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.