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Photographs from the Collection: Looking At Animals

by Nathaniel M. Stein, Curator of Photography


photography , collect , animals , Curatorial Blog

From April 11–August 10, 2023, the hallway gallery at the top of the museum’s Great Hall staircase (Gallery 213) will be full of critters.

Don’t worry, it’s not time to call animal control. The furry, feathery invasion is all part of a special feature exhibition drawn from the museum’s rich photography collection and interpreted especially for families and kids. Below, you can explore a selection of the themes addressed in the exhibition and some of the artworks on view, from wherever you are.


Hold Still!

In the early days of photography, taking pictures of animals was hard because it took many seconds to make a clear, well-exposed picture. Most animals don’t hold still long enough to have their portrait made! But animals aren’t always pictured for their own sake. Sometimes people are more interested in what others think of them based on how they use animals for learning, work, or play. Early photographers could use props—like a horseback riding crop—as clues to show a person’s relationship with non-human creatures…without dealing with a fidgety living animal.


Roy G. BirdWhat do you think the animal clues in these very old photographs say about the people in the pictures?



Best Friends

Many pictures of animals represent human feelings and the values we attach to qualities such as composure, playfulness, loyalty, or independence. All the animals pictured above have a relationship with the photographer taking their picture. They are family pets, and sometimes even frequent models for their artist-owners. Can you tell that the photographer feels a special connection to their subject? Do you see those feelings returned by the animal?


Roy G. BirdDo you take pictures of your pet? How do those photographs show how you and your furry (or feathery, or scaly) friend feel about each other? 




A Bird in Hand

The saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” means that we should appreciate what we already have rather than risk losing it by trying to get something better. One way to understand the saying is that a bird is hard to catch and essential to keep—it can provide food, but it can also fly away. Another way to think about what it means to hold a bird is that birds are fragile. Holding one requires firmness, determination, and gentleness. What do you think these photographers are trying to say by focusing on a human cradling a bird?


Roy G. BirdLots of photographers love animals, but is photography vegan? Yikes, not always!

The most common way to make a photographic print from the 1860s to the late 1890s—albumen silver printing—used egg whites to hold light-sensitive silver particles to a piece of paper. (Thank you, chickens.) Gelatin silver printing became the most common way to make photographs in the 1900s. Gelatin comes from parts of animals that people prefer not to eat!  


All About Us

Artists often use animals to raise questions or make observations about human behaviors, relationships, and activities. While many artists are concerned with the beauty and visual sophistication of their photographs, their pictures can also tell us about human social structures in different environments. Raghu Rai’s image of a raven and sparrows is the photographer’s metaphor for divisiveness and social inequality. What do you think the other artists whose pictures are shown above thought about their subjects?


Roy G. BirdCan you find another picture in the museum’s collection that uses an animal to symbolize a person’s attitudes, human relationships, or social activities? Can you think up your own?