Frederico Câmara

Views of Paradise: A World Atlas of the Artificial Environments of Zoological Gardens

Zoological gardens were created for the appreciation of animals and plants foreign to Europe; brought from the colonial territories that were then considered exotic to European taste. They occupy an ambiguous position in society, as both a space of protection and a space of imprisonment. Protection comes from the zoo’s aim to be a place for conservation, research, and education. Imprisonment comes from their early format as “menageries,” a venue to exhibit exotic animals meant to entertain the human curiosity. This ambiguity of function and form is a reflection of our need to care for our environment against our inability to recreate an environment as perfect as nature itself in the zoo, or to preserve it in the wild.

Fig. 1: Isle of Wight, UK
Fig. 2: Amazonia, Motherwell, UK
Fig. 3: Newquay, UK
Fig. 4: Exmoor, UK
Photographs: 120 x 150 cm, 2009

Photography has the power to make us “re-view” a situation after it is transformed into an image. No one stops at an empty cage when visiting a zoo because the visit’s objective is the contemplation of the animal. The cage is just a background or stage. However, with the cage transformed into an image without the animal, it becomes the subject. This shift in focus from the animal to its artificial environment results in a series of observations related to science, the environment, art, and religion, questioning the act of creation.

Fig. 5: Ningbo, China
Fig. 6: Shenyang, China
Fig. 7: Nanning, China
Fig. 8: Chongqing, China
Fig. 9: Weihai, China
Photographs: 120 x 150 cm, 2009

From an artistic point of view, the people who work at the zoos use the same formal procedures of occupying space as artists do to create art, trying to represent the landscape. This was my starting point when I embarked on the project of photographing zoo cages. I am interested in representing science and art. The photographs of the zoo cages embody both scientific and artistic ideals. This proposal draws from a wider research project that is to create an atlas of the built environment of zoo cages, divided by countries photographed. Zoos not only represent a geographical division in their own collections, but they also reflect design elements that are peculiar to the visual culture of the country to which they belong. They share the same language in their representation of the environment, but have distinct accents that are related to their local cultural backgrounds.

Fig. 10–11: Osaka, Japan, 120 x 150 cm, 2007

With the realization that these artificial environments are the actual homes of living creatures, and that they convey a negative image of how we care for the environment, this research project proposes as a possibility the appreciation of those representations of the environment in zoo cages, without compromising the animals’ lives.

This project started in Germany in 2003 as an inquiry into the formal representations of the landscape. It has so far been photographed in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Norway, Japan, China, Singapore, and Canada.

Fig. 12–17: Wilhelma Zoo, Stuttgart, Germany, 80 x 120 cm, 2003

Text by Stephen Feeke

“Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it, I do believe it’s true.”[1]

When I first saw Frederico Câmara’s photographs, I initially did not understand I was looking at images of zoos. It was with my own sculptural bias at the fore that I took Câmara’s work for images of another artist’s installation. Was it Joseph Beuys? Or maybe a work by an Arte Povera artist? I should say (in my defense) that my mistake was only momentary, but on reflection, looking at the same work some three years later, I feel my reading wasn’t entirely erroneous. Not knowing it was an animal enclosure and seeing no creatures anyway, what I saw was objects displayed in stark white spaces with what I took to be great purpose and economy. The materials I saw were those of sculpture, like wood and metal, used in combination of form, color and texture. The overall appearance was so casual that I knew it had in fact been carefully constructed, with each of the items precisely placed in relation to each other and to the space they were in.

Câmara is not the first artist to find inspiration at the zoo, though in the past it was usually the animals that were the attraction. Painters such as Jean-Baptiste Oudry immortalized a menagerie and George Stubbs painted Queen Charlotte’s zebra, her cheetahs and even a kongouro (sic). More recently, it was common practice for students at the Royal College of Art to take the life drawing class out of the studio and into Regent’s Park to capture beasts there. While on occasion an animal might just sneak into his frame, it’s not the animals that appeal to Câmara at all; in fact, he travels to the world’s zoos assiduously trying to avoid them. Instead, it is the idiosyncrasy of their unnatural environment that inspires him. What he finds in the enclosures themselves has all the beauty, horror, and pathos of human existence and what we learn through his examination of happenings at the zoo tells us more about us than it does about the animals.

In Man and Animal in the Zoo by Heini Hediger (a leading Swiss zoologist),[2] a cartoon illustration shows a man at the zoo staring inquisitively at a llama; a sign on the railings that separate them, helpfully says “LAMA.” In the next frame of the cartoon, the llama is shown looking back at the man aided by a sign saying “MENSCH.”[3] It might be funny to think that the man was the entertaining exhibit in the zoo and not the animal, that their strangeness and exoticism is reciprocated by ours and indeed that we are therefore equally odd species to each other. In reality there is no such role reversal and we are very much the dominant species. So while looking at a Câmara, the experience of his zoo photographs is very much of being on the outside and gazing in. In some examples a metal cage keeps the viewer back. Câmara doesn’t try to avoid the grille or shoot round it, rather he allows it to form a defiantly bold grid right across the foreground, and we are left trying to peep through the bars into the space beyond. Even when an animal enclosure is glazed, the flatness and frontality of Câmara’s picture plane creates an impenetrable barrier that prevents us from entering further.

His is not the familiar recreation of a logical space that we often see in a work of art, which we might imagine ourselves occupying via our mind’s eye. Instead we remain very much in our world; in our own time and space. Of course we are fascinated and compelled to look at what is or (more rightly) what is not there. However our role is very much as observers from our side of the bars and on this side of the picture frame. In addition, the locations Câmara often chooses to record are less than inviting in themselves. Often there is something desolate, hostile, and uncomfortable about the surroundings he finds, which may look more medical than zoological. Harsh lighting, tiled or metal surfaces, and concrete floors offer cold comfort to whatever animal is normally housed there. Indeed, it can be sad and shocking to think any creature could ever survive there. But it is also the very absence of an animal that can make Câmara’s work so unsettling; it feels as if something bad may have happened here and it feels like death.

In Câmara’s works, it often feels as if time has been suspended and the atmosphere is so still and literally lifeless, that it’s as if all the air has been sucked out. Nature abhors a vacuum, though, as does the power of our imagination, and so we the viewers, start to fill the void. Hence we look for equivalents for what we know is missing and a concrete tree trunk starts to look like a crocodile, and fake vines appear to be snakes. Indeed some of the more elaborate interiors Câmara photographs appear so vibrant that they themselves might be sentient and alive.

Câmara has said that the institutions we create are “organic” and have a kind of life just as we humans do: “in Brazilian Portuguese we even call them ‘organs.’ In their symbolic flesh they have the same strengths and weaknesses that are our own. Their tissue is subject to changes, death and renewal. They are a reflection of our lives.”[4] If our institutions are a mirror of ourselves, then we might therefore conclude that each generation gets those they deserve. If this is the case, what do zoos say about us? And by focusing on them, what is Câmara saying about us?

Today zoos raise emotional issues and have an ambiguous status despite their current incarnation as centers of research, conservation, and preservation. During their surprisingly long history, they have always been sites of some contention. So while there are delightful stories of Henry I’s polar bear hunting for fish in the Thames, by the sixteenth century there were already concerns being voiced about cramped conditions behind heavy “grates.” The wonder and spectacle of the “natural” world was a great attraction and occasionally animals achieved celebrity––like Clara the rhino or Jumbo the elephant––with feeding time being especially popular (eighteenth-century visitors to the Tower of London zoo could pay an entry charge or bring a live cat or a dog to feed to the lions).[5]

Câmara is aware of this ambivalence and probably knows this is precisely why zoos make interesting subjects. However he has a documentary style of working and remains neutral, without passing judgment on the rights or wrongs of what zoos do. Instead, he records what he finds there, leaving us to respond in whichever way we feel and he utilizes the same calculated approach whether he is photographing a painting store, a derelict library or an animal enclosure. In fact Câmara talks about his work as reportage,[6] and it can have a cool, dispassionate edge. Yet conversely, despite this detachment, his work can also possess an extreme beauty. Sontag has noted that “photographs create the beautiful,”[7] echoing Walter Benjamin’s much earlier observation that photography “can no longer record a tenement block or a refuse heap without transfiguring it.”[8] And Câmara agrees that beauty is a problem for photography; for him, the impulse to create something beautiful is both instinctive and unavoidable. Hence, when he points his camera, he automatically starts constructing the most satisfying image possible: looking for formal qualities of composition and color, locating the best angle, finding overlooked details and reformulating them––of course he also has to sit and wait for long periods waiting for the animals to retreat, so he has the time to think and plan the final work. And by embracing such subjectivities, Câmara can give the ugliest cage the depth and richness of old master paintings––those elaborate Dutch still lifes, for instance, which are at once bountiful and lush depictions of nature and memento mori.

Before taking up photography, it was painting that first drew Câmara to a zoo. He had been photographing the natural landscape but found himself unable to find or express anything new, whereas the painted tableaux to be found inside cages or enclosures were intriguing. The diorama, complete with arrangements of model trees, rocks and water, approximate an animal’s natural terrain, which might be a jungle, a snow-covered mountain, a lake or river or a desert as appropriate. It is the majesty of nature presented in a microcosm, and without animals to distract us the artfulness of the conceit comes to the fore. Who and what are these backdrops for one wonders? Do they make the animal feel more at home? Or do they only make us feel better about plucking a creature out of its natural habitat by approximating its normal surroundings? More than just showing us the strangeness of something we might have overlooked, these panoramas have allowed Câmara to ruminate on the ways the world can be perceived and represented. His photographs are not just his reflections on the zoo but very much part of the world in which they appear.

[1] Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel: “At the Zoo,” from the album Bookends. Sundazed (1968).

[2] Heini Hediger: Man and Animal in the Zoo. Zoo Biology. New York 1969.

[3] Reproduced in Wilfrid Blunt: The Ark in the Park: The Zoo in the Nineteenth Century. London 1976, p. 246.

[4] Frederico Câmara: “Fellowship Report,” in: Henry Moore Institute Newsletter, no. 63 (December/ January 2005/2006), p. 2.

[5] For a brief history of zoos, see Blunt: The Ark in the Park (1976), pp. 16–21.

[6] Conversation between the author and Frederico Câmara (October 27, 2009).

[7] Susan Sontag: On Photography. New York 1977, p. 85.

[8] Walter Benjamin: “The Author as Producer” [1934], in: idem: Selected Writings. Vol. 2, pt. 2: 1931–1934, Cambridge, MA 2005, pp. 768–782, p. 775.

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