More Than Human

Published: October 12, 2012

Tim Flach’s new book of animal photography is astonishing in its beauty, but raises troubling questions.

More Than Human, Tim Flach’s new book of animal photographs, is an astonishing collection. A few images are recycled from his previous books, Equus (2008) and Dogs (2010), but these photographs cover a wider variety of species. Flach’s skills, developed in fine art and commercial photography, are impressive: These pictures are technically-proficient and jaw-droppingly beautiful, allowing us to see every hair on a panda’s chin, the iridescent glow of a butterfly pupa, the detailed wing structure of a bat in flight. In many cases, Flach’s use of lighting and camera technology gives us a more precise and vivid view of other animals than we would normally see. Flach’s stated intention is to provide viewers with a sense of wonder at the variety and complexity of the natural world, and he achieves that with these impressive and beautiful images.

Beyond that sense of wonder, however, troubling questions arise.

Flach suggests that these photographs can illuminate our relationships with other animals.  Yet, as Susan Sontag argued in Regarding the Pain of Others, photographs do not supply evidence, except to those already committed to certain positions, but are instead open to multiple, even opposing, interpretations. In her view, photographs are indeterminate: “all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.” In his brief introduction, Flach not only acknowledges the ambiguity of his photographs, but also says he wants to present his work in a neutral way, although it is unclear why one would not want to take a position on issues raised by these photographs, such as biodiversity loss, global warming, genetic manipulation, captivity, and the global wildlife trade.

The book’s text is written by Lewis Blackwell, formerly an editor at Getty Images and Creative Review magazine. Blackwell is remarkably uncritical, repeatedly reminding readers that Flach’s images have “no overt messages” and that they are “not a manifesto.” This determination not to take a stand, not to be perceived as political, is curious and, of course, misleading. Blackwell reinforces the status quo concerning our use of other animals. He uses the term “it” to refer to animals, relegating them to the status of objects. He is skeptical about anthropogenic threats to wildlife, stating that polar bears have been “appropriated by conservation and climate change causes,” and questions the research of Charles Monnette, noting that Monnette was suspended because of “integrity issues” with his research. (Monnette has since been cleared of all charges).

Blackwell raises no criticisms about use of animals as food, intensive breeding for aesthetic or utilitarian ends, or more recent forms of genetic manipulation, despite the negative consequences of these things for animals. For example, he presents the creation of  “spider goats” (transgenic goats modified to produce spider silk in their milk) as a scientific marvel, with no discussion of ethical objections, even though groups such as the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) criticize genetic manipulation of other animals. The CBAN described the display of transgenic goats at the Canada Agriculture Museum as “leftovers from a failed business venture … being used to promote genetic engineering,” and noted the record of deaths and abnormalities in animals used in these experiments, as well as raising concerns about risks of other bacteria and gene sequences that may be transferred.

There are also questions about the production of the book itself. Many animals depicted are inmates of zoos, and others are supplied by companies that rent animals for photo shoots, such as Hollywood Animals or The Institute of Greatly Endangered Species (TIGERS) in Florida. Flach thanks “Doc” Antle of TIGERS for his support, but fails to mention Antle’s long record of charges concerning animal abuse, inadequate housing, improper handling and transport, safety violations, and deliberate breeding of hybrid animals not found in nature. Antle rents out animals for commercials, shopping-mall photo shoots, and casino performances, and questions have been asked about the fate of the large number of big cats bred at his operations, with suggestions that some are slaughtered for traditional Chinese medicines or sold to other private owners.

More Than Human is a striking collection of photographs that will impress every viewer, but it could have been a much braver, more critical, and more important book.