Soulful and enigmatic, the creatures in Henry Horenstein’s elegant “Animalia” series look like they lead complicated lives, even when all we see is their pointy claws or slender legs. On view at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida, until February 6, the series, made between 1995 and 2001 (and published as a book in 2008), frames fragments of critters great and small in warm-toned black and white, presenting them without the usual clues about the cages and aquariums that hold them. Instead, Horenstein focuses on the defining characteristics of each animal, picturing the attributes they’re know for—a pig’s delicate nose and a peacock’s showy tale—or revealing some surprising essence in a hippo’s leathery back or a ray’s graceful wing.
“I choose to look closely and abstractly—to see my subjects for their inherent beauty, oddness, mystery,” writes Horenstein in a statement. “For this, I shot often with macro lenses, so I could get close, and worked with grainy, black-and-white films, printed in sepia, hoping to give them an old school, timeless feel.” Horenstein was determined to show the well-worked subject in a new way, but his control over the images extended only to his materials and composition—his models had their own agenda. “Photographing animals is very different from photographing people. You can’t tell an elephant where to stand, and you can’t ask a skate to smile or a lizard to say ‘cheese.’ Instead, you must be very patient and wait, hoping your subject will do what you want it to do, or maybe something else unexpected that might make a good picture. When animals do cooperate, you have to be ready, because most won’t stay in one position long.” While the impulse to anthropomorphize is hard to resist—especially when confronted with the charming or sad faces Horenstein finds in usually faceless eels and skate, octopi and rays—his images insist on seeing animals on their own terms. “I believe animals are their very own creatures, with unique, often surprising and altogether amazing characteristics. And that’s what I’ve tried to capture in these pictures.”