On the surface, the works in Elegy: Deborah Samuel appear to reveal a strictly naturalist approach to representing biological remains. However, these striking images of animal skeletons, ten of which are ROM specimens, tell stories that go beyond basic scientific documentation. After establishing a career in commercial photography, Deborah now focuses exclusively on her own photographic projects. Currently her work reflects her roots as an animal activist along with an enduring passion for the natural world. As the unveiling of Elegy approaches, we asked Deborah to speak about the origins of her project, the role of new technologies in photography, and how she hopes Elegy will impact viewers.
Meet Deborah Samuel at her illustrated talk about this project and other works on Thursday, April 12.
Could you tell us about the significance of animals to you, and how that led to the creation of Elegy?
Animals have always played a very important part in my life. I initially started Elegy using birds because of the Gulf [of Mexico] oil spill. I was horrified by that ecologically, for wildlife, for the planet, for humanity, for everybody. I wanted to go to Louisiana to photograph the oiled birds, because to me it was iconic, these images of this destruction, and I could not get in. The government and BP were not allowing people to photograph these birds. So I ended up going to what would have been the final chapter, which was working with bird skeletons, and then I became really fascinated with anatomy.
I think, too, because of my relationship with animals, I started to really question and think about how animals are in the wild, what relationships they have, how they were disturbed, how they stay together, and how they look after each other. I became really fascinated with that aspect of emotion, of bond, relationship. Apart from that I had a number of deaths with several of my own animals, so the life/death divide was very prominent in my life.
You capture your images by placing physical specimens on a flatbed scanner. Have you found, over the last 10 years or so, people have become more comfortable with newer technology?
I think that people are embracing it now because we are losing Kodak, we are losing established photographic companies founded on the old model. Nikon doesn’t make film cameras anymore. This is a brave new world in this art form. Everything has a place and a time. If it’s the right subject matter, and the right concept in terms of how to talk about what it is you want to talk about, then however you choose to capture the image, it’s right. With Elegy, it felt right to use the flatbed scanner as my canvas to capture what I needed to say with the bones.
Embracing the concepts of change within photography is an important component of Elegy. It’s about: what is an image? What is a photograph? Basically, an image – a photograph as I would call it, because I do consider them to be photographs – is the medium that communicates, and it doesn’t matter how you get there.
What do you hope a visitor might take away from seeing Elegy?
I hope that viewers will have a changed perception of the natural world, of the beauty that’s really around us, of the life that surrounds us that equally has its place in our natural world of order, that it’s not just about humanity, it’s about everything. It’s about respecting the natural chain of how we all work and how we’re all interconnected. I also think that because Elegy offers such a different take on the use of skeletons, in a way it will be a relief. There is actually a story going on emotionally with the work.
Elegy is co-presented by the Life in Crisis: Schad Gallery of Biodiversity and the Institute for Contemporary Culture, and will be a feature exhibition of the 2012 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.