For the past two years Brad Isaacs has been conducting photo based research into the holdings of some of North America’s most esteemed museums of natural history including the Royal Ontario Museum, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Field Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History.
The photographs in STILL LIFE, Brad Isaacs’ new exhibition for The Latcham gallery build on previous work of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto where the artist photographed the natural history dioramas of Carl Akeley in the American Museum of Natural History. These photos from the 1970’s served as one of the first critiques into the way that western societies have reduced the animal kingdom to an image – or to a series of images through the conventions of wildlife photography and the natural history museum diorama. Isaacs believes that Sugimoto’s photographs subvert the diorama’s rhetoric and disrupt the ‘authority’ that they represent and in the process also devalue the documentary capacity of the photographic image by collapsing the distinction between what is fake and what is real.
Isaacs also draws parallels between the early development of photographic and taxidermy technologies and the way that one fed off the other in the 19th century. In the early days of both disciplines photographers would bring taxidermied animals out into wild settings to photograph them because it was impossible to capture live animals in the wild due to the need for such long exposures. Just as photographers drew on the taxidermist skill to provide them with a subject, so too did the taxidermist draw on the photographer to provide them with a realistic model for their displays and eventually for their dioramas.
As photography developed and allowed for the photographic capture of the wild, ‘camera hunting’ became another way in which men would assert their masculinity ‘out in the wild’. These early wildlife photos did not function the way we understand wildlife photography today according to Isaacs but functioned more as a trophy than as a document of behaviour or physiology.
Our relationships to the animal kingdom are largely mediated by the representations we create of that world. Isaacs believes that photographic images of animals (and by extension the natural history museum diorama) impose an influence that permeates all aspects of our contemporary relationship to nature by sustaining the ideals embedded in the political and cultural discourses surrounding 19th century western hunting practices.(1) Isaacs sees this influence permeating the way animal research itself is practiced upholding the idea that the human world and the natural world are necessarily separate enabling the objectification of nature as other. Isaacs cites John Berger in his essay Why Look at Animals to illustrate how the erasure of human presence in these representations of the world of animals gives us a privileged viewpoint that would never be possible in the real world. This separation results in a situation where according to Berger, we can no longer really be in nature and now use the photographic image as a compensatory substitute.(2)
Taken together these works point to a disconnect presently embodied in western societies in regard to their relationship with the natural world and at the same time open up the possibility of new ways of approaching that relationship.
(1) Brad Isaacs, Double Negative: Taxidermy, Photography and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Dioramas” 2012 p3
(2) Brad Isaacs, Double Negative… p13
Brad Isaacs holds a BFA from McMaster University and an MFA from Western University in London ON. He has exhibited extensively in southern Ontario, with previous exhibitions at the MacIntosh Gallery and ArtLab Gallery in London, Hamilton Artist Inc. and the Print Studio in Hamilton, and the Art Gallery of Peel in Brampton. Isaacs has also curated projects for the Grimsby Art Gallery and the Burlington Art Centre.