Gallery! Polar Bears at the San Diego Zoo


Forgive me while I wax artsy for a few minutes. Why yes, I did in fact go to art school and I do in fact care about this stuff, or at least sometimes. I am not always shallow. Heh. Just mostly. Anyway, as I’ve been going along on my wanderings for the last few months taking pictures I’m not just shooting at random – well, okay, sometimes I am – but I also have a few end goals and series that I’m sort of constantly working on. This is part of one of them and, basically, I guess the short title is Animals Behind Glass with People Watching Them Sometimes although I hope to come up with a snappier title eventually. Heh. Anyway, here is the first installment: polar bears.

The photos below are all of polar bears in the San Diego Zoo. They aren’t the first zoo polar bears I’ve shot and I hope they won’t be the last. What interests me in this series is not so much the bears themselves, although they are beautiful and problematic. By problematic I mean that keeping large animals in zoos is cruel, let’s all be completely honest. Yes, the zoos are doing the absolute best they can and it’s important not to overlook that OR the fact that zoos have changed in my lifetime from, basically, hellhole torture pits to places where the animals can be, if not totally happy, than at least healthy and cared for and kept intellectually stimulated and so on. This has been a very big change in our culture that I don’t think is often noted and it should be: it’s really a very positive change of the last half century. We are, by and large, kinder to animals than we used to be.

I believe strongly in the mission of zoos: we are not doing a good job as stewards of the environment and of this planet and so many, perhaps even most, of these animals are dying out. That is sadly unlikely to improve in the coming decades. The zoos are like a seed bank: they are going to be the only way many species can continue to exist. But there is a dichotomy here: zoo as conservator and zoo as spectacle. So this is a slightly uneasy boundary and where there is an uneasy boundary there is art to be made or found. The following are some of my thoughts on the art that I’m making there.

I am interested in the intersection between the visitors to the zoo and the animals. Shooting through the glass gives me a chance to catch their reflections when they are very unguarded and yet it distorts them sufficiently that I don’t feel as if I am invading their privacy. Yet, there they are, invading the animals’ privacy. The clear glass divides them – two zones of privacy, both invaded – and this is something else that I find fascinating. I’m also always interested in audiences of any kind, because people who are watching something, who are intently involved in the spectacle in front of them, whether it’s a zoo or a concert or a movie or whatever, lose their own self consciousness for a moment.

The fact that the animals are behind glass specifically (let’s just all pretend that plexiglass is glass, okay?) interests me both technically as a photographer and visually as an artist. I am fascinated by glass. It creates reflections and distortions and then by using more glass – a lens – on glass you get all kinds of odd visual back and forth. Glass and water is even better because it’s both reflective and transparent and, of course, it sloshes, so you’re adding movement to the already dazzling lights and reflections. This is something I explore a LOT in my work.

Polar bears in particular are extremely fraught, they carry a lot of emotional and political baggage right now. They have become symbols of climate change in that their natural habitat is disappearing at an insanely rapid rate and so their very survival outside zoos is in doubt. This is heartbreaking and nobody in the zoo could possibly be unaware of it. So even as they are living creatures they are also symbols of a changing world and the spectators know that they are in the presence of the symbolic. This gives the bears a sort of solemnity and dignity that they might otherwise not have as they play in the water. Also, they are predators – huge, frightening carnivores who would devour us without a moment’s hesitation. Yet thanks to the glass small children are safely watching them. And they look cuddly and sweet in the water, elongated, friendly, like toys. But they aren’t and it is the glass that changes that reality into spectacle.

In a purely aesthetic sense, I really love them as shapes. There isn’t much clutter in a marine mammal tank – actually this upsets me: I wish they had way more plants and things to look at and feel that their environments are much too sterile – but visually it’s extremely striking, the white animal, the blue green water and again the glass.

So here are some polar bears. And some humans. But mostly polar bears.

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