28 June 2012
Uncannily like a bear
The VisitorsBy Charlotte Cory<br>Dewi Lewis Publishing, £14.99<br>
The writer Charlotte Cory concludes the short introduction to her book by posing the question: can this photographic image be me? Of course the question ‘what is photography?’ has preoccupied countless commentators since the first daguerreotype portraits were greeted, in the early 1840s, with a mixture of fascination (due to their fidelity) and horror (derived from ‘primitive’ fears of spirit stealing). In the 1980s Roland Barthes controversially took up the theme of superstition and illusion, inviting us to view the portrait as an uncanny harbinger of death – a literal trace of its sitter, fixed forever by the action of light on sensitised paper. In collaging photographs of people and photographs of the heads of stuffed animals, Cory slyly compares photography to taxidermy and (in a nod to Barthes) alludes to the pact that both seem to have with death and embalming. She pens a touching recollection of a visit to the stuffed polar bear at an exhibition in Tring. ‘The polar bear at Tring, Ah yes the polar bear. Each time I see him I am older. He is still the same.’
Not surprisingly, Cory’s skill is literary (her technique is not explained but these montages may be composed digitally) and is constituted in the wit with which she matches animal and human. Disturbingly, perhaps, animal faces seem to take on a ‘feminine’ quality when fixed to female figures while the effect on the men is to make them caricatures of ‘bulldog’ Victorian patriarchs. Precedents for Cory’s work can be found in the history of satire and include J. I. I. G. Grandville’s memorable engravings from the mid-nineteenth century, which use animals as the basis of human caricatures. Similarly, Stefan Lorant’s photo-juxtapositions for the 1930s magazine Lilliput combine portraits of politicians with portraits of animals that uncannily resemble them (see Eye no. 51 vol. 13). Like Lorant, Cory can sometimes make good use of a spread: on a right-hand page a figure with a dog’s face is seen to be painting a bird-headed figure that is illustrated on the left-hand page – to some comic effect.
In the end though there are only so many gags (too many images seek to exploit the old adage about owners and their dogs) and this makes the book feel repetitive. Much of the pleasure of Cory’s best collages is derived from their rich intertextuality (for instance there are plenty of allusions to ‘stuffing’ here with stuffed heads on the stuffed shirts of anonymous Victorians that have, themselves, been photographically ‘stuffed’). It is a beautifully produced book that will make a popular gift.