Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Joel Sternfeld, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, 1982.

I first saw this photograph in 1992 while flipping through one of those ubiquitous "History of Photography" books at the Emily Carr reference library. I was searching for photographs by artists I then associated with serious photography (Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Cartier-Bresson) and so would have skipped over most of the colour work. "Colour" according to Walker Evans, was "vulgar."

But something in this image made me stop and look. The set up is obvious enough, an elephant has broken loose from the zoo? circus? (it could only be one of the two) and has collapsed in exhaustion on a quiet rural road, where it has been surrounded by police, onlookers and a representative from the zoo/circus who is hosing it down with water. A standard surrealist scene, all too common in american photography from the 1970's. But why does the composition seem so plain? And why has the photographer not gotten closer? Why are we so removed from the action? All the photographers I knew would have been right in there, capturing the expressions on the onlookers faces, the splash of water on hot pavement, the general 'pathos' of it all. Instead, Sternfeld presents the scene from a distance, and quite a distance at that. It is probably 100 yards to the elephant itself, and 50 to the nearest human player in the scene - the sheriff in his car. Sternfeld has also climbed some sort of hill or embankment to remove himself even further from the scene, giving us a semi-aerial view of what is transpiring on the road. And what exactly is transpiring?

A large semi truck, strangely equivalent in tonality and colour to the elephant, has been placed directly behind it (to block its escape? To transport it back to captivity? Probably the latter, but we don't know for certain.) Formally, the semi reads as a flat, monolithic slab hovering over and behind the animal, a wall that it cannot penetrate. It eliminates the upper portion of road from consideration by the viewer, and hangs over the elephant like a guillotine. (This may seem like an extreme reading, but imagine the photograph without the semi, and notice how the space opens up to a shocking extent, in a sense 'freeing' the elephant and altering our interpretation of the scene.)

The elephant is also flanked by a variety of human onlookers whose reactions to it's predicament read in sharp contrast to each other. The family peering cautiously from their driveway seem to percieve it as a threat, the man with the hose is providing physical relief to it in the form of water, the teenagers on the bank are amused by it, and the sheriff? We can't say. All that shows of him is his pant leg, stretched casually out in his cruiser as if he were taking a nap. There is a silent, unsettling authority to the form of this man and his cruiser, sitting comfortably at the bottom right of the image. A final blockade against any ideas the viewer might have of further action about to take place. The action is over.

It's over because the animal is exhausted. Sternfeld has tipped us to this in the title. He has also chosen to expose his negative at a moment of intense degradation for the animal, a moment of physical contortion and defeat that feels like exhaustion. On it's knees, on hot concrete, surrounded by human beings and vehicles and police radios, the animal is as far from it's natural environment as an animal can be. We don't know how far it has travelled since it's escape, or even from which direction it came. All we know is that it will go no further, the game is up. Escaped into a world it has no understanding of, no recollection of, no connection to, what else can it do but admit defeat? It must accept the meaning that this alien culture has given it, which is that of entertainment and spectacle. No matter where it runs, the same shocked/frightened/amused faces will be there to greet it. It creates the circus that surrounds it simply by existing.

My interpretations of what is happening in this photograph (and the meanings I derive from it), are a direct result of Sternfelds placement and framing of the scene. Taken any closer to the action, and the larger meaning of what is happening would be lost, any further away and the ability to feel empathy for the animal would be muted. This is what is sometimes called the "house of cards" theory of art, where the displacement or removal of even the tiniest element in a scene will cause the whole structure to collapse like a house of cards. The dirt road in the lower left of the image leads our eye over to the cruiser, which points us towards the elephant. The telephone line in the upper left points us to the elephant again. There is even a tree on the right bank of the road whose branches form a diagonal line pointing directly down at the elephant. The semi, the cruiser, the onlookers are all elements working in conjunction with each other to get our eye back to that animal, and in that regard are irreplacable.

A black and white image of this same scene, shot in close with a wide angle lens so as to maximize the heady surrealism of the animal on the pavement, would not convey the same density of information or scope of meaning. It would be equivalent to a sentence's worth of information. Sternfeld has given us a paragraph instead, and I think, a deeply moving one.

Note: Despite all this, I've yet to read a description of this photograph that doesn't applaud Sternfeld for his "witty" or "humorously ironic" take on the scene, so maybe I'm just crazy. Write me and tell me what you think. Is this a funny picture for you?
(Apologies for the terrible reproduction of the image. It was the best I could find on the web. Sternfelds book "American Prospects" is available at most public libraries if you want to see a large, accurate reproduction of this image. I highly recommend it.)