Our Bestial Nature
‘Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the colour in your cheek and the fire in your eye, adorn your person, maintain your health, your beauty and your animal spirit’. These words of nineteenth-century critic and philosopher William Hazlitt encapsulate the multifarious inflections of our bestial nature. The beauty and the violence of animal life continue to intrigue us even as we begin to unlock its mysteries. The photographs that I wish to examine here each, in their own way, seek to incorporate animals either as a reflection of their human subject or as a counterpoint. However, what begins to emerge from this is an evaluation as to the extent to which man himself is an animal or whether we have begun, through culture and art, to shake off the shackles of bestiality.
The first photograph needs little introduction; indeed, Richard Avedon’s ‘Dovima with the Elephants’ has become an iconic image and one that is emblematic of his 1950s experimentation with fashion photography. What is particularly remarkable about this image is the combination of careful execution with fortuitous serendipity. Dovima, born Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, holds a spinal curve that recalls Hogarth’s famous ‘Line of Beauty’. Head to shoulders, shoulders to waist, waist to ankles: these point form a delicate curve that highlights the model’s vulnerability; should she feel but the slightest touch she would fall. Juxtapose this with the strength of her companions and an unnerving element is introduced into the photograph; however, the elephants themselves fall into the structure of the game through the raising of the leg: whilst formidable creatures, they too become vulnerable, even comedic, through that gesture.
The next thing we notice is the anthropomorphic flick of the trunk, forming a remarkable likeness to the model’s raised arm. The physical differences between the subjects become increasingly highlighted by the stark similarity of their poses. Dovima’s placement within the centre of the photograph becomes the focal point of the image; and yet, we cannot help but explore the periphery, especially noting the third, exiting elephant. The luminosity of her dress and skin provides the dividing line, which is itself intersected by the black gloves and band, which cut cross her body perpendicularly. Three bands of colour are thus established: a white foreground, a dark middle, and a grey back. In ordering it is such a way, the image actually flattens out and Dovima appears to be within the group of elephants, when in fact their feet are all planted behind hers.
The second photograph, taken by Glen Luchford, depicts musician and model Karen Elson. The contact between model and bird is incidental, with the main focus being Elson’s deep eyes; however, the inclusion of the bird adds a brooding element to the photograph and a strange sense of movement to an otherwise static image. The blackness of the bird is contrasted with the whiteness of Elson’s body and arms; what is unsettling, however, is the fact that her head has no such corresponding image; indeed, the bottom left quadrant is left empty. It is for this reason that Elson’s face seems so out of place, creating a sense of vulnerability, with her ruffled hair mimicking the delicacy of her companion’s own splayed feathers. Indeed, as we gaze at the image, one begins to question whether it is Elson who is supporting the bird, or the bird who is supporting Elson, such is the languid positioning of her wrist.
The final image in this series was taken by New York-based photographer Ryan McGinley. The muscular, tattooed body of the model is both contrasted with and complementary to the delicate but colourful butterflies that have settled on him. The model’s own idiosyncratic inking suggests something about the unique patterning of his companions; and whilst he gazes down inquisitively at the butterfly on his hand, one cannot help but feel that the butterfly is gazing back. Two things make this photograph into a beautiful image. The first is the hunched shoulders of the model: this adds a certain tension to the body which entirely dissipates in the face; it is a strange balance between contortion and relaxation. The second element is the soft, green background colour: this removes the image from any specific location, making it otherworldly, almost magical.
W. J. Humphries