Anyone who’s tried to take a picture of their pet will know that it can be something of an ordeal. Sure, your average house cat doesn’t appreciate the intricacies of apertures and shutter speeds, but he certainly knows that there’s something going on. Some creatures turn their heads away, while others are fascinated by the camera and walk straight towards it, leaving you backpedalling while you fumble desperately at the focusing ring.
The most excellent Italian photographer Giacomo Brunelli probably went through miles of film getting the images that feature in his book The Animals, a series of portraits of, yes, animals. Brunelli’s photos are largely of the animals we see every day – dogs, cats, birds – but as with all good portraits, they reveal something about their subject. In many cases, what they reveal is the immutable wildness that remains beneath the veneer of domesticity. Rendered in stark black and white, often dominated by the former, the photographs are compelling and, occasionally, downright frightening.
They also seem entirely natural, but as ever with photography, nothing is quite what it seems. The nature of the relationship between photographer and subject has been discussed ever since the first Daguerrotypes were made in the 19th century. The camera’s ability to create a perfect two-dimensional representation of reality is what makes it so powerful – or, perhaps more importantly, it’s the fact that because of this ability, we expect photos to reflect reality. We tend to take a photograph as a fait accompli; we believe what we’re seeing is how it is.
This assumption, of course, is fraught with danger. As soon as they’re aware of a camera pointing at them, people change – and so do animals. Indeed, the relationship between subject and artist here is particularly interesting. Brunelli recently told the UK’s Guardian newspaper, which has championed his work, that the animals he photographs are active participants in the process – to an extent, at least. “The noise of the shutter is actually very important to me when I photograph animals,” he said. “I use it to startle them, and get a reaction.”
This raises all sorts of interesting questions about what you’re actually looking at; Brunelli’s photos capture a series of scenes that would never have existed in the first place if not for his presence. But perhaps the key point is that his subjects’ reactions are entirely instinctive – it’s not like you’re looking at a trained elephant posing for the camera. Indeed, you could argue that in some ways they’re perfect photographic models. For all that a photographer can tell a human subject to “just be yourself”, anyone put in front of a camera brings something to the process – for an average person, it’s their vanity and insecurities; for a model, it’s how they’ve been taught to pose; for a reluctant child, it’s the desire to be outta there as quickly as possible.
Animals think about none of this – they just react to the noise in whatever way comes naturally to them, and what emerges is startling. The more you look at Brunelli’s images, the more you come to realise that you’re looking at something entirely alien to humanity, a series of personalities that share our lives every day and yet are not remotely like ours. Fundamentally, they demonstrate the greatest power of the camera – to tell us something about the world we live in.