Written review by
ANDREAS J. HIRSCH,
Independent curator, writer and photographer
This set of seven portraits by Bruno Mazodier has a haunting quality. Even long after you had looked at it, you will still feel the animals portrayed here looking at you. Maybe the essence of the encounter of humans with wild animals is this: Animals looking at you, a topic John Berger had famously written about in depth (John Berger, Why look at animals, 1977) .
Of course we look back and so does the photographer, but the first feeling the photographs of Bruno Mazodier convey is that of animals in captivity looking at us. During those sittings the photographer and his models are separated by the glass barrier that encages the wild aninmals and – mainly – protects them from us. The glass is very present in the pictures through the multiple scratches and stains it shows. It seems to carry a history of depair and violence, attemps from both sides to break the barrier and cross the gap.
A gap that in fact is not wide at all and at the same time seems impossible to cross, which the portraits here make evident. They tell a story of dignity, of attempts at understanding and the lack of understanding at the same time. That the mystery of the other, in this case the animal is preserved, is a matter of dignity and respect. But this mystery is also a question of certain photographic qualities of the portraits.
The delicate balance of the glass in the foreground, the animal slightly out of focus in the middleground and a vague out-of-focus background makes us shift between the glass and the animal, does us never fully allow to ignore the presence of the glass and shapes the distance between us and the animal. Keeping it's distance to the glass, i.e. the zone of focus, leaves the animal it's personal space and dignity intact.
The animal sitting for the photographer seems to be enshrouded in a kind of mist, the aesthetic equivalent of the mystery preserved. When our image of the wild aninmal in captivity is a construction, then these photographs go one step further by letting us question our constructions as pure acts of modern fiction or – if you will – scenes from a mythical phantasma, distant memories from our own past.
Leaving all conventions of wildlife photography as well as zoo-photography aside, Bruno Mazodier manages to get closer to the animals than any photographer fixated on technical perfection. And still – when we look closer, we may notice that the animals are mostly not looking directly at us, that is: at the camera, but sideways.
This is somehow remindful of certain styles of portrayture in photography, where – namely statesmen and other figures cast as leaders, and in some cases poets – where photographed while casting a visionary glance into a distant future. This certainly adds to the specific character of the photographs completely setting them apart from conventional animal photography, where the eyes play a key role. And then there is this detail of the hands: When they come close to the glass, the make the tension between the two sides of the gap even stronger.
Looking at the set of seven photographs as a series, we may note that the first five images well form into a series, while the last two pictures somewhat move astray from the basic portrait pattern. For me they somehow make the impression from the first five less clear, maybe also less strong. If I had to select them, let's say for presenting them in an exhibition, I would concentrate on the first five and show them together. If forced to show only three photographs, I would form a tryptich with images 1, 2 and 4.
This should not indicate that images 6 and 7 are not great, but for me they point in a slightly different direction, hard to describe, but something I would prefer not to mix. Maybe it has also to do with the mystery of the first five images that for me becomes shaky with the other two. They might belong to a separate series, where the approach is slightly different, less working with the classical portrait-sitting-paradigm.
But portraiture in photography is a broad field and I could imagine different animals or different kinds of animals portrayed while ever subtly employing different approaches in portraiture. I clearly look forward to seeing more of this inspiring work of Bruno Mazodier with the portraits of animals, which so beautifully seems to draw from the source of his own vocation for photography, the accidental camera obscura that so deeply impressed the child.