Like Beauty, Loneliness
is in the Eye of the Beholder
The Satya Interview with
Paris 1998. Photo by 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
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
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?
So do these photographs somehow serve
as a kind of ambassador or message for the situation that they’re
That’s your hope. That’s what keeps you going.
Memphis 1998. Photo by Frank Noelker
Can you describe a few
of your favorite zoo animals or experiences that you had while photographing
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.
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.