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June/July 2004
Like Beauty, Loneliness is in the Eye of the Beholder
The Satya Interview with Frank Noelker


Hippopotamus, Paris 1998. Photo by Frank Noelker

Frank Noelker is not your typical photographer. He approaches his subjects with a great deal of empathy and respect, resulting in beautiful dignified portraits of animals which are presented in color plates in a new book, Captive Beauty ($25, University of Illinois Press). In Noelker’s photographs of zoo animals, each individual shines through, which highlights their immediate surroundings and tragic circumstances. The animals are nothing less than present in these pictures, painfully so.

Over the course of seven years, Noelker visited over 300 zoos, spending hours watching, waiting, being with each individual, witnessing their daily lives. The work is lonely and heartbreaking. It offers very rare connections with the creatures we incarcerate in the name of education, conservation or entertainment. Many have garish colorful landscapes painted in the background and coarsely chopped logs and tree stumps, enrichment more for our comfort and reference than theirs.

A tapir, whose size is exaggerated by its tiny cage, is caught mid-pace, its wild eye mirrors its own personal hell. A gorilla sits on a log eyes shut, right paw resting on his belly, almost in a thumbs-up gesture. A chimp leans his back against a white wall, staring vacantly into the camera, a frayed rope dangles past his shoulder—the embodiment of relentless boredom. A teensy polar bear sits in the sun, momentarily caught with his paws together, almost meditative.

Noelker is now fixing his camera on rescued chimpanzees. In stately portraits, they tell their stories of surviving years of abuse in laboratory research and the entertainment industry. He has photographed individuals at sanctuaries, like Canada’s Fauna Foundation, Patti Ragan’s Center for Orangutan and Chimpanzee Conservation in Florida, and April Truitt’s Primate Rescue Center in Kentucky. He also visited the formerly notorious Coulston Foundation, which used to conduct medical research on scores of chimpanzees. In an unprecedented agreement, Carole Noon’s Save the Chimps bought the laboratory and gained custody of its 200-plus inmates with the intention of converting it to a retirement home so the chimps can live out their lives in comfort and without fear of molestation. Later this year, Noelker will travel to Africa to photograph chimps in a sanctuary there.

An artist by training, Noelker comes from a tradition of what he calls “Concerned Photographers,” documenting wrongs in the world to make people aware and create change. His “heroes” include Lewis Hine, whose photos of child laborers in the early 20th century instigated social reform, and artist Sue Coe.

Frank Noelker recently took some time to discuss his work and new book with Catherine Clyne.

For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about what you do and why?
I’m a photographer, I photograph animals and their relationship to us and our relationship to them. I’m not a wildlife photographer because the idea of photographing animals without any trace of humanity is to me almost a kind of escapism. I try to photograph the animals more in the way they have to live their lives, day to day.

Why do you concentrate so much on captive animals?
There have been so many who have photographed animals in the wild for different reasons, good and bad, naïve and informed. But for me, my work is ultimately about loss. A lot of strong artwork, historically, has been about loss. I feel so much when I look at an animal in captivity, they live lives that they did not choose and that is just so salient. Hopefully, [that’s reflected] in my work.

What do your photos say about the animals and about zoos?
Well, they say about zoos hopefully what they say about most of society. I don’t want to put too much of the blame specifically on zoos or zookeepers because there are so many deeply committed, caring people involved. As a matter of fact, most rank and file are deeply frustrated with the situation of the animals in their care. I see zoos pretty much as a metaphor for our relationship to the natural world. Many people think zoos are an answer; that is such a myth to me. Zoos house a terribly small percentage of the animals from the animal kingdom, and the idea that they could be sort of an ark—that we can keep destroying the world and continue on the path we’re on and somehow we’ll get so clever that we could do something better and construct a new wild, and that zoos will help us with this—to me, that is a myth. So I don’t really blame the zoos so much as I blame us.

I try to photograph the animals with great dignity and respect, but there’s also a kind of loneliness and isolation that I feel when I see the animals in captivity and I want that to come across. I try to use beauty and all of my training as an artist to get into people’s hearts and minds. Some people aren’t happy with my approach, they think it’s too subtle. But I try to satisfy my audience with the beauty of the animals and the quirky, absurd situations that we create for them-slash-us (they’re really more for us than them, obviously). Then, the more pictures someone looks at, the more it sort of descends into this sad reality, which is what I feel is the situation.

I don’t like people to see just one or even two of my pictures because (it depends on the picture of course) it can often be a little too subtle. That’s why I was so excited about the book, which has 50 images. Some people do look at the pictures and just don’t feel anything, and that’s okay because you can’t reach everyone. I jokingly use Casey Stengel’s baseball model for social change: there are nine players, three guys hate your guts, three guys love you. It’s the three in the middle, who haven’t decided, who are the key. It’s those who I’m really trying to get. I’m trying to force some social change with the work.

So far, what kind of feedback have you gotten from people who’ve seen the book or numerous of your zoo portraits?
Overall, it’s been very good. I guess on a personal level that’s been the best thing, because we all need support. To find these kindred spirits who care about what you’re doing and then tell you what they’re doing and thinking and feeling, that connection is the best part. To be honest, my experience has run the gamut. One New York dealer thought the pictures were “fun.” [Pause.] I mean, what do you say to that?

Sure, just like the pictures of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib are fun! I mean, wow!
Yeah. And in a way, that’s kind of my fault because I do try to make the work subtle.

I feel like we’re living and functioning right now in a very bad time historically. I think we’re at the pinnacle of gluttony (wrong word—it’s so self-righteous), I mean, we’re doing everything because we can, without thinking about the implications. And it’s obvious that we can’t sustain this path and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but we’ve got to have hope—it is going to get better. I know that people hundreds of years from now are going to look back on us not too fondly because we’ve used so many of the world’s resources with such disregard. I would like for people who look at this work many many years from now to see that some of us at least knew and felt something, we weren’t good, we didn’t know what we were doing, but some of us at least tried.

How was the time you spent with the animals photographing them?
Time spent with the animals was actually the good part. I went to well over 300 zoos and the travel for the most part was pretty lonely. Nights were the worst, after you just spent a day at a zoo or two, it’s miserable. But when you’re there, you slow down. There is something really nice about the whole process. The bottom line is it’s about the doing and being there, and if a given animal, whether it’s a hippopotamus or chimpanzee, looks toward me and we make some connection on some level—I’m not naïve about this of course—then it’s really beautiful. And if not, just trying to connect, trying to bridge that void is really what it’s about. Sometimes you’ll spend hours and hours in a situation and other times you’ll spend just a few minutes. To me, that’s the beauty of photography—you really don’t know until you develop the film. There’s kind of a magic to that for me.

When you make the connection with an animal, how do you deal with being aware that you’re photographing someone else’s misery?

It hurts.

So do these photographs somehow serve as a kind of ambassador or message for the situation that they’re in?
That’s your hope. That’s what keeps you going.

Orangutan, Memphis 1998. Photo by Frank Noelker

Can you describe a few of your favorite zoo animals or experiences that you had while photographing them?
The picture of an orangutan in water looking up at you. I spent an afternoon photographing some hippos in the Memphis Zoo, and there’d been a couple, probably in their early 70s, kind of hanging on my shoulder for a few hours. I’d made a conscious effort not to make eye contact with them because I wanted to maintain my focus (that’s a little photography joke), my concentration. As I was heading toward the exit, there was a walkway over an orangutan enclosure and there was this big beautiful orang down in the shallow water foraging for apples. That’s one of the good things zookeepers have been doing—they call it “enrichment”—they hide the animals’ food. It alleviates some of the miserable boredom. He was foraging and looked up at me. That happened relatively fast. As I was leaving, I turned and made eye contact with the couple and the guy said to me, “You know, we think we’re smarter than them, but we don’t know.” Just out of the blue. It was incredible. We ended up talking in the parking lot for about 40 minutes.

The tapir in the tiny concrete cage is particularly harrowing.
There’s something about the tapir in that enclosure that’s most important to me. Over the six or seven years that I’ve been doing this, different things have grated on me, one is the space, the horrible space. Things have improved so much just within my lifetime, they’ve gone from these horrific menageries to environmental institutions of varying degrees. But we still have so much farther to go. We create these new enlightened zoos where the animals have three or four acres, but then you read the little plaque and their normal range is 27 miles a day. So, relative to their experience, this is still horrific. And I hear horror stories of spaces not on view that are even worse, they’re more or less storage spaces.

That, and the smell. The idea of smell wears on me terribly because we are very clever in so many ways and we use our other senses so well, but I think our sense of smell has atrophied to a great degree. How would you like to smell a predator only 75 feet from you the majority of your whole life? I mean, Franz Kafka could not invent a more horrific scenario! Or just as bad, what if you’re a predator and you smell food just around the corner, always? It would be horrific.

Polar Bear, Germany 1998. Photo by Frank Noelker

What’s the story of the little polar bear?
That’s a powerful situation. That picture’s almost like a phony because it only sat there for a second. The slab that it’s sitting on is not much bigger than you see in the photograph, and it is alone and paces constantly. I mean, non-stop. This picture looks almost like a studio portrait, with its paws together gently and his mouth turned upward just slightly, it almost looks like a smile. The bottom line is, it looks comfortable, nice.

He looks like he’s meditating or at peace, almost sunning himself.
Yeah, he’s at anything but peace. The pacing is just absolutely miserable. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty convinced that the pacing so many of the big cats, bears, and elephants do, is mental illness. They’re literally going crazy.

One of the worst is elephants pacing in place: they just lift one leg, back and forth, while the other three legs stay there, back and forth. Oh my God, that’s hard to watch.

Tell us about the chimp portraits you’ve been working on.
I’m photographing chimpanzees in refuges who have been rescued or retired from either entertainment or research. I’m doing 3’ x 3’ portraits of their faces that more or less look like studio portraits. I try to photograph them with the same respect and dignity and formal tools as you would photograph a president or other dignitary. And I never show them without telling their stories—having their teeth taken out with crowbars or hammer and chisel, or having doses of HIV shot into their bloodstream 10,000 times stronger than would kill a human, the Hepatitis B research, and the open liver biopsies, etc. That’s what the work is about. It’s an incredibly intense experience. They have individual identities; people read their stories and read their names and feel it. On an emotional and artistic level, I want people to look into their eyes and connect to them.

As a photographer of animals, what are your thoughts on the ethics of representation?
The issues of representation are so salient, actually that’s one of the main reasons why I do the work I do. I’m a white male and we’ve had the great white male version of everything ad nauseum. But animals can’t represent themselves like this to us because basically, any animal discussion is still a human discussion. It’s our discussion about them. I feel to represent them is an ethical, moral position that I’m comfortable with, and the bottom line is I feel so much when I look into their eyes.

What gives you hope?
How much do you dare hope for? You hope too much, you’ll become demoralized and then you’ll give up. I hope for change. I was born in ‘58, so I’m a little young for the civil rights movement and the ‘60s social change that happened, but I watched. I believe that real social change comes slowly, but it comes. I mean, we’re still a sexist, racist society, but very few of us want to go back to the ‘50s. So I hope that my work will become another voice for positive change, but I’m a realist too. What’s been so exciting about the chimpanzee work is that so many people are just so shocked because they had no idea that such things go on. Once confronted with these realities, a lot of people can’t stay passive. Of course I hope for change and that we can get out of this period of arrogance, but I don’t know how long it will take, whether you or I will see…

We’ll see something in our lifetime.

For New Yorkers: some of Frank Noelker’s zoo portraits—and new work by Sue Coe—are currently on view at Galerie St. Etienne, 24 W. 57 Street; (212) 245-6734.



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