© 2021, Gianluca Urdiroz

The Spectacle & The Catalogue: Animal Performance in Photography


The first creature in space was a stray dog called Laika, she died from overheating few hours after orbiting Earth. As Martin Parr has collected in the last years, the dog became symbol and was represented in many forms of Soviet memorabilia. He said that this obsession with space dog art can be understood as a parallel of Mickey Mouse in the US, both in the symbolic and presential way (Guardian, 2019). This essay will be looking at the ways animals are represented in photography. To do so, Michael Foucault’s ideas on Natural History will be base to invetigate how the animal is shown to perform. In the most passive and objectified side of the performative spectrum, scientific objectification will be found, with examples like Eadward Muybridge and Gerald Krefft. On the other end of the spectrum there will be photography that shows the animals as spectacle, illustrated by massively reproduced nature documentary images. Garry Winogrand’s photographs of zoo animals and visitors will help to understand how the object and the spectacle intersect, concluding that they both have anthropocentric ends. Finally, the essay will stray away from western photography to look at Japanese photography of the 70’s, and it will try to devise how animal photography can be different, and how it has changed in the last few years. Every photograph will backed by theoretical writings by critics like Liz Wells, John Berger and Seun-Hoon Jeong.

Taking photographs of animals is difficult, and it’s mainly its unpredictable nature that makes a photograph or video of animals so surprising, when they do a gesture, when they behave oddly, when they wink at the camera. Michael Foucault had a cat called Insanity (aeon, 2013), it seems that for him the seemingly anarchic behaviour of cats was a good reminder of the way nature works. Human history has tried to frame and tag animals according to their own perspective, but, like photographing them, this has proved difficult. Foucault explains (2006, p142) how the understanding of animals changed through history, arguing that during the Renaissance animals where seen as a show and with the rise of science the Classical period changed the spectacular for the sober scientific catalogue. He reaches the conclusion that:

What came surreptitiously into being between the age of the theatre and that of the catalogue was not the desire for knowledge, but a new way of connecting things both to the eye and to discourse. (Ibid.)

These ways of seeing are not just a superficial change, but a sway in the way the world is processed and explained from person to person. He argued that there was a shift toempiricism in base of the simplicity of seeing. This thin line between the naivety of seeing with the complexity of ideology applies specially to photographs, and makes them a common point of debate, Roland Barthes defined it as a ‘message without a code’ (Sontag, S. and Barthes, R., 1993, p196). In fact nature photography has played a big role in the way mass media and western society think about animals. Before digging into the ways animals are represented, it is important to understand why humans are so interested in seeing and picturing animals.

Several critics like, Jonathan Burt (Ramos, F., 2016, p87) argue that the need to represent animals comes from a longing to see them. This longing was created during the progressive distancing from nature that humans have suffered in the process of modernization and urbanization. This theory is not only talked about in relation to animals but in relation to landscape. According to Liz Wells (2011, p22) there was a need to compensate for the gradual reduction of the rural view. At the same time, John Berger explains that during that period of time, the rising bourgeois depicted nature as a way of showing property, and so animals were depicted like ‘furniture with four legs’(1972, p99). This logic of representation as ways of objectifying and show ownership is very similar to way photography was used by empires in the 19th century. A growing funding from empires into new scientific methods is part of what Foucault described as the cataloguing of nature (2006, p144):


Natural History is nothing more than the nomination of the visible. Hence its apparent simplicity, and the air of naïveté it has from a distance...

This apparent simplicity can be seen in works like Eadward Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion (1887) series, dedicated to capture the movement that the human eye couldn’t. As seen in Fig. 1, the depicted Pigeon is stripped of its natural context, and seen almost like a machine with a focus on its motion. It is even more interesting to compare Fig.1 to the photographs (Fig. 2) by Gerard Krefft and Henry Barnes, taken to make record of the species that they collected during the colonial era of Australia. Both sets of images show the scientifically apparent detachment in which nature was presented. Vincent Normand describes this as the ‘denaturalizing cut’ (Ramos, F. (ed.), 2016, pp.72 -73), and it can be applied to any situation where animals are stripped-off their home environment to be presented in front of a plain backdrop. Subsequently this ‘silences’ the animal, it’s emptied of any ability to signify and becomes a vessel for the ‘synthetic voice’ of the institution that presents it.


Zoos, or Zoological Gardens as they were called, were originally created as showcase of the empires exotic colonies (Ramos, F., 2016, p66). Although they allegedly hold an educational and conservation purpose, this claim has been difficult to hold with the passing of time, with a growing concern for their ethics. The concept of the zoo is in itself an odd one, which reflect a mix of Foucault’s spectacle and catalogue. Jerry Winogrand’s book The Animals (1967) expresses best how these two elements combine and create a strange space, which also is the epitome of the human obsession to look at animals.

Winogrand photographed the zoo in New York over several years, taking photographs of both the visitors and the visited. His images show humans almost as some strangely eccentric animal, that as pass-time watches other species behind bars. It’s visible in images like Fig. 3 that people go there to see the show, but, against the expectations of many children the animals seem ‘dull’, boring (Ibid., p67). The strangeness of the zoo lies not only on the activity but on how it contradicts the premise it sets. How can there be anything learnt from an African Rhino in an American City? Winogrand’s images show the clash of the expectations of a show, with the reality of a catalogued animal. As Berger observed:

The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. (Ibid., p70)


Here he points at the fact that the visitors of the zoo have certain expectations of what an animals behaves like, however this can’t be found during the visit. For many people in cities the zoo provides the first ever encounter with a wild animals from countries far away, so how can there be an expectation?






Now a days the biggest diversity of the animals that people in cities see are either behind bars or on a screen. Wild animals are depicted in nature documentaries and photo reportages. The nature of the medium, highly edited, presents only the most intense moments of these animals lives. Platforms like National Geographic present highly aestheticized images of animal, the level of beauty created can be described as ‘sublime’. This term was coined by Edmund Burke to explain the aesthetic value of paintings like Fig.4, which according to him exude grandiosity that it’s overwhelming. This could be applied to scenes of extreme beauty or horror. When these paintings are compared to images from National Geographic, it’s visible how both try to depict nature in an almost extreme grandiosity (Fig. 5). Wildlife Photographer of the Year often prizes images that combine the aesthetic pleasure with a more significant content This images are successful in their commercial use, however there are some doubts in the idea behind such astonishing images being used to promote awareness to take care of nature.
Some have argued that the ideology behind it is one of taking care of the environment because its beauty and not for its intrinsic value. This would put the spectacle as another version of the similar utilitarian mentality that bourgeois painting had (Berger, 1972, p99). This human centred perspective can be also seen in the tendency of having photographed animals looked straight into the lens. Liz Wells explains the parallel that happened in early landscape painting:

pictorial composition constructed in relation to a single central viewing position also emphasised (ego-)centrality as the pictorial world appears organised in relation to the viewer....

The same way a central unique perspective is thought to be driven by some egocentrism, having the gaze of the animal directed to the viewer it gives a sense of acknowledgment. The passing animal stops for a second to dedicate a split second to humans. This also happened in classical paintings and the depiction of women, in which the portrayed female would usually look at the viewer (at the time the rich owner of the painting) (Berger, 1972, p56). Photographer Brad Wilson is well known for his studio portraits of animals, see Fig. 6, which translates the setting of human portraits to animals. In his process he acknowledges the importance of eye contact. Moreover, the backdrop and perfect lighting remind of the dioramas in Natural History Museums.




Seung-Hoon Jeong (Ramos, F., 2016, pp94-95) explains that in most western films there is a tendency to a binary representation of animals: they are either fully humanized or completely antagonized (The Lion King or Jurassic Park). Jeong goes further to argue that this Manichaeism ‘deprives our reality of room for approaching or encountering their Real’. Essentially by only being able to frame animals from a humanist perspective theyare automatically stripped of the complexity of their existence as living beings, or as Jeong expresses through Jacques Lacan’s expression, their Real. As example of alternative representation he mentions Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and  Japanimation films. The latter has been connected to Shinto tradition in Japan, in which the surrounding environment is ought to be respected for its intrinsic value (Wisecrack, 2020). It is interesting to look at Japanese photography and it’s animal representation. Some of the most prominent examples are Daido Moriyama and Masahisa Fukase. The way they portray animals subverts expectations by representing them in ways that are not easy to catalogue. For example, Moriyama’s Stray Dog (1971) shot in Misawa is a quite
a unique portrayal of a dog, the cannot be classified in the binary terms used before, there are conflicting feelings expressed. On a similar line, Fukase’s famous book Ravens (1975), is a collection of photos of ravens but it transcends the scientific or the spectacular and becomes a more layered image.



Jacques Lacan understood that Nature ‘challenges precisely not the human world but the humanist frame of nature’ (cited in Ramos, F., 2016, pp94-95). However, it has been shown difficult to photograph a non-human being in a way that is not anthropocentric, specially considering that the medium is in itself by and for people. Taking the Japanese examples as reference, there are some contemporary projects that try to dive into these complexities. Ricardo Cases published Paloma al Aire (2011) as a look into the pigeon breeding culture in rural Spain, and the surreal yet emotional investment of humans with animals. Following the theme of bird photography, Stephen Gill’s last book The Pillar (2019) is about setting up a camera and letting ‘the birds made the work themselves’ (BJP, 2019). Gill’s work differs from other wildlife photography used with the same technique
in its selection, the birds are not gazing the lens most of the time, and are often captured in odd poses. These works are an example of the different treatment animals are getting in photography, and its importance resides on not trying to show animals just as a vessel for our own ideas, but letting their performance be interpretable in as many ways as photographs can be read.


It is been shown that Michael Foucault’s analysis in the shift of natural knowledge, in other ways, the shift from objectification to the spectacle, helps as a way of classifying how animals are portrayed through photography. The medium’s objective/subjective nature has allowed for a discreetly anthropocentric representation of the natural world under the guise of scientific objectivism. Whether it was during imperialism under the empiricism of colonial science, or through the more current spectacular narrative lead documentary approach, both have been shown to be sometimes more about humans than animals. Terms like the sublime and other parallels with landscape painting have been useful to explain other ways nature is represented to the viewer, and how technical aspects help to reinforce the centrality of the spectator. All of these elements get together and create a blind spot of what Seung-Hoon Jeong referred as the Real. However, there are several examples, specially in traditions like Shinto which encourage a less anthropocentric vision of the world, that show the possibility for alternative
representations. With growing issues of climate change and global crisis, it seems more important than ever to promote a sustainable vision of the world, one where animals are not seen as mere means to human ends.