Bella, 2008

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Earlier this season, Darius Himes graciously sent me a copy of Animals Are Outside Today, the first monograph by Colleen Plumb. Perhaps he knew my love for animals and my disgust for the hypocrisy that surrounds them in our culture. Perhaps he knew my passion for photography books and the ways in which they can create new and provocative conversations by showing us new worlds, or reframing the ones in which we currently live. Perhaps it was because a picture is worth a thousand words and I rarely bite my tongue.

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Whatever it may have been. when I received the book I was overcome, and reviewed the book for La Lettre de la Photographie. I was pleased to receive a note from Miss Plumb, thanking me for my review—the first letter that I have received from an author since beginning my column earlier this year. And being a publicist, I promise you manners go a looong way. Mutual recognition is the willingness to see that we are all human and enjoy conversation in all form it takes.

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I was instantly charmed by Miss Plumb, whose style of writing matched her approach to photography. Intelligent, quirky, and distinctly original, I was intrigued and wanted to know more. I asked if she would like to do an interview for my blog. She graciously agreed and here it is, our conversation on the ways in which we relate to animals today, for better or for worse.

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What was your inspiration for Animals Are Outside Today?

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Colleen Plumb: The roots of this project were tapped over fifteen years ago: I was photographing in black and white, working on my thesis. I was studying Meatyard’s work; his bizarre pictures were a big influence on me—they inspired me because they are so disorienting and dark and strange.And funny! It cracked me up that he was out posing his kids in all those scary-looking places, creating other worlds. It was at that time that I realized that a lot of animals and plants—both real and fake—were predominant themes in my pictures.

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With that, I embarked on my project in a much more conscious way. I began to study the notion of artifice, and the prevalence of representations of living things surrounding us. I thought about perception, and if (on any level) it even mattered if something was the real thing or just a stand-in? I began working in color, allowing the artifice to sing louder.

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Through that exploration I became more and more focused on the animals. Everywhere, I saw representations of them. I asked myself: what is it that we getting from this? Does it satisfy some instinct to be close to animals, even if they aren’t real? If it’s only the substitution, are we then desensitized to the actual? All of these questions were swirling in my head and gave me many threads to start following. I made checklists of places and things to photograph. I went to a meatpacking plant, to the backlot of a tannery, to dog shows, to the circus. Each experience pushed me deeper into thinking about the contradictory and imbalanced relationship we have with animals.

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Also, I came across animals constantly in my day-to-day life with my kids: going to aquariums, museums, farms, fairs, vacations. While buying groceries at the Middle Eastern market in my neighborhood I found the lamb head. Every book I’d read to my daughters featured animals, that were then infused into our days and their drawings. I didn’t know at the beginning what it would all become; it was just an exploration that kept unfolding, teaching me, and giving me a lot to research.

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Pig Roast, 2005

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How did you determine the ways in which you wanted to show our relationship to animals, be it as food, as decoration, as pets, as prisoners (ie. zoos), as forms of natural decay and death, etc ?

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CP: Of course my views come through in the way I choose to photograph a situation, so certain photographs are sad, or uplifting, or more deadpan (the tannery image), or funny, or pathetic. But I did not have an agenda about them—I was just working instinctively, based on how I felt in that situation, and mostly I was trying to make interesting pictures. Editing the pictures was a huge part of the process, and what worked in the sequence became important. I have always thought of the work in terms of a book.

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The pig roast image is an example of how my point of view is exposed: My sister-in-law invited us to this party for the 4th of July—I did not know the hosts, or that it was a pig roast until I got there. I usually have my camera with me, so I was thrilled, sickened, and fascinated when I spotted that roasted pig in the far part of the backyard… I thought the host of the party might be offended with my standing on chairs, and only interested in photographing, when everyone else was mingling and eating. But he did not seem to even care. I tried to just make myself disappear.

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I thought: is anyone thinking about this scene?! It is WEIRD!! they are eating from a PIG; it’s just lying there!

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So the angle I chose really shows the splayed animal, looking pretty brutalized, and the guests are indifferent. That was my point of view. Later, I thought about how humans have been roasting ‘the kill’ throughout history, convening over fire. I thought, we were participating in a historical event. But it is the sacredness of the pig that was completely missing—the gratitude for its sacrifice. (Plus no one there raised, hunted or killed that pig so we have no real connection to it.)

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Another example is at the meatpackers, I could have shown the pigs getting sliced in half, but I thought the eyeballs looking out at us would provide a better entry into considering that the creature was a once a living thing. Pigs are the most contradictory animal we eat. James Serpell talks about this at length in his In the Company of Animals.

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Pigs, 2005


What was the most challenging aspect of this project for you and why?

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CP: Well, over the years, I’d wonder if I should keep going. There were many times I had self-doubt, there’s always rejection, many bad pictures. I just tried to keep faith that I was doing something that might be interesting and contribute in some way.

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Certain pictures were heartbreaking or jarring to photograph. The dog Bella for instance—that was terrible. I saw her from the corner of my eye, dead on the road. And her owner drove up and found her lying there, WHILE I was photographing. He seemed defeated, almost emotionless. I just offered condolence and asked if I could help somehow. Neither of us mentioned the camera I was holding.

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I went to Louisiana during the oil spill in 2010, and that was hard to witness too. Photographing the dead animals was upsetting on many levels. It was unsettling but felt important to include because it addresses the realities of loss and gives a more complete picture of the range of ways we encounter animals.

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And certainly the challenge of being a mother and artist and teacher—keeping everything in balance is difficult.

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Burying Jack, 2009

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What do you most admire about animals ?

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CP: It depends on the species. I admire animals for their loyalty. And the big, highly intelligent animals for their majesty and family structures, and the little rodent type animals for their resourcefulness, and birds are just always a big dose of awe and beauty. I like the effect that animals have on me.

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I mean, the animal I am mostly around is our dog Edmund. He is a husky-shepherd mix, obsessed with squirrels. He amuses us continually. He is always bumping his head on the kitchen table. I need that baby-proofing foam stuff for the bottom rim of the table. He actually caught and killed a squirrel today in the forest preserve. He was off leash and I was helpless to stop it. My kids witnessed the whole thing and it made my younger daughter cry. Edmund pranced around with the carcass and we were just all screaming for him to drop it. So totally disgusting and sad, yet utterly contradictory because somehow I felt glad for Edmund to have had that chance to exercise his instinctive behavior.

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Even with that, maybe the quality that I most admire is an animal’s ability to connect me with a feeling of gratitude for all the grace and beauty I see around me.

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Circus Elephant, 2006

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How does this (if it does) complement or question the same qualities in human beings ?

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CP: Those admirable qualities that exist in animals can be our models. Certainly, there is a balance practiced in the wild that many societies have strayed from. As our societies become more urban, and of the material world, we are at risk of being cut off from certain traits, but they are still in us. Animals can remind and reconnect us to those parts of ourselves.

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Why do you think we, as humans, separate ourselves from the animal kingdom ?

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CP: Throughout history philosophers have questioned the place of animals. I am looking right now to Christine Korsgaard, a philosopher who is one of the leading thinkers on moral philosophy. It is fascinating to learn about the history of humans grappling with these ideas. I personally believe that we are separated simply by species, not above or below animals. We must be kind to animals for their good, and for our own spiritual goodness.

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Our separation is deep-seated, complex and certainly economic. We have moved to cities. Food comes from factories. We once were intertwined with animals; re-learning our interconnectedness will take a lot of work but is possible. I try to teach my kids about these things. My daughter has received birthday party invitations from friends where in lieu of gifts, a donation to the anti-cruelty society is suggested. (They send wish lists from the shelter along with the invitation.) So that gives me a lot of hope. When I was a kid I went to birthday parties at McDonald’s and drank out of styrofoam and no one recycled.

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Lamb with Elsa, 2008

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What would be the message you would like people to take away when contemplating their relationship to animals in their own lives ?

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CP: Simply that there is a need to continually increase consciousness about how we treat other living things (directly or indirectly) which would result, eventually, in a more compassionate and conscious society that understands our interconnectedness. I’d also really like people to not support circuses that have animals, and to decide to buy from companies that respect animals and the earth.

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And then there are zoos. In the early years of the project I would take my daughters on zoo outings but increasingly I felt like I was contributing and participating in something so totally wrong. The project changed me. I can’t go to a zoo unless it is for my work. I feel that zoos are archaic holdovers from another time that need to evolve. I know zoologists are working hard for the good of many animals, but the hungry beast of consumption and entertainment is being fed at the expense of animals in zoos. I have tried to keep dogma out of the project because the work is more about questioning than pushing, but the zoo thing has become clear to me.

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Giraffe, 2000

www.colleenplumb.com