The Animals books have a beautiful simplicity, their very ordinariness invoking your own experience with animals, shaking the cobwebs from the memory of your own surprise encounter.
Pittsburgh photographer Ed Panar used Instagram to announce the sequel to his modest self-explanatory book Animals That Saw Me, released in 2011. Though his project consists of still photos, he posted a brief video of a cat behind a screened-in window. The cat turns to the photographer long enough to register his existence, then quickly turns away. While this promotional fragment expands the concept to the moving image, Animals that Saw Me 2 offers more of what made the first volume so dryly hilarious and unsentimental.
Like the first book in the series, these aren’t cute pet photos but animals in various situations that momentarily caught Panar’s eye. As is our human wont to anthropomorphize any creatures with two eyes to (presumably) see us, it’s easy to read pet photos as examples of loyalty and affection. Not so these animals; these strange unloving eyes seem to reveal a general suspicion, hostility and indifference.
The photos were taken between 1994 and 2016 in places around the United States and Iceland, but are composed in a way that seem like a generic Anywhere, USA. A feline eye peers alarmingly through the corner of a window. Another cat appears with its face visibly only from the eyes up, as if keeping vigil against invaders. A deer stops in the woods behind a tree, perhaps triggering in the photographer an echo of Gerhard Richter’s series of deer paintings.
Panar’s Instagram video is typical of his somewhat reactionary aesthetic. His deadpan approach to the popular photo sharing app runs counter to the bustle of activity and heightened emotions that characterize social media. This visual detachment runs throughout many of the excellent photobooks published by Los Angeles based The Ice Plant and can be traced back to the pioneering color photography of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in the ‘70s. Like Panar, these were photographers that found beauty in the seemingly mundane and ordinary.
The Animals project came about from what Panar told an interviewer was, “a pile of recurring pictures I had of surprise encounters with animals.” Anyone who loves animals and has a smartphone likely has such a cache of strange animals in their image library. But Panar has a distinct eye, and in photobook form, a dry comic timing. The photographer keeps his distance from the animal physically and aesthetically, and the images are unified as a body of work not just by their subject but by a recognizable visual sense.
While the first book in the series did not include explanatory text, 2 features a thoughtful but perhaps unnecessary essay by Timothy Morton that addresses concern about man’s disastrous impact on nature and our tendency to project emotion on furry familiars. The text threatens to give the project an air of something that takes itself too seriously. But one look at any of the animals in either volume tells you all you need to know: these animals don’t care about your exegesis.
The Animals books have a beautiful simplicity, their very ordinariness invoking your own experience with animals, shaking the cobwebs from the memory of your own surprise encounter. Even the book design conveys this, the volumes bound in a lightweight canvas that makes these more durable than that commemorative issue of Cat Fancy but not too durable. Animal lovers will coo and laugh at these big cold eyes and would happily shell out for a third volume if it ever comes to that.