Animals on the Border
Photographs of Endangered Animals in Africa, Canada, and Borneo
OCTOBER 6 - NOVEMBER 17, 2000
"To look into the eyes of many animals, particularly the big ones like bear and elephant, is to sense a degree of calm and certainty rarely felt in people. On the spectrum of what might be called existential contentment, animals surpass humans." James Balog
Andrew Smith Gallery opens a powerful exhibit by James Balog, renowned for his photographs of endangered animals around the world. In the past 30 years concerns have mounted for the needs and rights of animals throughout all western societies. Balog has long been at the forefront of this movement, believing that "a good still picture planted in human brain cells can ripple a long way." His photographs and books have helped to profoundly raise awareness about the plight of all animals. Balog is the author of two important books that advocate the preservation of vanishing animals, birds, and reptiles: Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife (1990), and Animal (1999). His award-winning photographs have been internationally exhibited and published in major publications including National Geographic. In 1996 a selection of his photographs became the U.S. postal stamp series of endangered species in the United States. Mr. Balog will attend the opening at Andrew Smith Gallery on Friday, October 6 from 5 to 7 p.m. He will also give a slide lecture on Saturday, Oct. 7th at 7 p.m. at Tipton Hall at the Marion Center, College of Santa Fe. The exhibit at Andrew Smith Gallery continues through November 17, 2000.
Growing up in the New York metro area in the 1950s, James Balog watched the habitats of woodland animals near his home disappear under the burgeoning suburbs. A born naturalist and outdoorsman, he developed an unquenchable desire to understand the boundaries and tensions between the natural and civilized world. His life's work has been to photographically document the effects of human exploitation of nature. In particular, he has drawn attention to the fact that some 900 animal species are currently endangered. In an effort to show all sides of a very complex issue, Balog has photographed animals living in the wild, being scientifically bred on reserves, or living in the "artificial twilight zone of zoos." He has also photographed animals being hunted by humans,
butchered for meat, displayed as trophies, and exterminated as pests. To achieve the breadth of his vision, Balog has purposely overturned the popular assumption that in nature photography animals must appear in the wild without any reference to humans. Balog believes that on today's earth there are virtually no Eden-like enclaves of habitat. He does not romanticize his subjects, whose native habitats are being exploited for farmland, living space, lumber, minerals, and most recently, eco-tourism.
Many of Balog's images are strikingly beautiful compositions of color, texture, and design, made with sophisticated studio equipment, that describe the stunning beauty of his subjects. In one body of work he attempted to raise animals to the status of super-models, blending classical portraiture with fashion imagery, such as when he photographed Sally the Chimp and Isabella Rossellini together, implying that both are celebrities in their own right.
Recently Balog's work has taken a different form and this is the current exhibit at Andrew Smith Gallery. He has been making lively, candid photographs taken at close range with a hand-held camera called the Holga. These images, Balog feels, are "more true to how one's heart sees the world than how the eye thinks it sees it." The Holga is an inexpensive device whose lens, says Balog, has the optical purity of old Coke bottle glass. Magical effects result from the Holga's inherent lack of focus, dark pools of tone on the corners of the frame, and unpredictable light streaks. These imperfections heighten our awareness of the fleeting moments of motion and sensation experienced during Balog's encounters with animals and landscape in Borneo, China, Canada, and Africa.
On Indonesia's island of Borneo, Balog hiked through the almost unbearable heat of the Kalimantan jungle to photograph a massive male orangutan named Kosasih living on a preserve in the Tanjung Puting National Park. Although the preserve is theoretically off limits to industry, illegal logging threatens its boundaries. Kosasih had something of a reputation, having been filmed previously by the Discovery channel with actress Julia Roberts. Knowing that Roberts had narrowly escaped being mauled during filming when she got too close to the unpredictable orangutan, Balog approached his subject with respect and trepidation. The result of his efforts is a striking close-up of Kosasih's round, wrinkled face, Kosasih No. 1.
In Borneo, Balog also photographed an orangutan named Princess. At thirty-some years old, Princess has lived on the preserve for decades and is the mother of numerous offspring. Balog was baffled when she repeatedly tugged on his shorts and signaled to him with her hand. Finally, he was made to understand she was saying to him in sign language: "Greetings. Food. Thank you." Her vocabulary, learned decades earlier, once included more than five hundred words.
In China, Balog photographed the Giant Pandas, one of the most endangered animals in the world. With less than 1000 in existence their future is uncertain. Found only in China, the majority are preserved on a few government reserves in the mountains. Balog made intimate and lively photographs of these utterly charming and engaging creatures living in the forest and interacting with people in a breeding facility; Giant Panda #1 and Giant Panda Pair.
Balog has been photographing big cats for over twelve years. On a South African preserve he set up a large sheet of muslin and photographed the cheetah who was beguiled by it. Cheetah on Muslin is a study of intricate patterns, the spots on the cheetah playing off the dappled shadows on the white fabric.
In northern Canada, Balog was in Churchill, Manitoba to photograph polar bears congregating on the shore of Hudson Bay. They were waiting for the water to freeze until they could walk out on the ice and feed on seals, their primary food source. In recent years, global warming has caused the sea to freeze much later in the year and to thaw earlier than usual. Unable to reach the seals, the bears have resorted to pilfering the garbage dump in Churchill. In the photograph, Polar Bear With Tracks, a polar bear stands upon a snow field etched with tire tracks. It is a satirical commentary about the numerous vehicles that convey tourists hoping to see the bears. Another photograph taken in this area shows a thin strand of trees marking the northernmost treeline along the edge of Hudson Bay. It is an elegant picture, as well as a reminder of the ecological limits of growth.
Lily Pads - Botswana was taken in the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana. The field of vision consists entirely of plants rising from the water's depths and fanning out on the tranquil surface. It seems the very wellspring of life, and yet, as Balog reminds us, it is a fragile oasis is surrounded by an immense desert.