Friday, October 2, 2009

Frank Noelker's photographs of the Fauna Chimpanzees

Beautiful and often unsettling, Frank Noelker's photographs of animals have enthralled viewers for over 20 years. Presented in this exhibition is a retrospective of images from his Captive Beauty and Portraits series. For Captive Beauty, Noelker traveled to zoos in many parts of the world to capture images of the animals that are housed there. His Portraits series frames the noble faces of chimpanzees that are retired from biomedical research, the entertainment industry and the pet trade. They now live out their lives at the Fauna Foundation sanctuary in Montreal, Canada and the Center for Great Apes, Wauchula, Florida, where these photographs were made. Noelker's large scale, closely framed, formal portraits of these creatures show us their humanity and the independent spirit still within them.

Beauty, captivity clash in zoo photographs

By David Bonetti


In Doug Aitken's video projection "migration (empire) — linear version" at the St. Louis Art Museum, we see animals in motel rooms. In Frank Noelker's "Of Animals" at the Sheldon, we see animals in cages. In both cases, the habitation is uneasy.

The fate of wild animals in captivity is a concern in art as well as society at large.

In the exhibition at the Sheldon, Frank Noelker, an art professor at the University of Connecticut who grew up in St. Louis, shows a powerful series of photographs of animals in zoos. He took the photographs in the late '90s, visiting more than 300 zoos.

In the work, he makes it clear that although contemporary zoos strive to create comfortable environments for their charges, the animals are, for the most part, alienated and bored, if not depressed in captivity.

That doesn't mean that they are not beautiful. The disconnect between their natural beauty and their cramped quarters adds to the images' poignancy.

In an essay in "Captive Beauty," a book of Noelker's zoo photography, Nigel Rothfels writes that the importance of Noelker's images rests in the fact that they highlight the human environment within which animals in zoos live. Rothfels, a zoo historian, points out that most zoo photography tries to hide the man-made environment and make the animals look as if they are living in the wild.

The inadequacy of cosmetic attempts to mask the fact that the animals inhabit concrete pens is shown repeatedly in Noelker's images. The painting of the blue sky and the sere African plain in a pen at a Washington, D.C., zoo might fool a visitor, but it's unlikely that it fools the giraffe that awkwardly occupies it.

Even more absurd is the painted backdrop of a big sky and ocean in a Texas zoo for a bird that in nature would be flying through it. If it tried it here, it would batter itself against a concrete wall.

Noelker considers himself a concerned photographer, which means he wants to make the viewer see and think the way he does about his subject. His work raises questions about freedom and autonomy and interspecies politics.

In his essay, Rothfels points out that humans have kept exotic animals since ancient times and that modern zoos are historically perhaps the most sensitive to animals' needs. Still, it is clear that zoos exist to satisfy a human desire at odds with that of the inmates.

The fact that many of the animals kept in them would not survive in the wild today, that their natural habitat has been destroyed or fatally compromised, only complicates matters.

The Sheldon is also showing a series of portraits of chimpanzees rescued or retired from laboratories or "roadside" zoos and now living in refuges. These images, which Noelker made during the first half of this decade, are even more harrowing than the zoo photographs. We can't help but relate to chimpanzees, which seem human to us.

Noelker accentuates the connection by photographing at large scale the faces of his subjects, emphasizing their individual personalities. These are true portraits, not wildlife photographs.

The stories of the subjects' lives are attached to each image. These creatures, which might remind you of an elderly relative, spent years in research laboratories, where they repeatedly underwent horrific tests.

The story of Rachel is typical. Raised as a pet, she was deposited at a lab when she was 3 years old. For the next 11 years, she lived in isolation and was anesthetized 235 times. She was given 39 punch liver biopsies and underwent surgery in a test for Nutrasweet.

"She fell into an extended period of depression and was treated repeatedly for rashes and sores on her neck and wrists inflicted on herself during anxiety attacks," the text reads. "She also bites all of her nails to the quick, rubbing them until there is nothing left."

Today, Rachel is a retiree at the Fauna Foundation in Montreal. In her portrait, she looks totally withdrawn into herself.

Of course, reading the feelings of animals from their "portraits" is not a science. If we have a hard time reading the feelings of human beings in their representations, how can we even begin to determine animals' psychological states? Still, these portraits of chimpanzees suggest that their subjects have a long way yet to go to achieve healing.


In its gallery devoted to architecture, the Sheldon is showing a photographic portrait of Berlin through its buildings. They were taken in 2006-2007 by Amy Metzger while she was on a fellowship there. Metzger is in medical school at Washington University.

Berlin has been ideologically one of the most contested sites in Europe, if not the world, during the past 100 years. Metzger intentionally photographs buildings that represent ideological moments. From the Berlin Cathedral, built on commission of the Kaiser, to Sony headquarters in a rebuilt Potsdamer Platz, all the eras from empire to global capitalism are represented here.

The postwar modernism of West Berlin faces off the socialist classicism of East Berlin. The functional modernism of the Third Reich — the Tempelhof Airport and the Olympic Stadium — is not overlooked.

Metzger has a particularly telling series of images of memorials and monuments, from the Berlin Airlift Memorial in the West and the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park in the East to the recent Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Aesthetically, Metzger's black and white images are classic examples of modernism. They purport to be objective, without editorializing on the part of the photographer, but Metzger does not deny her eye for structure and composition. The blank overcast skies are reminiscent of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, which has influenced Metzger's work as it has influenced an entire generation of contemporary photographers.

All prints found on our order form are all portraits taken by Frank Noelker.....Special thanks goes out to Frank for allowing us to use and distribute his photographs of the Chimpanzees here at Fauna!!

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