An excellent photography show can be seen at Yossi Milo, 525 West 25th St. until September 14th. Alessandra Sanguinetti’s work shows the potential for photography to transcend mere description. And she does this with images of farm animals.
Documentary photography can show us subjects we don’t have the chance to see with our own eyes. Far flung and unknown scenes have always been one of the subjects of photography. At its beginning photographers, accompanying explorers, brought back images of the strange and fantastic, whether it be the ruins of ancient civilizations or the untouched natural world. In the 19th Century, photography and exploration were very similar pursuits, practiced by a hearty and determined few.
In time, the practice of photography became an independent exploratory activity driven by the interests and curiosities of the photographer. In the 20th century viewers were fascinated by photographs of the exotic, for example, bygone Paris, rural americana, and drug abusing teenagers. With the cumbersome nature of the picture taking apparatus and uneven results, early photography required a technical ability and fortitude few had.
Today, it’s relatively easy to visit remote parts of our world. Tourists flock regularly to Antarctica or even Mt Everest. Along with the evolution of photographic technology almost anyone can take a picture almost anywhere. As a result of this ease, there are many photographs which faithfully capture the sights.
In the past few years, extraordinary disasters such as Katrina or the World Trade Center disaster have yielded prodigious amounts of photo documentation. In “Here’s New York” – a compilation of thousands of images of the WTC disaster – most pictures were searingly powerful. Yet these images had a sameness to them. The power and interest of the images was from what was described rather than any particular sensitivities for the subject. Whether crudely made or possessing subtlety and insights, a photograph depicting dramatic or unfamiliar subjects can astound and fascinate.
Many galleries are now presenting photographs that have documented an aspect of this world. Viewers are shown what a subject would look like if they too were able to be a witness. But it is a rare photographer who brings insights into the subject that they choose to study. Most often, documentary photographs are simply descriptive images, lacking in any distinguishing viewpoint.
Alessandra Sanguinetti’s images of farm life show a unique vision of this world encompassing both beauty and catastrophe.
Holding her camera at close range and at the height of the particular animal in the photographs, Sangunetti’s images are intensely vivid. By no means bucolic, the images depict the filth, violence, and death that can be found on a farm. Many of the images also evoke a pathos for the animals. The images portray an intelligence in the expressions of those animals photographed alive. In one photograph, two chickens are poised to peck at a tiny animal fetus in the grass. Perhaps a moment after the exposure, they mercilessly consumed the carcass, but from the photograph one might imagine that the chickens felt an empathetic sadness for the dead thing.
To look at Sanguinetti’s photographs makes us transfer our emotions to the animals, and we feel the expression of emotion from these images.
Another print depicts two lambs roped together by the neck as they stagger in opposite directions. The camera point of view is low, showing one lamb wearing what looks like an S&M hooded head mask with no eye holes. The struggle of the two animals as they lurch obstinently towards their chosen directions evokes our human condition: yoked together must we always try to go our own way?
In another image a cow’s eye can be seen peering above a fence. The composition is rigorously formal. At the bottom of the frame, a band of the wood fence can be seen, above that a bit of the cow’s nose, an eye, the ears, and then above the fence three dome like shapes of tree tops. And finally the blue sky. The cow’s eye catches ours and empathically engages Never have animals seemed so alive with emotion and intelligence.
There are 18 works in this show and most reveal a distinctive and insightful vision. For urban dwellers who might not visit farms, the images show us what we have never seen. But it’s unlikely the people who own the farms have ever seen their animals in this way either.
Sanguinetti, exploring what could have been familiar territory, has created a view of the farm which looks completely new and fresh. Sometimes exploration need not be done in far flung corners of the world. There are some who, through the exploration of the close by and familiar, will discover something quite astonishing.