Exhibition Review: Wild Michael Nichols at Philadelphia Museum of Art
Wild: Michael Nichols
By Lev Feigin
In the 20th century, animals that surrounded us since their domestication millennia ago had suddenly disappeared. Horses, oxen, and other beast of burden vanished off the streets of the modern city. In the nearby countryside, field animals grazing in pastures gave way to the suburbs that swallowed up farmland. In the midst of the largest extinction crisis since the loss of the dinosaurs — the Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 30 to 50 percent of all species will die off by mid-century — the only animals most of us now come in contact with are neutered pets and caged captives in zoos. Having sanitized our life-world of their presence, post-industrial societies appropriated animals into a consumerist spectacle: a procession of TV images, cartoon characters, sports mascots, decoration on baby apparel, stuffed toys.
If between humans and animals exists what John Berger has once called “an abyss of non-comprehension”, animal photography — with all of its high-end gadgets and colonial assumptions — has not always rushed to bridge that abyss.
What makes Wild: Michael Nichols — the big, bold exhibition of animal photography now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — so unique is that for Nichols, who has worked for National Geographic since the 90s, animal conservation is at the heart of his work. Whether photographing the gorillas of Rwanda, the elephants of Kenya, or the tigers of India, Nichols works closely with zoologists and wildlife preservation experts, immersing himself for months, sometimes years, in the ecology of each locale.
Wild is broken down by species — chimpanzees, lions, tigers, elephants —as well as themes — a cycle about Nichols’ trek with scientist Mike Fay across the Congo Basin, the largest untouched area of the planet, and one about the Yellowstone National Park.
But Nichols doesn’t just train his lens on the species; he focuses on individuals. It’s not any lion that tracks across the parched Serengeti National Park; it’s Hildur, an adult male of the Vumbi pride, the companion of C-Boy, both of whom Nichols had followed through different seasons in Tanzania. In one picture, Hildur’s fiery mane with bright streaks gleams at sunset. His paws are blurred from motion. The camera pan smears the sallow grass. All attention is on the lion’s expression and his 80s rock star mane. And helooks absolutely dashing!
In another photograph, C-boy mates in the dark with a Kimumbu pride female and roarsat the flash of a camera. The lioness looks at us with a hint of modesty. The lion’s anger at the invasion of privacy is both primal and recognizably human — the King of the Jungle tells off the paparazzi.
A street photographer of animal life, Nichols is able to capture what’s essential about his subjects: a momentary glimpse of the animal’s inner life. Take the picture of the orphan baby elephant, fumbling on its feet in an orange vest as it stands next to three keepers who rescued it. His mother was killed by poachers. The young animal, its head wet from the rain, looks distraught. The plastic vest, an emblem of displacement, is now his only source of comfort.
In the wild, animals live invisible lives. They inhabit milliseconds – and are gone. That it is why Nichols often relies on remote hidden cameras with infrared sensors that he hides at watering holes and entrances to habitats. The animals trigger the pictures as they pass. Nichols says that his subjects “photograph themselves.” That’s how he captured Charger, the elusive tiger who lives in India’s Bandhavgarh National Park. Charger is suspended in midair over a ravine, the front paws ready to land on the other side, the back ones still pushing off, the decisive moment, a collaboration between luck, man and tiger.
Nichols explores not only the lives of animals in the wild but shows us how humans exploit them as exotic pets, inmates in zoos, raw materials at the hands of poachers and test subjects in medical labs.
The most unsettling of these is a photograph of a stretched out chimp in the notorious Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). The animal is tied at the wrists to a metal gurney, its long arms painfully pulled upwards. A syringe and a drug vial lie by a dark stain of blood. A catheter carrying blood runs over the animal’s head placed by the photographer at the very bottom of the frame, its mouth contorted in despair.
There are many such memorable shots. The white wooden frames makethe images feel not like cages but mirrors held up to nature on the verge of extinction.