: Anne Zahalka website; “Portrait Painting in England, 1600–1800,” Metropolitan Museum of Art; Exhibition Catalogue, “Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear: Anne Zahalka in Conversation With Curator Karra Rees,” 2007; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

(Image: Untitled (mouse), 2001, by Anne Zahalka, color print on canvas,
14 x 14 in., reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


“You know, I’m cutting out the people.”

John Baldessari is considered the ‘godfather of conceptual art.’ He pushed the movement’s boundaries; he made it his own. His early antics have been well recorded: cremating all the paintings he made between the years 1953 and 1966; writing over and over, the sentence “I will not make any more boring art”; standing, waving his arms slowly about as if he’s directing a turtle, declaring “I am making art, I am making art, I am making art”; singing to familiar tunes, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Sol LeWitt’s thirty-five precepts on conceptual art and the artist. Throughout the late sixties and the seventies Baldessari was also creating photo-and-text and text-only works on canvas, filled with witty and often sardonic observations. His art garnered its critics; they called it jokey. But the breadth and depth of his vision and his innovation, and the span of time—more than six decades today—have quieted them.

Irreverence was his singular approach to probe truth in art. And it was in photographic source materials—publicity and press shots and movie stills—that in the eighties he realized how easily the truth could be manipulated. He radically cropped and shuffled the pared images, obliterating their original context—not to mention the faces with the ever-familiar colored dots, to tell a new narrative. Storytelling was key to Baldessari, an insatiable reader who “often thought of [him]self as a frustrated writer.”[1]

Two Onlookers and a Tragedy (with Mice) might be regarded as a visual synthesis of the artist’s notions: the importance of the spectator; art as documentation; the fine line between order and chaos; and the absurdity of man—a result of placing one image on top of the other. Above, two mice in period nighttime garb lean over their balcony, looking as if they fell through a hole in a Beatrix Potter story and landed in a Shakespearean play. Below, a mouse has had his spine broken in a snap trap. No elaboration needed. Viewed individually, the photographs are saccharin and sorrowful, respectively. But together the work forms a narrative that’s not without irony. A marriage of fiction and fact, the two mice who are alive are in no way real and the mouse who is dead is alas all too real. While his death is most certainly a cautionary tale, the mice remind us of our inextricable connection to nature—and if you look closely you’ll see the male mouse has tiny human hands.

In the eighties apart from the dots, Baldessari was turning more and more to animals for his subject matter because, he said, that’s “where my sympathies lie. You know, I’m cutting out the people. … I invest animals with the idea of some sort of truth. Animals always seem much wiser than people.”[2]

 

.

A show of John Baldessari’s new works, Double Play, will run October 19 – November 21, 2012, Marian Goodman Gallery, NYC.

_________________________________________

[1] Calvin Tomkins, “No More Boring Art,” New Yorker, October 18, 2010.

[2] Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari, 1990.

Additional sources: Roberta Smith, “Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple,” New York Times, October 21, 2010; Karen Wright, “Interview with John Baldessari,” Art in America, October 23, 2009; Video “A Brief History of John Baldessari,” narrated by Tom Waits, YouTube.

(Image: Two Onlookers and a Tragedy (with Mice), 1989, by John Baldessari, color and black and white photographs with oil tint, 91 x 64 in, private collection, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


“Walt, Ben/See you again”

In the early 1950s, a great American poet penned a poem for a great American artist. The story goes: The poet, sitting in the artist’s studio, was tired of sitting still, posing for his portrait. So he took a break, picked up a sheet of Maillol paper and a pen, and jotted down a handful of lines. The end result was “The End of the Rope,” in which he paid tribute to “Walt and Ben.”  The last lines read: Let’s say we’ve a little unraveled/the end of the rope/and go on from there.   Walt, Ben/See you again   Some day     , signed by its author William Carlos W      s, edited by a mouse.

William Carlos Williams and Ben Shahn first met on June tenth, 1950, when Williams and his wife visited the Shahns in Roosevelt, New Jersey, after the poet had received a doctor of letters degree from nearby Rutgers University. Both men, New Jerseyans, had championed in their art an intellectual understanding of their state’s historical significance, the narrative of its industry and its workers: Shahn had made a mural, depicting the story of Jersey Homesteads—with its roots in the New Deal, the small town (now known as Roosevelt) was founded in 1936 as a resettlement for immigrant families who had worked in New York City’s sweat shops; Williams, the medical doctor-cum-poet, wrote his five-book epic poem Paterson—once said to be Whitman’s America for the twentieth century—using the Jersey city as a symbol for modern man. So it was only fitting that on that summer day, with Williams having just completed Book Four, Shahn gave him a painting he had made of a factory building and tracks and titled Homage to Paterson. This, the start of their friendship. In Paterson’s Book Five, Williams would again mention Ben Shahn’s name within lines of his poetry.

Shahn was a singular artist who triumphantly melded together social realism with abstract design and mastered photography—working along side Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He was also a gifted engraver. Apprenticed at age fourteen to a lithographer, he fell in love with the Roman alphabet and found “the wonderful interrelationships, the rhythm of line as letter moves into letter.”[1] In 1963, he sat and admired “The End of the Rope” in Williams’s “scrappy” hand. He wrote, “I often wonder how many poets write in longhand… One might surmise that verse written to the staccato clack-clack of the typewriter might differ enormously from that written in the noiseless and rhythmic movements of the hand.”[2]

Meanwhile a mouse had discovered Williams’s piece of poetry. Sometime between the poem’s birth and its reemergence a dozen years later, a mouse had resided in Shahn’s house. When Shahn took out from storage the exquisite artist’s paper with the poem, to have it reproduced in his Love and Joy About Letters, he saw the verse had been slightly revised. The mouse had nibbled away at the page, chewing to bits Williams’s “Williams” and, it’s been speculated, the last word of the last line See you again   Some day “soon.”

.


[1] Ben Shahn, Love and Joy About Letters, 1963.

[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: “William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963,” Poetry Foundation; William Carlos Williams and Christopher MacGowan, “The End of the Rope,” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2: 1939-1962, reprinted 1991; Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, 1990; Frances K. Pohl with Ben Shahn’s Writings, Ben Shahn, 1993; Howard Greenfield, Ben Shahn: An Artist’s Life, 1998; “Oral history interview with Ben Shahn, 1964 April 14,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Ben Shahn, Museum of Modern Art.

(Image, click to enlarge: “The End of the Rope” by William Carlos Williams for Ben Shahn, Love and Joy About Letters, 1963, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


“Home and Dry”

There’s a mouse in the Underground. Yes, I know, Dostoyevsky might say. But this small creature isn’t a metaphor for an angst-ridden character; he’s a real mouse and not a man. Although I can’t help wonder if his existence, living in the filth of the tracks, is any less marginalized, is any kinder. A mouse after all likes to keep clean. Nevertheless he and his brothers appear to be well fed, thanks to the slobs who, it seems, find it easier to toss their leftover English muffins and candy bar wrappers into the iron gully than into a trash bin. The mice scurry to and fro, over and under the rails, among the litter. And in the background you can hear the dull rumble of a train, and the Pet Shop Boys singing. This is Wolfgang Tillmans’s video for the band’s single “Home and Dry” that he made in 2001.

The year before, the contemporary German artist Tillmans—known for the deeply personal style he brought to his images and for taping his pictures frameless to the walls of museums and galleries—was the first photographer and the first non-Brit to win the prestigious Turner Prize, which catapulted him to art-world fame. Living in London and New York in the nineties he had already made a name for himself documenting, as one critic succinctly put it: “London’s street culture, the rise of Gay Pride, the nightlife of the clubbing generation.”[1] So it was surely a meeting of like-minded artists when the synth-pop duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe came along and tapped the artist to make the video for the lead song of their new album Release.

Tillmans shot the video—another first for him—with a camcorder, stationing himself in London’s tube station at Tottenham Court Road, watching the mice. Completely antithetical to the music industry’s standard of flashy, big budgeted productions, the video caught a lot of flak. Quickly re-edited with a commercial eye, the footage now contained a few seconds of Tennant and Lowe performing. But the music industry wasn’t shy about letting the Pet Shop Boys know that they still weren’t keen about the mice; they basically said the band had shot themselves in the foot, that “Home and Dry” would have received more play if the video hadn’t been “unshowable”; even their fans thought it was “strange.” Later when asked to explain the video, Tennant said, “It doesn’t need explaining. It is what it is.”[2] And Lowe said, “We just wanted to make a video that was completely different—dead simple, it’s art.”[3]

As for Tillmans, he noted, “The phenomenon of the metro mouse is fascinating to me… Most passengers are either too tired or absorbed to notice the endearing spectacle that takes place right under their eyes.”[4]

.


[1] Laura Cumming, “Wolfgang Tillmans,” The [London] Observer, June 26, 2010.

[2] Interviews-Attitudes, “Literally,” Absolutely Pet Shop Boys, May 2002.

[3] “Tillmans makes promo debut,” Creative Review, February 1, 2002.

[4] Ibid.

Additional sources: Wolfgang Tillmans website; Martin Herbert, “Wolfgang Tillmans: Tate Britain,” Artforum, October 2003; Pet Shop Boys website; Lynsey Hanley and Olivia Shean, “Daydream Believers,” New Statesman, October 30, 2006

(Image: Still from the video, directed by Wolfgang Tillmans, 2001, released March 2002, for non-commercial use only.)


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.)