In the late 1970s I met the photographer Frederick Sommer. He was then in his 80s. During a conversation with students about the “back to nature” craze that was in the air at the time, he said something I have never forgotten: “People talk about a return to nature, I wonder where they could have been.” The world seems roughly divided into two camps: those who believe that man is destined to tame, exploit, and conquer nature and those who believe that man is a part of nature, no more or less important than any other. Frederick Sommer and the artist Linda Tegg appear to fall into that second category.
In Tegg’s beautiful installation at Fresh Window, one wall of the modest-sized gallery is filled by a video projection titled “Cameratrap” (2015). The video is a loop showing two deer casually poking around in an idyllic forest.
After a moment we realize there’s someone in camouflage gear crouched next to a tree in the middle ground of the image. It is at this moment that we begin to consider the two worldviews outlined above. A man (they are generally men) in camouflage gear out in the woods is usually a hunter, well armed and questing to bag a trophy before day’s end. He could be said to be the heir of “The Great White Hunter,” who went off to Africa in search of wild game, was photographed with his dead trophy at his feet, and returned home triumphant. This “Great White Hunter” is hardly separable from the white Western imperialist bent on the conquest of the other, who is likened to a savage beast. The image of this hunter is typified by a photograph of Teddy Roosevelt — who was in fact an exception to the rule, both a hunter and a conservationist. Yet in this photo from an African safari in 1909, he stands proudly over his kill.
The correlation between the hunter and the warrior is exquisitely depicted in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deer Hunter, which lingers for nearly five minutes on a hunting scene as the preamble to military engagement in Vietnam. The diametric opposite of this might be someone like Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who spent 738 days living in a California Redwood tree in the late 1990s and is probably America’s best-known “tree hugger.”
In Tegg’s video, the person in camouflage never makes eye contact with the viewer. S/he keeps very still and seeks to blend into the tree, almost disappearing entirely. And so we are confronted with the second worldview, the one in which man is in harmony with nature and not somehow outside of it. Deer are notoriously skittish, yet the two deer here wander about and come very close to this crouching person. They do not seem to sense the presence of a human being in their midst.
On the opposite wall in the darkened gallery is a spotlit and startling photograph of a white fawn titled “Cameratrap Fawn” (2015). It is uncanny and ghostlike — all the more so because the artist has captured the fawn in a pose that makes it appear to have only three legs. Seeing this fragile and vulnerable creature in a forest clearing, it’s not hard to understand how white deer have come to have a sacred meaning for many Native American tribes. Before I encountered this photograph, I had never seen a white deer nor known of their existence. The spotlight enhances the glow and literally rivets our attention on an unusual, sentient thing.
Creating an eerily similar effect is the camera trap, from which the exhibition gets its name. The device is a commercially available motion-activated camera, often used by hunters, that shoots an infrared image of whatever sets it off. Tegg has published a book that accompanies the exhibition, of found images of deer caught by these cameras. The film makes them appear to glow white on a black ground.
In the corner of the gallery at about knee height is a framed iPad. A video titled “Spotlight” (2015) shows glimpses of jungle vegetation intermittently illuminated by a flashlight, which reveals exotic insects traversing oblong leaves and narrow branches. The imagery is beautiful, luscious, and green, functioning as a metaphor for the world of living things invisible to us at any given moment. It reminds us that the jungle is teeming with life that we can’t easily see, but if we are attentive we know that these lives are interdependent with our own.
Occasionally, we see horrifying images on Facebook of families armed to the teeth and sitting proudly beside the carcass of a just slain rhino or lion. It seems incredible that hunts such as these, prevalent in Roosevelt’s day, continue in the present. In John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals?,” written in 1977, he says that consumer societies broke down the traditions that existed between man and nature, traditions that recognized that “animals were with man at the center of his world.” Without being heavy handed, Tegg’s exhibition reminds us that this connection to the animal kingdom (of which we are a part) is integral to our survival, at least for as long as we require bodies to function in the physical world. The exhibition is light and graceful, in every sense of the word, and suggests that open paths remain; it’s about the choices we make.
Linda Tegg: Cameratrap continues at Fresh Window (56 Bogart Street, lower level, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through April 3.
Susan, I need to make a few points:
“The world seems roughly divided into two camps: those who believe that man is destined to tame, exploit, and conquer nature and those who believe that man is a part of nature, no more or less important than any other.”
This is a misleading simplification, especially because so many of us who align ourselves with the latter, man-is-part-of-nature perspective accept that humans, like all other animals, are hard-wired for conquest and exploitation.
One of the traits that sets humans apart from most (but not all) of our animal brethren is our capacity to override our wiring, so to speak, and hearken to the better angels of our nature. As I wrote in a catalog essay (for an exhibition that included your beautiful photographs!), “among the most notable examples of humanity’s anomalous nature is our interest in and empathy for other species. Although there is growing scientific agreement that some other species possess self-awareness and even a capacity for empathy […], humans are the only animal striving to learn about and better the lot of other creatures and environments. […C]onservation efforts and legislation, as well as our burgeoning interest in sustainability, speak to another, more hopeful human impulse; we possess an innate ability to see ourselves in other animals and, in turn, to recognize our capability as their stewards and representatives.”
If only more of us prioritized these efforts!
Also, as a hunter and conservationist, I of course reject your assertion that Roosevelt, both a hunter and conservationist, was “an exception to the rule.” First of all, I don’t regard Roosevelt (or any trophy hunter whose aim is a “hero shot” next to a slain beast or a mounted head for display) as a legitimate representative of most hunters. Trophy hunters are a minority, even if they are the ones that appear in most articles about hunting in major publications. Most hunters hunt for food, for tradition, and for the privilege of spending time in a heightened, special relationship with the world we call home. Moreover, a plurality (if not a small majority) of hunters are conservationists, actively supporting habitat protection, breeding programs, etc. Leading conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy and National Audubon routinely acknowledge the important role hunters play in conservation in their publications and statements (a reality that causes much tsoris for those organizations’ supporters who are preservationist in inclination — as opposed to conservationist).
Also, the white (leucistic) deer that Tegg photographed is a representative of a “lightning rod” conversation going on in some environmental circles today. Because the coloration (a genetic anomaly) makes the deer stand out to predators, they generally live short lives. Native Americans saw them infrequently (and therefore attributed sacred significance to them) because they were usually killed and eaten when very young. Today, white deer are protected in some states and regions, and are therefore seen more frequently.
A recent article about leucistic deer by the Director of Science Communications for the Nature Conservancy (http://tinyurl.com/hd8zx23) closes with a plea for a desacralization of the animals and a call for their “scientific management” (which requires regulated hunting).
“These deer may indeed have cultural and historical value to humans, but let’s not confuse them with endangered species…A white deer intrigues me as a student of deer. They’re fascinating to observe and ponder. But, in this era of over-abundant whitetails – when we desperately need scientific management to protect our forests and biodiversity – we must move beyond the idea of the white deer as a sacred beast.”
The article is followed by a very divided comments section which provides a sense of the growing rift in the environmentalist community between preservationists and conservationists.
Anyway, I always enjoy reading your articles, Susan, even (or perhaps especially) when I disagree.
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