Bettina Montavon

Bettina Montavon

Anima. What interests me in photography is the face, the body and the animal. The prints, the bonds, the abandonments, the giving and the elimination are at the centre of my photographic research.
Do the animals have faces? It is a question that has led my photographic work on animals for years. Whether in shelters, SPA or zoos, the abandonment, the mistreatment, the suffering and the confinement, challenge me. The animal is a surface of projections; it reflects our consumer society in every sense, consumption of animals and then their rejection.

Portfolio from the The sensitive eye workshop with Claudine Doury, February 2015.

Written review by JENNY SMETS,
Photography consultant, photo editor. Curator and educator.

In her series ANIMA Swiss photographer Bettina Montavon asks herself the question: Do animals have faces? It is a question she has been asking herself for a longer period of time and is one of the central themes in her body of work so far. Her other main points of interest are portraits (the face) and the body. In a sort of way this series is a consequent prolongation of the work she has done before and that can be seen on her website: portraits of people with their pets, portrait of dogs and horses: the animal and the portrait is a recurrent theme in her work.

In ANIMA she photographed both pets and originally wild animals in captivity in shelters or zoos, What challenged her was the abandonment, the mistreatment, the suffering and the confinement. For Bettina captivated animals reflect our consumer society and our ambiguous relationship towards them. On the one hand we keep them as pets and we have an emotional bond, on the other hand we mistreat them and keep them in captivity.

In a sense it is also an attempt to make „psychological” portraits of the animals. An attempt to show how they feel under their miserabel situation.The work is an indictment against human behavior towards vulnerable living beings. This I understand also from her quotation of the thinkers Milan Kundera and Marguerite Yourcenar as cited on her explanation of the theme of her series.

Anima is a series of portraits of animals in captivation in black and white. The choice for black and white is a good choice. It gives the work a feeling that is in accordance with the rather melancholic and slightly dreary subject. Also it unifies the different single images and makes the story a whole. Also I can imagine that since the photographer has no influence on location it is easier in black and white to clear out disturbing elements in the surroundings of the animal.

The conceptual approach.
Bettina tries to show through the portraits of animals their relationship with humans, without showing human presence. The message is not a positive one, the focus is on suffering and abandonment. The animal is shown either without any clear surroundings and just a hint of the place , or from a distance with a lot of explanatory surroundings. I am not sure if I agree with the alternation of this approach. On the one hand you could say that it makes the series more exciting, but on the other it makes the mood of the photographs sometimes to different for my taste. The portraits taken from a closer stand where she plays with focus are more concentrated on the animal itself and to me have a more poetic, empathetic feeling.
The portraits taken from a greater distance , where you see more of the surroundings may be more informative maybe, but are in lack of this emotional layer.

I think I would prefer a more consequent approach of the first , the play with focus and blurry parts and the concentration on the „face’ and hence emotion the animal is seemingly expressing.

If we go through the photographs one by one :

The monkey with the covered eyes. This gesture of hiding makes it emotionally charged, so right timing ! Location is present but not in a disturbing way. The blurry background is good.

The dog sitting in the back of the cage. The space here is uses to show the captivity , but for me I prefer the closer photographs where I get a sense of empathy with the animal.

The horse. Very nice because of it’s symmetry, the detail of the straw and its depth of fields. Only thing I wondered is how it would have worked if the portrait was taken from aside so you could see into the horse eye. The eyes always feel like very important to me.

The cat. The cat has visible wounds from mistreatment and the expression in the eyes together with the background which hints to the captivity makes this a very strong photo to me.

The monkey behind the glass. Because of the water drops it has a very melancholic atmosphere which goes well with the subject.

The horse. Although seen from aside (see remark before) I would have loved to see a little bit more of the eye. I can see this is more about light and shadow but it feels to me a bit not consequent with the rest of the images.

The dog almost seems to be crying, so good moment to capture him.

The giraffe. I love the symmetry, but I think I would have preferred the background to be more blurry like in some of your other photographs.

The white dog. This is one of my favorites. The sad ‚expression’ of the dog, standing in the corner of the frame and the use of the surrounding is perfect.

The lion in the cave.
This one is a bit different to the others. Not only because it is a wild animal, but also because here you have a focus more on the location and less on the animal itself.Consequently the photograph lacks the emotional layer others in the series do have. Personally I would leave this one out of the selection because of this difference.

Overall conclusion :
Cats and children are I think the most photographed subjects in the world ( maybe outnumbered by sunsets) . But the way Bettina approached her subject made it interesting again and took the subject to a different level. The photo’s are not simple portraits of pets , but she succeeded in putting ‚feeling’ into the photographs which makes me very interested in the story . If the conceptual approach and style would be a little bit more consequent and outspoken I think it would be ready to be shown to a larger audience !

And finally a tip . If you want, have a look at the work of the Dutch artist Charlotte Dumas. She has the same interest in animals and their relation to humans as you have.

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