07/22/14 Photographer Tim Flach
YouTube’s endless stream of kitten clips and the enduring shark film genre are proof of the polar response we have to animals. While we either fawn over or fear them, Tim Flach’s lens has allowed for a more equitable point of view.
In his 25-year career as a professional photographer, Flach has spent more than half of it capturing animals, making them more familiar to us than their beastly characteristics let on. Whether it’s the fraternization of stallions in his first photography book Equus (2008) or a capuchin’s look of wonder from More Than Human (2012), animals appear to us less as creatures and more strangers we haven’t yet had the pleasure of knowing.
Amid the constant stream of commissions for his zoological work, the award-winning photographer’s current projects span a series on seaweed and a study on the optical response to iconic images; the latter, certainly befitting of someone able to draw empathy to the exotic with a click.
Post-holiday, Flach answered NOUS’s call at his London office and talked about taking visual cues from paintings and why his models serve up more fierceness—and communicate issues better—than someone like Kate Moss.
I know you’ve been busy the past couple weeks. Could you speak about a few projects you’ve been working on?
At the moment, I’m actually doing something that’s discussing how we look at pictures. The actual way that we navigate images. I’m about to work with a neuroscientist on eye tracking. Looking at how certain ideas compositionally have worked for thousands of years, and also that reflects on how iconic images in photography work. But that’s a sideline project.
Another project is looking at seaweed—how seas are an important part of creating oxygen. Taking seaweeds and making metaphors of forests with a view to show in museums. These are a couple of projects. Among that, I do commissions in between.
And your commissions deal with the subjects you’ve focused on in the past 25 years: animals?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the nature of these things. They come to me because I can bring a broader background to things than maybe someone who does fashion.
I’m actually curious as to how you got your start. Have you always been inclined to wildlife?
I think that there are certainly realities like paying your rent, which come into the equation. So when I started, there was no trust fund, of course. I had to go to work in hotels and bars in the evening and weekends, and start from the ground up with my equipment. When I started taking photographs commercially, I had to do whatever was possible, and that was probably doing a variety of press, PR, and marketing. Over the years, that led to design projects: advertising and international campaigns. And then, more into the art world. It’s an evolution, you might say. But I started photographing not so much animals until about 10 years into my career. Initially, I had to just set myself up as a working professional photographer.
What are some challenges you’ve had working with animals—and what told you that type of photography is something you want to specialize in?
Gosh, yes, I think there’s always several factors going on. One thing is that just generally towards nature, there’s that sense of wonderment and awe of having something in the studio like a big cat or an exotic animal. Now the challenges of trying to manage an animal often like that—we had to bring animals into a larger cage. There are certain logistics to attaching a flash to the side of the cage and not have it knocked down or annihilated by your model.
In terms of evolving techniques, I think I’m informed by my work and background as a painter compositionally (he’s a fine arts graduate of Central Saint Martins), so I apply that and overlay that a lot in my work. I have explored working more in the wildlife sense of photography, but I realize that there were more interesting debates to distill by taking an animal and looking at what it represented to us.
What were you trying to express through the title of your book, More Than Human?
It gestures towards a number of different aspects. There’s this idea—the distinction about non-human and human animals. Are we unique and have a soul while animals don’t? In shaman cultures, there’s always the idea of the intermediary space—that which is outside, that which is more than human. So there are several different ways for which for me that felt the right title.
There were debates not so much that these were sentimental pictures, but maybe there were other things going on. It wasn’t just about being more than human in the anthropomorphic sense, which is what it may seem like. It wasn’t just that I wanted to take pictures in a very human light. Although some may argue that my pictures look human.
So is there a political stance you take with these pictures?
Probably a yes and no to that one. I think that photography gets interesting—or any medium—when you look at ideas, or when you encourage debate around questions. My More Than Human has broken down into certain sections where I’m looking at invasive species, genetic engineering, aspects of where some jellyfish changed medicine, symbolism. So what I’m really showing is the way we shape nature and how it shapes us. That, you could argue, is political. Taking a position is something I feel is more problematic because what I want to do is essentially deliver evidence, show the different dynamics. So that’s why I say yes and no. I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t have featherless chickens. What I really want to do is say, ‘Here are featherless chickens.’ Here, and how it operates on us and how it brings forth debates on how we understand and know animals—and the ambiguity of it.
Before shooting these animals, is there an exhaustive amount of time spent studying them?
I find out what the animals might mean to people. You have to be interested in how people experience things. So the answer is yes on that level. In terms of my getting to know them, I think it’s problematic to bring them into the studio without having a sense of what you’re going to do. You should leave a space to reveal themselves. So on one hand, I do my homework—I want to get the behavior to work. I don’t want an animal to get spooked or decide they don’t want to be on set. I mean most models don’t potentially shit or pee in the studio.
Would you say you’re immediately empathetic to animals, as opposed to human subjects (laughs)?
(Laughs) I think it may be something that suits my personality about being the observer. A photographer who does celebrities probably has a great ability to put them at ease and to get the best out of them. In my case, I think that if I stress an animal, then nothing’s going to happen. If I appear to animals to be too fragile or diminutive, then maybe they’ll go for me in case they’re cats or predators. In terms of my choices, it is partly yes, I think I quite like that observational space.
Animals translate across cultural barriers. In one way, you can debate about what we do ourselves with nature and the biosphere, but because the other side is that if you did a particular human, you might find that hard to export that to China or to Korea or wherever because it would be seen as more threatening politically. Whereas with an animal, you can actually debate the big issues about what we do with nature. Thus you can open a debate broadly around the world.
What species would you say are the hammiest in front of the camera?
I think the one I call the flying mop—the dog—is rather sweet. The one jumping? I like ambiguous pictures like that.
You’ve spoken about how we shape nature and animals—our perceptions of them. But has photographing animals for so long made you see people differently?
(Laughs) Oh, I don’t know. I think there are experiences that have certainly worried me when going abroad to places like Borneo, the rainforest, expecting to see a commitment from the local people to be custodians of those unique areas and being slightly surprised at their interest in pursuing Western materialism. I wouldn’t say that because I’m looking at a tiger and his eyes, I’m somehow transported to another level of perception. Because I am someone who believes—although it might not seem romantic—that actually what you’re doing is creating something where people bring who they are to those pictures. What I do is create something the potential to find something engaging. I can then bring context into it and attach certain ideas to that.
I guess that sort of ties in with your latest project: the series that involves eye tracking.
That’s more about trying to understand why we look at images the way we do. What makes them more powerful and resonate stronger. And what are the characteristics that are part of that.
Did certain images inspire the idea for that?
I like certain painters and I keep seeing certain patterns and structures. What I’d like to do now is not just to explain but rather show what the eye actually does. Sort of give evidence to how the eye tracks things. And then the questions after that are, ‘Why do we do that? Is it culturally different? Does it depend on your background as to how you look at something?’ But it comes from my own work, my interest in composition. So what I’m really doing is sharing some of that with other people.