The current exhibition at George Eastman House comes to us in the form of a question --- Why Look at Animals? As it is posed by an internationally renowned museum we can presume the answer is already known, and visitors will leave with a clear understanding. But with any show that spans eras, styles, methods, and concepts, arriving at any one conclusion is a difficult task.
The show begins with a powerful message poorly delivered. Lining the long hall of the Potter Peristyle are several sets of Frank Noelker's larger-than-life headshots of chimpanzees formerly involved in research, entertainment, or the pet trade. The images are not particularly powerful as objects: despite their size, their vibrancy and presence as prints is lacking, but the message is delivered through the chimps' tired and distant eyes.
Approaching the end of the hall, the viewer is met with a final set of Noelker's portraits on the left, and a set of equally sized and placed mirrors on the opposite wall. This forehead-slapping gimmick --- we are them, they are us --- obliterates any natural inward contemplation of our relationship to these chimpanzees. The photographs have their own voice, but instead of letting them speak, this visual bullhorn announces exactly what you are supposed to think.
All is not lost, however. The exhibition takes its name from John Berger's essay of the same name, and answers to the titular query are offered through images from the museum's extensive archives. One of William Wegmans' pups finds its oversized paws placed in boldly colored bowls ("They make us laugh") and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.'s hulking pooch, Theodore Roosevelt IV, is the centerpiece of an otherwise stiff family portrait ("They complete our families"). Scads of historical images including the expected (Eadweard Muybridge) and the lesser known (19th-century animal portraits by the Philadelphia studio Shreiber and Sons) fill this section and lay the foundation for the diverse contemporary works that follow.
All manner of beast inhabits the work of current photographers, from common to strange, real to imagined, dead to alive. Some of the most powerful work interrogates that last dichotomy; the tension between living beings that are also considered a natural resource. Samantha Bass' blunt images take us into the slaughterhouse, a place where the word "animal" becomes the word "food." Her photograph "Icarus, OH" divides the frame between the pristine white wings of a presumably dying bird and the cool green but red-spattered surrounding tile walls. Deeper in the frame our eyes meet a figure that looks to be sharpening a long knife while dressed in protective clothing and goggles --- an anonymous modern day executioner. There is tension here between aesthetics and pain; the image is as disgusting as it is mesmerizing.
Barbara Norfleet's images depict seemingly angry beasts prowling among leftover food, trash, and wrecked cars; the remains of a lost civilization where animals have been left to battle for what scraps and shelters remain. Particularly confrontational is her image "Skunk and Strawberries on Great Pond." Atop a table of half-eaten strawberries and empty wineglasses a skunk returns our gaze disdainfully over its shoulder. Harsh light illuminates the eyes and gives glean to bared teeth. A primal and uneasy feeling is inspired --- animals as combatants, ready to seize our territory if given the chance.
As with so many of his projects, John Divola reveals the complexity of the simple through his images of dogs chasing his car in the desert. The huge prints put us in the action as Divola speeds through the sparse desert, aiming his camera out his driver's side window. The images show the characteristic intensity and tenacity of man's best friend along with the utter absurdity of such behavior. Divola alludes to this in the accompanying text, and makes a point that is largely applicable to the entire exhibition. "Here we have two vectors and velocities," writes Divola, "that of a dog and that of a car, and seeing that a camera will never capture reality and that a dog will never catch a car, evidence of a devotion to a hopeless enterprise." The complexity of our relationships with animals will never be fully understood through images alone. However, the reward lies not in a single, correct reply to the exhibition's question, but in the pursuit of answers.
Why Looks at Animals? | through January 7 | George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue | Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Thursday until 8 p.m.), Sunday 1-5 p.m. | $3-$8 | 271-3361, www.eastmanhouse.org.