In 1931, Walter Benjamin castigated Albert Renger-Patzsch for his photo book titled The World is Beautiful. In Benjamin’s view, the book used photography to aesthetically transform its subject into something larger than itself, yet without educating the viewer at all as to the social conditions of that subject. Renger-Patzsch’s book, Benjamin wrote, is full of vacuously ‘creative’ photography that has the ability to ‘endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists […]’ Echoes of this sentiment have been heard throughout the 20th and early 21st century, especially in the critical discussion around ‘aestheticising’ documentary photographs of socially engaged subjects without producing appropriately concerned and active responses in the viewers.
Die Biester makes a point about the confines in which these animals exist: the grilles of cages, their formal reflections in walls, windows and skeletal structures of urban housing, the dog leashes, all speak of the limitations built around the creatures and their unavoidable ringfencing for human consumption.
Die Biester by Patrick Goddard is an interesting case study precisely in this regard. Here we meet some of the most commonplace sights in contemporary cities: urban, often domesticated, and even more often leashed, caged or otherwise confined animals, mixed with shots of city scenes, buildings, details of them, and building sites. The book’s grainy shots speak a visual language that often sounds like the casual snapshot with its harsh accents of flash, incongruous cropping, and at times the apparent lack of clearly identified focus. With this language, the imagery leads the viewer through the densely built environments of contemporary London, where the construction of new buildings seems to continue without limit. It invites us to spend time looking at places and animals we usually pass by in an instant, except if we work in construction, happen to own a pet dog or cat or go on a visit to a zoo to look at presumably exotic—exoticised—giraffes, ring-tailed lemurs and so on. The shots make a point about the confines in which these animals exist: the grilles of cages, their formal reflections in walls, windows and skeletal structures of urban housing, the dog leashes, all speak of the limitations built around the creatures and their unavoidable ringfencing for human consumption.
What is striking here is that the animals are transformed from familiar, unremarkable sights into a series of sorrowful, desperate, forlorn, at times hysterical and, perhaps, panicked forms of life by little else than the photograph’s ability to show them in a certain, purposefully considered way—a specific aesthetic. Despite the apparent casualness of the visual language, the technicalities of photography are hard at work in this book. The series hinges on the precise—even if sometimes partly serendipitous—timing of many shots, the free use or omission of the flash, and the absence of colour. Added to this are the possibilities inherent in using the book form: the strong tonal contrasts of the printing, the choice of the matt, ‘dull’ paper throughout, the sequencing of the shots, the overarching darkness of the binding, including frequent voids of blank black pages. Goddard takes advantage also of the sheer number of images that can be fitted into a book of some volume. These aesthetic means of photography in general and the photo book in particular combine here to speak about the animals not merely as human companions or urban status symbols, but as anomalous creatures struggling to survive in the bleak, crowded conditions the sprawl of humanity has erected around them.
What is striking here is that the animals are transformed from familiar, unremarkable sights into a series of sorrowful, desperate, forlorn, at times hysterical and, perhaps, panicked forms of life by little else than the photograph’s ability to show them in a certain, purposefully considered way – a specific aesthetic.
Take for example the clear point the book makes about the effects of the camera flash on reflective surfaces, including the retina of an animal eye gleaming through a wide-open pupil; the red eye effect. In several shots, we stare at—and are stared at by—what looks like an animal we think we recognise, but with eyes so full of light emanating towards us that the image begins to suggest an alien, artificial, machine-like entity more than a familiar, presumably natural organism. At times, these strange glaring eyes are placed in close relation with more explicitly industrial, manufactured reflective objects, such as car lights, a shiny Halloween mask in the shape of a wolf (a werewolf, a hybrid of man and animal), the markings of a police van, or a reflective high visibility band on the rump of a jogger. The red eye effect is, of course, often considered as an error, something to be eliminated by retouching or pre-flash in commercial imagery. Here, however, the force of this photographic ‘mistake’ is something like suggesting that the dogs and the cats we live with are nothing but products of industry and regulation (policing of sorts) of, for example, the species characteristics considered proper for a breed. As results of breeding, training, grooming, special diets, and even clothing there is nothing natural about them; they are as natural as plastic Halloween masks in party shops.
The book’s introductory essay understandably reads the series as a reflection on the Anthropocene, the current geological period of human dominance and its lasting impact on the structure of the planet. The combinations of motifs in the book certainly lend themselves to this reading, with views not only of sites where new organised structures are erected but also of the reverse: death and decay, moments of increasing entropy, in the form of a couple of cemeteries as reminders of the finitude of human existence, run-down buildings, or bleak urban border zones with wrecked cars and fox carcasses (as well as dogs seeking satisfaction for one of their few remaining natural instincts). What might be at stake in Goddard’s imagery, is the broader question of what we are doing to the planet, what will be left once humanity is gone one day—whether by destruction or by moving away, or a bit of both.
… the book pushes the viewer to gain an inkling, even if just momentarily, that we appear to be leaving behind a sorry legacy and, perhaps, even to make some kind of changes in behaviour too.
The overall result is a book that does not preach from a high pedestal about environmental damage. Rather, it draws us in with touches of humour, but in the end leaves us feeling somewhat anxious about our effect on our habitat, the fellow creatures and people around us. This surely pricks the viewer to feel at least a little bleak, almost like some of the locations seen in the book. Thus the book pushes the viewer to gain an inkling, even if just momentarily, that we appear to be leaving behind a sorry legacy and, perhaps, even to make some kind of changes in behaviour too.
This may not be quite ‘cosmic’ significance of the kind that Benjamin had in mind in 1931, and the book might not provoke much environmental reflection in viewers not predisposed to spend time thinking about its implications. But it is a book that speaks of something much larger than the subject seen without the aesthetics of photography. And through its aesthetics, it does raise questions not only about social connections between human beings, but also about connections between humanity and the rest of it all.