Friday, November 30, 2007

The Hyena & Other Men by Pieter Hugo

Last night I bought a book on an impulse that I feared would lead to a shameful one night stand. It was a situation where there is an opening for the artist, the gallery has the new book for sale and they are already signed… OK here is my credit card.

Pieter Hugo’s The Hyena & Other Men published by Prestel is a book that I was keeping an eye out for even though the images I had seen previously left me wondering if they were mostly all content and little or no interesting form.

Frankly, most all of Pieter’s work that I have seen seems so dependent on visual slaps across the face from the content with his photos of hyenas, albino Africans, people with eyesight problems that render them somewhat disturbing to look upon. To sum up, this type of work represents just about all that I dislike about contemporary trends in photography. Subject matter that pounds you over the head while it is described in the most photographically dull way and poorly edited so that all of the weak pictures are miraculously made necessary just because they are part of a series. Add in some seductive light and color palate to distract you from the repetition and you’re done. If I were to pick the best three images in this book then they would trump ALL of the other thirty.

So why did I buy this book? Or rather more importantly, why do I keep looking at it as much as I have in the past 24 hours?

What we have here are thirty-three portraits of African men from Nigeria who catch hyenas, monkeys and rock pythons use them in street performances for money. The photographs do not show the performers performing but posing with their animals. The palate of color is drained, leaving everything in chalky gray and light earth tones punctuated by stark reds found in various clothing.

When Hugo frames his subjects, the images are very center heavy. The men all hold chains that act as leases for the muzzled hyenas or tranquil looking monkeys and they pose with expressions that read as tough guy persona tinged with slight boredom. The form, if you pay attention to the basic arrangement of the elements, is the same picture being made over and over again.

So why have I been seduced?

Like a movie you dislike but can’t stop watching because you love a character, this book casts a kind of spell due to the hyenas and monkeys (the one rock python pictured I couldn’t care less about). The hyenas are monstrous yet lovable bad-asses. Their bodies seem swollen with inert power that is barely contained by the woven muzzles and thick links of chain. In fact, if I were to identify what is striking about the photos, it would have something to do with power. Both on the owner/wrangler’s part and the hyenas.

While the hyenas are exciting to look at in an alien and threatening way, the monkeys do what monkeys do best in photographs, look human. They stare into the camera with as much knowledge of photography and ‘how to pose’ as their wranglers. Thankfully, they also provide some of the small pleasures found in these photos through slight gesture that save the images after the initial interest has started to wane. In one image, a monkey delicately tugs at the sleeve of his owner while they sit posing on a motorbike. In another two monkeys sit atop stumps of concrete near a wall seemingly engaged in a conversation while the owner/wrangler stands off to the side staring at the camera. (All that is interesting is happening on the left side of the frame…why I ask, is the owner’s dull presence even necessary? Again, let’s break the mold and make a different kind of picture. Why not? Just for shits and giggles.)

So…why after all of my criticisms do I like this book? It is cleanly designed and has two interesting and well written texts but that isn't enough. The reproductions are great but that is also not enough. I guess it is because sometimes three or four fine pictures are enough to camouflage. The rest disappointingly pale in comparison but I will take the good with the bad and be happy with them. Three or four are hard enough to find after all.

Yet, that is basically the photographer’s dilemma. One can find a subject, but how do you make it more interesting than what was photographed. I just wish Hugo had made risk part of his equation.

There are more ways than one to make a picture.


Philip said...

I wonder if the novelty tendency of the general public and the media is to blame here, after all, Hugo has many other 'slow' but revealing series. It seems the Western audience has picked this one up and he is just following the wind?

Philip said...

Monkeys, yes, but these ones more specifically and generally known as baboons

Jeff Ladd said...


Not to be cynical (OK I will be for a moment) but from what I have seen of his work, these may the most marketable/sellable of his images. The disturbing shock of his people with albinism series I would imagine would have a lighter buying audience.

Thanks for the baboon clarification.

narikin said...

"its the monkey that makes it interesting"


narikin said...

actually that's the later catchy paraphrase, in one interview what he said which was:

"Basically, I mean, ah-well, let's say that for me anyway when a photograph is interesting, it's interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states - which has to do with the... contest between content and form. And, you know, in terms of content, you can make a problem for yourself, I mean, make the contest difficult, let's say, with certain subject matter that is inherently dramatic. An injury could be, a dwarf can be, a monkey - if you run into a monkey in some idiot context, automatically you've got a very real problem taking place int he photograph. I mean, how do you beat it?"

interview with Dennis Longwell, RIT, 1970.

Merritt said...

You've highlighted an interesting point in photography: it's just as crucial what you photograph as how you photograph it. For me too these images are compelling (you picked your favorites?)just because Hugo saw, and I'm sure felt, this amazing relationship between handlers and their animals. His method of photographing them is extremely simple, but the fact is that his images are compelling because his images present that relationship so clearly without artifice, and you find yourself almost obsessed with them despite your mind telling you you shouldn't be drawn to them as strongly as you are. Parenthetically, Alec Soth, who is obviously a talented and intelligent photographer has a problem choosing interesting subjects. Aside from 2 or 3 images, his photographs, at least for me, have nowhere near the ability to grab me the way Hugo's images manage to do despite the fact that Hugo might not be as talented as Soth.

dR said...

I started to read, feeling that I would vehemently disagree but alas, you speak at least partial truth.

Your quote:

"I guess it is because sometimes three or four fine pictures are enough to camouflage. The rest disappointingly pale in comparison but I will take the good with the bad and be happy with them. Three or four are hard enough to find after all."

As you say and aside from the obvious spectacle of man/hyena, there really are just a few VERY strong images (I have seen most online)... but to me, many of the others are still strong. To make the series and book great, something else perhaps needed to be mixed in... a hyena alone but with chains surrounded by a crowd in the back, as if on a stage in a Roman Colusseum as a animal circus freak, etc. then perhaps, it could be great.

One of the great strengths of a strong photographer is his ability to edit and "choose", avoid temptation to show all, even if you desire to do so. Perhaps Pieter still lacks in this area...

Still... I like the series alot, even with the repetition.

I do agree, Pieter's albino and eyesight portraits, very much repetition... I don't like that part of his work because of this total monontony in his vision.


Don said...

I like the work as well but it's for a very simple reason and that is the content. I don't know of these street performers and to see what they're like is fascinating. Hyenas for goodness sake! As performing pets?! I find it astonishing. And the men all seem to be wearing similar outfits: this (to my eyes) odd combination of kilt, western t-shirts and street jewelry. It's sort of like a National Geo story done by Ricky Jay. I find it riveting. Hyenas!

Sometimes I like to be reminded that my interest in photography started as the simple joy of looking at things.

A. Nahnimus said...

Your comments on why you don't like this sort of contemporary work - that it is center-weighted, uses seductive light and color, that the subject matter is striking and then rendered in a photographically dull way - could easily be applied to the work of Alec Soth and his new book which you reviewed so positively.

In Hugo's case, however, at least the subject matter actually IS dramatic enough and odd enough to deserve the treatment he has given it.

Jeff Ladd said...

A. Nahnimus,
Thanks for the comment.

I actually think most of Alec's subjects are rather bland to begin with but the way he photographs them makes them more interesting. Hugo for me starts with something dramatic and interesting and then drops the ball with the photos. That is not the same thing. When I look through Alec's book I don't feel like I am redundantly looking at the same photo over and over again.

My point about contemporary photography is that I am interested in how photographers tackle making different photographs while dealing within the same subject. Many current artists hide their formulaic images behind the facade of it being "in a series". For me, each photo must be crafted in its own unique way. As the variables change, so does the making of the photo. I do not like seeing the same picture being made time and time again with just a cast change. That bores me. But then again, looking at what is featured in most galleries now-a-days, it sure excites the hell out of others. So I guess that makes me a dinosaur.

A. Nahnimus said...

well... nothing wrong with dinosaurs.

A. Nahnimus said...

... and you must not like the Bechers much.

Jeff Ladd said...

You have me there with possible hypocrisy.

I love the Bechers.

That being said, I almost never pull those books off my shelf and over the course of looking at one I do start to turn the pages faster towards the end. It is so conceptually worked, I almost don't see it as photography.

They chose with such obvious purpose and intent to exactly repeat the same image and approach for each architectural form down to the similarity in light, perspective, vantage point, it is almost to the point of obsessive madness. In some ways, it is that precise skill in maintaining all of those factors that made them outstanding photographers. I wouldn't expect anything else from them and in fact, after a while (over the course of a book), that is what leaves me less excited by their work.

It is also notable that they saw something in their seemingly simple approach that actually challenged photography at the time. That is something about them that interests me a lot too.

Stan B. said...

Sometimes I think it's best to photograph dramatic content matter in a more deadpan manner, just to avoid overkill.

For the record, I (and maybe most people?) liked the Bechers' Water Towers the most simply because it added some sex appeal with all the curves.

Martina said...

I enjoyed your review. I am new to Pieter Hugo. As a physician and lover of photography, I found his Looking Aside series riveting. Because it's great art? or because it's shocking?

I don't know, but I'm coming back for more.

And those hyenas!

There is something thrilling about his work.