Entangled environments: diorama, photography, and the staging of natural surroundings
In February 1909 the ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, then curator at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote of his recently arranged habitat dioramas that “one seems to be looking through a window on nature itself”.1 While at first glance it may seem that he is referring to Alberti’s famous definition of the painting “as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen”,2 that is, as an imaginary surface giving access to a Active world,3 Chapman had something else in mind.
The frame of Chapman’s window circumscribes an extract of nature itself. His Cobb’s Island habitat diorama, one of the first in the US, offers mounted birds, their nests, and the reconstructed vegetation of the site, which blends into a painted background, creating the illusion of a natural landscape—one in which, as Chapman remarks, the birds “can be studied in relation to their actual environment” (Figure 8.1).4 In this sense, the diorama is a hybrid illusionistic display that combines photography’s capacity to frame reality and the ability of painting to render the mood, atmosphere, and color of the landscape.
The photographic effect of the diorama, however, is not only due to the presumption that this device frames a specific portion of reality; it stems also from the fact that Chapman made site-specific photographic studies before he arranged the diorama. In his book Bird Studies with a Camera (1903), Chapman declares bird photography to be a “fascinating and important branch of natural history” and specifies that photographing birds is not about representing the animals themselves but rather about “depicting the life histories of birds”, their “biographies” (Figure 8.2).5 Photographic series permit a truthful depiction of the bird’s natural surroundings, as well as its habits and developments, far better than drawings or words could. All may be “portrayed by the camera with a realism which convinces one of the truthfulness of the result”.6 This definition of the camera’s use corresponds exactly with Chapman’s description of his diorama habitat scenes, which, as he writes in a 1909 exhibition guide, “are designed to illustrate not only the habits but also the haunts or ‘habitats’ of the species shown”. It is not surprising then that Chapman used photographs to secure accurate data on the habitats and habits of the birds and to determine the specimens’ poses and to construct the arrangements in his dioramas.
Beyond their common use for scientific and educational purposes, Chapman put photography and his dioramas into the service of another, more political end. As a pioneer of the conservationist movement, his aim was to sensitize the public to the beauty of nature and so awaken a desire to preserve wildlife and protect endangered species. For him, the diorama was then not merely a museum display, with
Figure 8.1 Frank M. Chapman, Cobb’s Island Group, 1903. Habitat diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Courtesy American Museum of Natural History Library, New York.
116 BIRD STUDIES WITH A CAMERA
TWO DAYS WITH THE TERNS H?
Obviously the only manner in which photographs of the Terns on their nests could be secured was to conceal one’s camera near the nest and retire, with a tube or thread, to a distance of a hundred feet or more. A nest was therefore selected about halfway up the bank on the westerly side of the island, the camera staked to the ground with long iron pins, and completely covered with the dried seaweed abundant on the beach below. I then attached a
68. Ten» alighting on nest. Sonic ihw| No«. CM2.
alarm was replaced by a variety of culls, showing these birds to bo possessed of an unexpectedly extended vocabulary. One call was a chirp not unlike
it1. Tern on hilbHe nest
the White-throated Sparrow’s, a second might be written fue, tue, tue, and was uttered when one bird was in pursuit of another.
The seaweed not only concealed the camera perfectly, but was so abundant near the bird’s nest that the appearance of a fresh mound apparently did not even excite the. bird’s curiosity, and within twenty minutes it had returned to its eggs. It happened, however, that the nature of the site chosen induced the bird to face the water, and as the camera was above, and consequently behind it, the view presented «lid not show it to advantage, but after sev-
Figure 8.2 Frank M. Chapman, Bird Studies with a Camera, 1903, 116-117.
photography used as a means to enhance the illusionist effect of the represented scene. It had also an ecological and political purpose. I would thus argue that dioramas and photography have historically interacted on various levels with one another, as well as with other media, such as panorama, painting, taxidermie sculpture, and stereoscopy, in order to form a visual system of representation linked to a specific aesthetic and scientific but also a pedagogical eco-political understanding of, and approach to, nature in the nineteenth century.
Photographs of photographs
In her study on natural history museums during the German empire from 1871 to 1914, Susanne Kôstering stresses the close relationship between animal photography and the arrangement of mounted animals. As a prominent example, she mentions the Natural History Museum of Leipzig (Leipziger Naturkundliches Heimatmuseum), where a whole range of animals were mounted according to photographs reproduced in the “Meerwarth”, one of the most popular illustrated book series on animals in the beginning of the twentieth century. In some cases, the titles of the photographs were even cited on the labels accompanying the specimens.8
Aside from this practical aspect of photography, serving to help organize mounted animals, it has also been argued repeatedly that the very procedure of taxidermy—the art of preparing and mounting the skins of animals for lifelike display—is linked to photography in a quite particular way. Most prominently, Michelle Henning compares the method of taxidermy with Barthes’s considerations on photography.9 Covered with the skin of an individual animal, the taxidermie object indexes a singular existence. Like photography, Henning suggests, the taxidermie object is “unable to detach itself completely from its referent”.10 Both techniques, photography and taxidermy, represent a body pulled out of life.
Yet to become “embalmed time”, as André Bazin famously defined the photograph,11 the taxidermie object would also need to be displayed within an environmental setting that “captures a single moment in time”.12 In other words, this would be the diorama. As already discussed, both the diorama and the photograph constitute “frozen moments”. They are framed views on an immobile scene referring to the past. It is precisely this “photographic character” that has contributed recently to the attractiveness of the diorama for photographers. Hiroshi Sugimoto and Henning Bock may be cited as two examples among many. For Sugimoto, the encounter with dioramas at the Natural History Museum in New York was a crucial experience for him in understanding the complex relationship between reality and illusion within photography:
When I first arrived in New York in 1974,1 visited many of the city’s tourist sites, one of which was the American Museum of Natural History. I made a curious discovery while looking at the exhibition of animal dioramas: the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I had found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.13
In his work Hyena-Jackal-Vulture (1976), Sugimoto does not include the diorama’s display itself but imposes the photographic frame as the limits of the dioramic
Entangled environments 105 view (Figure 8.3). As Katharina Bantleon and Ulrich Tragatschnig suggest, the diorama’s illusion is intensified by the general belief in photography’s faculty for depicting reality.14 Henning Bock enhances this photo-realistic effect in Birds (Dioramen, New York City) (1997), which depicts the same diorama, by cutting off some animals at the edges of the photograph (Figure 8.4). Both photographers produce a double illusion of reality whereby the diorama’s representation of a “slice of the real world”15 becomes once more embalmed by the photograph. In this sense, they are “photographs of ‘photographs’”.16
Of course, there are also many differences between the diorama and photography, as Pat Morris remarks.17 Unlike photographs, dioramas are three-dimensional; they are unique, life-sized displays produced for a specific place, the museum; they contain real textures; and, finally, even if they pretend to represent a single moment in time, they are entirely constructed settings, typically showing various forms of animal behavior. However, it may have become apparent that the indexical nature of the mounted animals as well as the way dioramas are conceived and perceived as “fragments of the world” capturing a single moment in time produce a reality effect comparable to the photographic image. Yet, it is not the aim of this chapter to ponder the arguments for and against the photographic character of the diorama. In what follows, animal photography, stereoscopy, taxidermy, and the diorama will not be discussed in terms of medium specificity as separate forms of representation. Rather, they assume similar functions and uses, constantly referring to, and reacting against, one another. In this regard the diorama may be understood as a display device featuring processes of remediation, described by Jay David Bolder and Richard Grusin
Figure 8.3 Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hyena-Jackal-Vulture, 1976. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Figure 8.4 Henning Bock, Birds (Dioramen, New York), 1997. © Henning Bock.
as the appropriation of “the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media [in order to] rival or refashion them in the name of the real”.18 Referring to French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, Bolter and Grusin characterize media as hybrids, for they are not single objects but function “as a network of artifacts, images, and cultural agreements about what these special images mean and do”.19 The hybridity of the diorama as medium would then lie in its capacity to include and interrelate various media within a system in which different cultural, social, and economic practices and processes interact, collide, and are negotiated. It is in this vein that I would argue that the various interrelations between photography and diorama are involved in a historical shift concerning the consideration of nature in art, science, and environmental consciousness.
Science, art, and nature protection
In his 1915 article “The Rise of Natural History Museums” O.C. Farrington observes a democratic shift discernible in the development of natural history museums under institutions supported by public funds, their integration in the educational system, and their accessibility to broader, less learned, and wealthy audiences.20 He then continues that this tendency was accompanied by the “introduction of art to exhibition techniques”; second, the “growing appreciation of the value of nature study”; and, third, the “realization of how rapidly many of the forms of nature are vanishing before the progress of man and his works”.21 Aesthetic attractiveness, scientific
Entangled environments 107 knowledge, and ethical consciousness are then the driving forces for the democratization of historical museums. As we see later, he might have added that, beyond the diorama as a visual display of such museums, this is also valid for the genre of animal photography.
With regard to the recognition of the “value of nature study”, the nineteenth century was characterized by a shift from a taxonomic system in the tradition of Carl von Linné (concerned with the identification, description, and classification of the individual specimens) to an understanding of nature in terms of biological groups and ecological systems, analyzing the habits and behavior of animals within specific communities and environments. 2 Around 1890, for example, Karl Mobius, the director of the Museum of Natural Science (Museum fiir Naturkunde) in Berlin, defined the function of a natural history museum as follows: “They should capture, register and preserve the nature and the behavior of animals at all possible moments of their life in order to make it possible to contemplate them as long as one likes”.23 It was precisely this challenge to convey an “immediate impression” (unmittelbarer Eindruck) of an animal’s “way of living” (Lebensweise) that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, led to new taxidermie techniques, new ways of organizing museum collections, and new museum displays.
Declaring in the 1870s that the taxidermist, above all, must be an artist, naturalist Philipp Leopold Martin introduced his dermoplastic method, by which the tanned animal skin is not stuffed, but rather placed, adjusted, and glued on a clay mannequin. Ever since, the purpose of taxidermy has not been reduced to the preservation and scientific examination of specimens. Instead, it is also supposed to provide a naturalistic, lifelike representation that gives an idea of the aesthetic beauty of nature, while teaching the amateur about the living conditions and behavior of animals. The consequence of his method was twofold. First of all, the taxidermist, previously perceived as no better than a craftsman, made claim to being a respected artist with excellent aesthetic skills. Because the taxidermist, as Martin states, must be, first and foremost, an artist (in erster Linie Künstler sein),24 he assumes a similar social position to that of the photographer, being situated between the profession of a craftsman and the attitude of an artist. Another even more far-reaching consequence was the division of the museum collection into separate scientific and public collections, whereby the latter introduced dioramas as illusionistic and spectacular displays supposed to arouse the visitors’ interest in nature and science by means of “true-to-life pictures” (lebenswahre Bilder) 25 This mélange of entertainment, science, and educational aspirations for dioramas has been related to other illusionistic media of the time. As Karen Wonders puts it, “the concept of visual education through the simulation of landscape scenery”26 was inspired by the panorama, and, I would like to add, by other illusionistic media such as stereoscopy and photography.
Before addressing the relationship among diorama, photography, and stereoscopy, I would like to insist on Farrington’s third aspect in the development of natural history museums around 1900—ecological awareness—and link it to both the diorama and nature photography. As Susanne Kôstering rightly observes, Martin’s preference for lifelike representation instead of taxonomic systems was related to his critique of the environmental politics in the age of industrialization.2' In his Praxis der Naturgeschichte (“Practice of Natural History”), Martin points out that the decrease of animal populations was directly linked to rationalization in agriculture, free trade, and other measures of modernization.28 Later, in the same volume, he emphasizes the inestimable value of photography for the documentation and the study of living animals.29 As mentioned above, this direct link between taxidermy, diorama, and photography in the name of the protection of nature and animals was also an issue in North America. And in the preface to the popular scientific volume Lebensbilder aus der Tierwelt (“Living images from the animal world”) from 1910, one can read that the “natural truth” (Naturwahrheit) of the photograph contributes to “protect our animal word”. What follows in the description about the function of animal photography reads like a perfect description of habitat dioramas. What is at stake in the illustrations, in a scientific and comprehensible way, are the biological and ecological conditions of animals—their life and behavior in varying natural environments.30
Photography, mounted animals, stereoscopy, diorama
I would like to focus now on the crucial intermediary role of stereoscopy in the conception of spatial representation in animal photography and the diorama. The scientific aim to obtain lifelike pictures of animals represented within their biological and ecological environments, and the popular demand for entertaining, sensational substitutes of exotic wildlife and landscapes, led to a constant exchange and renegotiation of space that hovered between the two-dimensional flatness of the photograph and the three-dimensional environment of the diorama. This is where the stereoscopic view became critical.
In his article “Einige allgemeine Erläuterungen über die Aufnahmen wilder Tiere” (“Some Considerations on Photographing Wild Animals”) (1889), Ottomar Anschutz relates his experience of taking “artistically and scientifically successful” photographs of predators.31 In the 1880s at the Breslauer Zoo, Anschütz arranged a special cage equipped with a background painting that imitated the natural environment and living conditions of the animals. The latter were fed with living prey to achieve, as Anschütz puts it, a maximum of “natural truth” (Naturwahrheit) and “increased affect” (erhöhter Affect).32 The purpose of the resulting photographs, for him, was to provide a naturalistic view (lebenswahre Anschauung) of animals and, as such, to serve as study material for artists or to illustrate natural science books.
A couple of years later, in 1902, Charles J. Cornish published the book, The Living Animals of the World; a Popular Natural History with One Thousand Illustrations, where we can find, among other pictures from famous photo studios such as the Alinari or Watmough Webster & Son, a tremendous number of the photographs that Anschütz took at the Breslauer Zoo (Figure 8.5).33 In his preface, Cornish praised photography as “at once the most attractive and the most correct form of illustration”. According to him, only photography was able to be a “record of facts”, and, as such, to provide “true and living pictures”, which “show the creatures in their natural surroundings”.34 The question is, of course, how to understand the term “natural surroundings” in this context. As it was still complicated to take sharp and detailed photographs of wild animals in action in nature, most of the images reproduced in the book were taken in zoos or even circuses. The backgrounds of the pictures almost always show either the artificial setting of a zoo or a painted decor, as in Anschütz’s photographs. What we see are highly staged displays, where the living animals’ actions inscribe themselves within an atmospheric, often blurred, illusion-istic setting. These photographs function in the very same way as dioramas: they are staged realities, combining real and illusionistic elements, in order to provide—or
Figure 8.5 Charles John Cornish, The Living Animals of the World; A Popular Natural History with One Thousand Illustrations (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1902), 49.
more precisely to fake—a “true and living” representation of rhe animals in their natural biological environment.
From there it is only a small step to the replacement of living animals by mounted specimens. In fact, R. Lydekker, who was amongst the supervisors of Cornish’s book, published in 1908 The Sportsman’s British Bird Book, which was exclusively illustrated with photographs of birds mounted in the Rowland Ward Studios (Figure 8.6). In his preface, Lydekker praises these photographs as “absolutely true to nature” and mentions the fact that these taxidermic displays were subsequently exhibited in the Natural History Museum of London.3 - Interestingly enough, two representational systems, both claiming “natural truth”, here overlap in order to create the illusion of a kind of hyper-reality based upon the double indexical reference of the taxidermic specimen and the photograph.
Yet animal photography and dioramas are not only supposed to deliver realistic and truthful images of living beings. They are also concerned with the representation of space. Making “true and living pictures” of animals in their “natural surroundings” means to consider animals not as individual specimens classified within a taxonomic system, but to conceive of them in terms of biological and ecological factors, including their interaction with other animals, their behaviors, natural habitats, and broader environmental issues. The photograph, exactly like the natural habitat diorama, is intended to depict a single moment in time at an actual location somewhere in the world. As such, both of them are “windows on nature”. Regarding the representation winter-dress of chestnut and black. The hens also in
UQUHTED IM The ROwLAMD WARD STUDIO*
spots, found in the low grounds of Ireland,
is con constit ally pi ing- p moult autum
grouse tingui: o
migan of the which brown
exhibi phases phase the we:
Figure 8.6 R. Lvdekker, The Sportsman’s British Bird Book (London: Rowland Ward, 1908), 8.
constellation where the limits between reality and representation are put to the test.
The stereoscope as an optical device—offering a three-dimensional illusion based
on two identical, but slightly displaced, bi-dimensional photographs—plays an im
of space, animal photography and dioramas are commonly situated at the opposite poles of bi-dimensional picture space and three-dimensional real space, respectively. Given the use of diorama-like displays within animal photography, this distinction becomes blurred. It becomes apparent that both of them take part in a discursive portant intermediary role between photography and the diorama with regard to the representation of animals in their natural environment. As Jonathan Crary rightly
observes, the stereoscope has its origins not in the camera obscura and the inven-
tion of photography, but in research on subjective vision during the first half of the nineteenth century.36 Described by Helmholtz as “true to nature” and absolutely
“lifelike”, stereoscopic views were praised for their capacity “to simulate the actual presence of a physical object or scene”.37 As Crary states: “The desired effect of the stereoscope was not simply likeness, but immediate, apparent tangibility”.38 The effect of tangibility and physical presence is also a major concern of the diorama. It is then not surprising that James Perry Wilson, for example, who began working in 1934 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a diorama background painter, also used stereoscopic photographs, besides field sketches and panoramic photographs, in order to have a better sense of the three-dimensional effect of the scene.39
Even though the diorama is an actual museum display also including real objects, these real objects can only be seen, never touched. As we can read in a small booklet published by Underwood & Underwood in 1897, the effect of stereoscopy is “almost reality” and not reality itself.40 Praised as a perfect “substitute for an actual visit”,41 the stereoscopic view shared with the diorama (as much as with photography and the panorama) the functions of educational tool and entertainment device. Already in the late 1860s, Frederic S. Webster created taxidermic displays, his so-called “animated nature sets”, of which he took stereoscopic photographs. Assembled as a set of 24 scenes, these stereoscopic picture cards were sold accompanied by short descriptions of the bird species. Similar to “nature cabinets”—small taxidermic tableaux accompanied by instructive texts—these stereoscopic views circulated in public schools as educational tools in order to teach city children about natural history.42
A particularly spectacular series of stereoscopic pictures of mounted animal groups was taken during the occasion of Martha Maxwell’s exhibit at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876. Maxwell’s “Rocky Mountain” display, featuring mounted mammals and birds in a realistic but obviously staged setting, was an attempt to improve her precarious financial situation and to raise publicity for the Rocky Mountain Museum that she opened in 1874 in Boulder, Colorado.43 The stereoscopic photographs made by the Centennial Photographic Company during the exhibition, aiming to promote the show and to make money, feature Maxwell standing among her mounted animals, arranged in a spectacular group portrait. In an earlier stereoscopic picture taken at her museum in 1875, she poses with a roebuck and other mounted specimens in front of an atmospheric painting (Figure 8.7). This is, of course, a typical position we often find in traditional studio portraits of the nineteenth century: a standing woman with her hand placed on the shoulder of her husband seated in a chair, both photographed against an idyllic, painted backdrop. This is not the place to elaborate on the complex socio-psychological entanglements that Maxwell’s taxidermic group portraits might suggest with regard to a comparison of gendered and
Figure 8.7 Martha Maxwell, Rocky Mountain Museum, 1875. Albumen print stereograph.
human-animal relationships. Yet they do exemplify how, toward the end of the nineteenth century, photography, stereoscopy, taxidermy, and the diorama interacted and contributed to the same processes of representation, exploration, and appropriation of nature. While pretending to be windows on nature, dioramas are hybrids, in terms of entangled environments, in which remediation processes of interacting media reflect the desires and fantasies of immediacy, tangibility, and natural truth, put into the service of scientific, aesthetic, ecological, economic, and educational purposes and interests.
O. C. Farrington, “The Rise of Natural History Museums”, Science 42, no. 1076 (August 13, 1915): 197-209.
Carsten Kretschmann, Räume öffnen sich: Naturhistorische Museen im Deutschland des 19. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Akademieverlag, 2006), 76. See also Köstering, Natur zum Anschauen, 3.
Ibid., 80 (my translation).
Philipp Leopold Martin, Die Praxis der Naturgeschichte, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Dermoplastik und Museologie (Weimar: Bernhard Friedrich Voigt, 1880), 293.
Wonders, Habitat Dioramas, 13.
Köstering, Natur zum Anschauen, 157.
Philipp Leopold Martin, Die Praxis der Naturgeschichte, vol. 3, Naturstudien: Zweite Hälfte: Allgemeiner Naturschutz etc. (Weimar: Bernhard Friedrich Voigt, 1882), v-viii. Ibid., 65-66.
Hermann Meerwarth, ed., Lebensbilder aus der Tierwelt, vol. 4, ser. 2, Vögel I (Leipzig: R. Voigtländers Verlag, 1909), vi-viii.
Ottomar Anschütz, “Einige allgemeine Erläuterungen über die Aufnahmen wilder Thiere”, Photographische Mitteilungen, no. 386 (March 1, 1889): 307-308.
Charles John Cornish et al., eds., The Living Animals of the World; A Popular Natural History with One Thousand Illustrations (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1902).
Richard Lydekker, The Sportsman’s British Bird Book (London: Rowland Ward, 1908), vii-viii.
Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 118.
Michael Anderson, “Early North American Mammal Hall and Its Successor”, Painting Actuality: Diorama Art of James Perry Wilson, accessed March 16,2015, http://peabody.yale. edu/james-perry-wilson/chapter-8-early-north-american-mammal-hall-and-its-successor. Underwood & Underwood, The Land of the Pharaohs through the Perfecscope: Describing a Series of One Hundred Original Stereoscopic Photographs (New York: Underwood Sc Underwood, 1897), 1.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Stereoscope and Stereoscopic Photographs (New York: Underwood Sc Underwood, 1906), 71.
Wonders, Habitat Dioramas, 42.
Maxine Benson, Martha Maxwell: Rocky Mountain Naturalist, Women in the West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books, 1999); see especially the chapters “Opening the Rocky Mountain Museum”, 97-115; and “‘Woman’s Work’ at the Centennial”, 128-149.