Ever since childhood trips to Dudley Zoo Richard Billingham has been fascinated by animals. His latest publication, Zoo, is a sustained, trenchant and innovative examination of the captive lives of putatively “wild” animals. The book includes colour, medium format photographs, still images from video footage, as well as colour and black and white pictures taken with disposable cameras.
Given Billingham’s previous output it is not altogether surprising to learn that this is something of a grim undertaking. Morose monkeys, cheerless chimps, bored bears and pathetic pandas scratch, sway, vomit and kill time. Not a book you’re likely to find in the zoo gift shop, then.
His early interest in animal behaviour was subsequently informed by John Berger’s analysis of the effects of captivity in the landmark essay, “Why Look at Animals?” Billingham explains: “He talks about the eye of the animal, and how the gaze is different with a captive animal than with a wild animal; you know, it’s kind of dumber. Like if you look at people on a Tube train, they don’t acknowledge you. But as soon as you come to the surface the eyes are different.”
The first grouping of (medium format) photographs is a studied exploration of the relationship between the animals and the artificial spaces of their enclosures. “I didn’t want to photograph the animal and I didn’t want to just photograph the enclosure. I wanted both in equal measure”. It was a balance he found hard to strike, working for two fruitless years before achieving satisfactory results.
The remarkable video images, which Billingham found easier to capture, focus more closely on the animals’ pacing, jumping and rocking – cycles of repetitive behaviour induced by conditions of confinement.
The final section comprises some of the most potent images in the book: pictures made with cheap second-hand disposable cameras and out of date film. “I wanted them to look artificial or have casts on them… to give them that amateurish feel”. The flare, grain and muddied tonal range seem to add to the tawdriness of the “wildlife” on display.
Not least among the achievements of Zoo is the refusal to countenance any forms of photographic sentimentality. Billingham proves to be adept at manipulating the languages of photography – without recourse to cliché or overstatement – to explore the characteristics of lived experience in an enclosed environment.
Mind you, he’s had some practice… those familiar with his claustrophobic images of alcoholism and dysfunctional family life in Ray’s a Laugh and Fishtank will observe that Zoo is not the first time he’s turned his camera on patterns of aberrant behaviour in confined spaces.