Tim Flach, the photographer celebrated for his horses and dogs, is now making portraits of creatures ranging from a panda to a millipede. Simon Willis asks him what they are saying
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
It’s the panther’s eyes you notice first, fixing their object with a hint of malevolence. He may be grooming himself in a pose familiar from the domestic cat, but “the drills of his eyes”, as Ted Hughes wrote about a jaguar, have a powerful self-possession. Then the tongue, which you don’t so much see as feel on your skin—the rasp of those spines, arrayed in aggressive rows like sharks’ teeth.
But you mustn’t be intimidated. “If someone’s meek, it’s dangerous,” says Tim Flach, who took the photographs for our latest photo essay (slideshow right). “But if you’re puffed up, you can be a challenge to an animal that wants dominance. I try to be as neutral as possible so I can be observational rather than challenging, or prey.”
In his first book “Equus” (2008) Flach turned his camera on horses, treating that very familiar creature in unfamiliar ways by focusing on the forms of muscle and mane. Then came “Dogs” (2010), part of which appeared here two years ago—a study of the most domesticated animal of all, and the lengths we go to engineer it for our own purposes. Both projects explored animals with a long history of use by humans, but since then Flach’s menagerie has got busier. His next book, for which these photographs were taken, captures creatures great and small, docile and deadly.
So why the change of tack? “I wanted to enter into other discussions,” Flach says. “We determine the shape and form and function of a dog to a greater extent than any other species, but we are determining the outcomes of a lot of other things too.” With the world’s human population now over 7 billion, Flach sees animal photography as a way of examining our attitudes to the natural world, and our responsibility for it. “Many of the questions that surround us today are about how animals occupy our space, and about the pressures we’re putting on the biodiversity we have, which we’re losing.”
For many photographers and film-makers, asking those questions means working in the wild and depicting animals in their natural habitat. But Flach’s work is different. He is cautious about the very concept of “wilderness”. “Once it was where the devil held out,” he says, “now it’s where God’s church is.” His subjects are not wild and his pictures have a rigour which treats the creatures like specimens for biological study, emphasising their form and structure—the fossilised, basalt curl of the millipede; the enveloping display of the peacock, as though designed by an Elizabethan dressmaker with a sideline in satellite dishes. But making the photographs sufficiently disciplined can be hard. When he travelled to a panda-breeding centre in Chengdu, China, last December, Flach had only 15 minutes with a young panda. When it saw the black velvet curtain hung as a backdrop, the panda tore it up. Flach got only one shot in which it wasn’t covering its mouth.
But as well as framing these animals as objects, he frames them as subjects too, albeit ambiguously. A capuchin monkey gazes endearingly at its upturned palm, which seems to us primed for a smartphone. Its expression screams “OMG!” It looks intent, inquisitive, surprised. But is it? And if so, about what? How much do we see on the animal’s face, and how much do we impute to it? To adapt the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous question about a bat, what is it like to be a capuchin monkey? When we look at Flach’s bonobos embracing one another, we may well feel what the scientist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh felt when observing the same species—that she was “standing at the precipice of the human soul, peering deep into some distant part of myself...no matter how often I try to tell myself that I have no definitive scientific basis for these impressions.”
By using principles of human portraiture in many of these photographs, and a vocabulary of gestures and looks which seem to echo our own and play on our predispositions and sympathies, Flach makes these questions inescapable. “I’m very conscious of approximating form and shape that reminds us of ourselves,” he says, which explains his picture of a great grey owl, cropped to form a bust gazing thoughtfully back at us. “It could be an owl costume,” he says. Or it could be the owl of Minerva, which can’t have looked any wiser than this.
It is our tendency to see wisdom in the eyes of an owl, or something all-too-human in the gestures of a monkey, that Flach examines. He talks about the concept of Umwelt, developed in the early 20th century by the Estonian biologist Jacob von Uexküll. It describes how animals with forms of life different from our own in kind or emphasis perceive the world, ordering it in myriad ways. “Every subject”, von Uexküll wrote, “spins out, like the spider’s threads, its relations to certain qualities of things and weaves them into a solid web.” Flach’s pictures seem to prompt questions not only about how these animals spin their webs, but about how we spin our web, which catches some creatures and lets others pass by.
When he was photographing dogs, he was informed by contemporary neuroscience, which suggests that we are hard-wired to favour child-like faces. That goes for the panda too, the symbol of the WWF, tragically endangered, appealingly cute. But many keystone species, occupying a crucial place in the ecosystem, are, as Flach puts it, “small brown things” without the panda’s cuddly glamour. Perhaps the best way of answering those questions about how animals occupy our space is to try to get off our web, and then try to see beyond it.
Tim Flach is a photographer who specialises in animals. His last photo essay for us was "Extreme Dogs" in 2010, which became part of his book, "Dogs"
Simon Willis is digital editor of Intelligent Life and a former associate editor at Granta