Exhibition Feature: “Beauty and the Beast”


Image Courtesy of The Museum of Photographic Arts

Chandra Couzens

Though small, the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts features focused, impactful exhibits. One such exhibit is its celebration of the San Diego Zoo’s centennial, “Beauty and the Beast.” Divided into sections, the exhibit explores perceptions of animals in varying forms, from still life to tableau vivant to portraits. Some sections, like “Nature Revisited,” explore symbolism in art as a reflection of humanity’s relationship with nature: to conform and constrict it — an argument that could be applied to any conception of nature in art.

“Beauty and the Beast” displays a large range of pieces, despite being an exhibit showing only photography. Even in these photographs, a dramatic range of styles and mediums are displayed: moody gelatin silver prints, color-corrected chromatographs, well-framed video projects and wacky post-processed edits.

Image Courtesy of The Museum of Photographic Arts
Image Courtesy of The Museum of Photographic Arts

Pieces such as the visually stunning “King of Birds,” by Richard Selesnick and Nicholas Kahn, feature extensive post-processing work, editing in birds hanging off of a posed man. This image, among many others, inspires viewers to ask, “why birds?” and to evaluate the role of animals in the work. Other works, like Loretta Lux’s “Siegfried,” featuring a profile of a cat in the desert are simpler, featuring animals in their own world, isolated from humans. In contrast, the section on posing features deliberate manipulations of animals in their worlds, from a giraffe in a French palace to cats wearing Elizabethan-styled collars, further exploring human and animal dynamics and again provoking questions in viewers’ minds. Some pieces feature taxonomy, harkening back to the age of explorers and old-style wildlife biology, demonstrating human relations with animals throughout the ages. Still more pieces feature video, such as Thomas Abbott’s “Prairie,” which consists of a birdcage with a video of a canary displayed, challenging viewers to think of their conceptions of pets and animals and a new way of seeing the medium of photography.

A multitude of animal-human relationships are explored, from anthropomorphism to house pets to hunting. Through representation of these various relationships, “Beauty and the Beast” strives to explore the tenacious balance between humans and nature. Through its creative and dramatic expressions of animals posing for portraits, videos of animals as food and other such portrayals, the exhibit invites viewers to ponder the effects of humans on animals, and vice versa. Though a small exhibit, the Museum of Photographic Arts’ “Beauty and the Beast” successfully conveys the complexities of human and animal relationships, both past and present.

The exhibit ran from May 28, 2016 – October 9, 2016 at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts.