“I like to use photography as a way of extending people’s experiences,” says Tim Flach. To encourage viewers to see things differently, he takes pictures of animals from below, through a glass floor, he uses extreme close-ups and photographs horses underwater or using X-rays.
Flach is best known for abstract images of animals. His book “Equus” (2008) lingered over swirling manes and made the swell of horses’ backs look like mountain ranges. “Less is more,” he says, quoting the architect Mies van der Rohe. But Flach uses abstraction in a surprising way.
Photographs are often seen as exact representations of reality, concrete and clear. But “photographs are ambiguous,” says Flach. “By abstracting away from the image, you can capture that ambiguity. Abstraction gives viewers space to see more, so different people see different things.” The next few pages contain several such images: the Hungarian Puli, enveloped by its flying dreadlocks; the white disc of the Bichon Frise’s face; the close-up of a prize-winning bulldog’s stumpy tail; the pink folds of the Shar-Pei.
If you look closely above the Shar-Pei’s right eye, threading finely through the heavy folds of the eyebrow is a tiny white stitch. It is there because the thick bristled skin, bred into this fighting dog as a defence against opponents’ bites, would otherwise push the eyelid inward, scraping the eyelashes over the cornea and producing an infection called entropion. The picture is both an abstract conception and a stark image of what humans do to their pets.
Flach’s bestiary, apparently so self-contained and stylised, often reveals unexpected layers of meaning. He says he became interested in the faces of lapdogs—here represented by the silky Yorkshire terrier, the Bichon Frise and the butterfly-eared hairless Chinese crested dog—partly through the work of Morten Kringelbach, an Oxford neuroscientist. Kringelbach studies the way in which the brain processes so-called “hedonic experience” (ie, pertaining to pleasure). He suggests we are hard-wired to respond to round faces with big eyes and snub noses. That is what babies look like—and those are the features that breeders exaggerate in their lapdogs. Flach’s photographs illustrate the same human impulse that forms the subject of Kringelbach’s research.
Flach, who is 51, earns most of his living as a commercial photographer (he has produced stamps for the Royal Mail). He is a fine-arts graduate from St Martin’s School of Art in London, so it is a surprise to find science playing such a role in his choice of subject. He regards photographing animals as another way of studying them and was pleased when he heard that new research into Shar-Peis had helped scientists identify a gene that is behind the wrinkling of skin as it ages.
While science provides a context for the images, they are far more than mere illustrations of it. Flach’s photograph of huskies (next picture) shows how science and image blend together. This is the last in a sequence of photos which begins with a close-up of one dog’s startling sapphire eyes: an image of acquired behaviour.
In nature, wolves do not gaze directly at other wolves and dogs are thought to have behaved the same way when they first began to live with humans. But as they have become domesticated they have changed their natural behaviour and learned from people to look directly at their masters, even scanning faces from left to right, as humans do (this is the reason why pictures are traditionally lit from the left-hand side, as in Flach’s shots of a greyhound and a poodle).
Subsequent photos in the sequence show huskies in fierce motion, running across a snowy landscape. The sequence ends with the dogs at rest after their exertions. They gaze directly, disconcertingly, back at the viewer. ~ JOHN PARKER