Baldessari and the Zoo

Some years ago I made a family trip to beautiful Copenhagen. We decided to visit the highly rated Copenhagen Zoo. I knew our 3 year old daughter would love it and so would I.

However, photographically, I knew exactly what would happen. I would either line up with other tourists to get that pointlessly faux National Geographic cover shot of a depressed mammal. Or more probably my cynical and self-critical mind would kill even the slightest motivation to pull out my camera. So I tried to come up with a point of departure.

In 1967 John Baldessari exhibited a series of works under the title Wrong. The series included an intentionally bad portrait with the label “Wrong” beneath it. It was shot too far, exposed and composed badly with a background pilar growing out comically out of the subject’s head.

Resonating with Baldessari, I devised a plan for the day at the Zoo. I would make a series of bad zoo photographs. I would frame carelessly, fail in timing, compose badly and most importantly fail to present animals in any meaningful or aesthetic way. I would become the antithesis of that heroic wildlife photographer risking his life for a masterful cover shot. I would make it my mission to fail catastrophically at every single wildlife shot — in a zoo.

Several weeks later while editing the contact sheets I made an unexpected observation. My little experiment at the zoo had introduced a curious level of meaning and interpretation to my photographs. And an aesthetic that looked less of a failure than I had intended.

The animals in my photos appear completely ignorant of the photographers gaze — as if to totally and explicitly refuse their role as unwilling exhibits in fake environments. Refusing to even pretend. Like accidentally walking into an occupied dressing room they want us to feel ashamed for our gaze. Ashamed for expecting to animals to put on a show, to pose for us and our cameras. Ashamed for feeling disappointed of that tiger resting lifelessly in the shade.

The zoo had changed completely. By completely ignoring the expected subject of my photographs I had stumbled into a more meaningful subject matter altogether.

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