Pet Photo Booth - reviewed
Pet Photo Booth
Photography Gallery, Pah Homestead
February 12 - March 31 2019
Reviewed by Nina Seja for PhotoForum
The subject matter is risky: it could easily be considered trite, cliché, or schmaltzy. Before viewing, Justin Spiers’ Pet Photo Booth conjures up both the cascading availability of pet photographs online, and the photo booth prop that accompanies moments of frivolity at events like weddings. After viewing, it is another matter entirely. How wonderfully restorative to see Pet Photo Booth – a reminder of the symbiotic bonds with our animal friends in such trying times.
As climate change and the sixth mass extinction become daily news items, there has never been a time when both philosophical and pragmatic questions about our relationship with the natural environment and biodiversity have been so present. Can these musings be extended to our domestic sphere? What indeed is the separation between we humans and our animal familiars?
Spiers takes this to a contemplative place in Pet Photo Booth. The project travels (thus far in both in Australia and New Zealand) as a carnivalesque opportunity to both show previous photographs from pet sittings and to capture new subjects, animal and human. Spiers and Yvonne Doherty developed the project approximately ten years ago, with Spiers running all outings for the previous five years. Spiers still considers it a collaborative project, however. Pet Photo Booth has appeared at dog shows and cat shows, no doubt gathering up pet fiends. The Pah Homestead exhibition consists of Spiers’ photographs taken on the Otago Peninsula during a Caselberg Trust and Creative New Zealand supported residency.
The genesis of Pet Photo Booth was Doherty wanting to capture her poodle in his younger years, which was not possible. Thus, Doherty reformulated this to help others before their pets declined. Posed in front of artificial landscape backdrops, which provide an otherworldly tone, the attachment and sense of trust between human and animal is obvious, and moving. What’s fantastic is the diversity of pets: bunnies, dogs, cats, rats, goats. The companions we seek are unique and valued in Spiers’ world.
This is apparent in Alice, Lulu, Hades and Zeus (2018), a pastoral scene of a mother, her infant, and two goats. The two goats gather closely to mother and child, with one on the bench, hoof dangling. It calls up a Biblical Mary and baby Jesus scene, though in this case the holy mother wears Doc Martens. There’s a gentleness emanating from the goats, and protectiveness, as they watch over the child. The dark lighting brings the whiteness of the goats to the fore, highlighting their tufts of fur. As in the other photographs, an underlying feature is the animals’ names, which says much about the relationship people have to their pets, and to the poetic and sometimes humorous inclinations of the humans. It’s an attempt to imbue or acknowledge the individual personality of their domestic companions, to provide backstories or create myths
Rachel and Elmo (2018) most powerfully calls up the mythical. A large hound is draped over Rachel’s shoulders. Her head emerges from his fur, which is dense and black. A large shaggy tail has an abundance of dog hair furling downward. Their eyes pull out of the darkness. The studio backdrop of a forest of autumnal trees adds to this fairy tale-esque quality. We have stories of anthropomorphic man-beasts: centaurs, fauns, werewolves, and more – figures often aligned to the mysterious, uncontrollable qualities of nature. Rachel and Elmo, out of all images in the show, most explicitly points to the symbiotic relationship pets and their guardians have.
Do pets look like their humans? Such a question often leads to hilarity, with no end of websites showing frizzy Poodles matched with bouffant-coiffed ladies. But Julia and Larry (2018) is a more poignant answer. A girl holds a dwarf rabbit scooped under her arm. Both of them gaze at the photographer, their eyes curious, watchful, and bright. They are protective of each other. No doubt, as soon as the photographer is done with tasking the duo to be still, they’d leap off out of frame, boundless, youthful, and carefree.
There are the traditional pets as well, such as Judy and Kaz (2018), with an elegant fluff ball posed in a dapper manner. Cat-mother is intertwined with Kaz; they’re both clearly comfortable with each other – allies in the world. A similar sense of familiarity is present in Lisandru, Olivia, Jean Luc and Bubble (2018). Two women each wear flower print clothing, literally immersed in the natural environment. They stand in front of the backdrop of a woodland scene, their expressions one of serious consideration. It is like those studio portraits of yore, when subjects knew what a special occasion it was to capture one’s likeness. In this age of the disposability of selfies en masse, the professional family portrait is exceptional. The women each hold a large rat. One rat nestles closely into its human. It’s a lovely reminder that the pets we choose (or who choose us) are as unique as our family configurations, and that sometimes animals negatively perceived are well loved. It reminds me of a recently published story. A large rat had found itself stuck in a manhole in Germany. A rescue team of eight freed the rat, chubby from winter weight, and released it free into the wild. Rescuer Michael Sehr said, “Even animals that are hated by many people deserve respect.”[i]
Jeremy Yunt has argued that it is critical to expand our “ethical circle” to encompass the natural environment and nonhuman beings. Drawing on the words of Albert Schweitzer, this is “an ethic that can be summed up in three words: ‘reverence for life.’”[ii] Growing empathy towards nonhuman creatures greatly elevates our moral horizons, benefitting all parties. While Spiers’ Pet Photo Booth is not an academic project, in the traditional sense of the word, it is an excellent step towards uplifting the care and nurture of the animals we share our lives with. The photographic style of the images – grounded in the formality of studio portraiture, tinged with the kitsch of a touring sideshow – offers a gateway through which to reflect on these weighty matters.
Nina Seja is a writer, academic, and curator. She received her PhD from New York University and wrote the landmark book PhotoForum at 40: Counterculture, Clusters, and Debate in New Zealand (Rim Books, 2014).
[i] Michael Sehr, qtd. Fat Rat Stuck in Manhole Rescued by Firefighters in Germany, The Guardian, February 27, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/27/fat-rat-stuck-in-manhole-rescued-by-firefighters-in-germany.
[ii] Jeremy Yunt, Suffering, Empathy, and Ecstasy: Animal Liberation as the Furthest Reaches of Our Moral Evolution, 2018, https://www.academia.edu/37564890/_Suffering_Empathy_and_Ecstasy_Animal_Liberation_as_the_Furthest_Reaches_of_our_Moral_Evolution_2018_?fbclid=IwAR3dCi_FfHm24y2Yh876d26V4A5XQw8BKEwmGXz2zmd0KkP2l0VQ9Mi-DYM.