Hearing about photographer Ed Panar’s exhibition “Animals that Saw Me” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid (to Feb. 24) left me skeptical. How did the artist know it was the animals that saw him? Isn’t this just animal portraiture?
Looking at the work and speaking to curator Jaime Alvarez cured me of my skepticism. A graduate school colleague of Panar’s at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, Alvarez explained that Panar photographs obsessively, shooting roll after roll (yes, he still uses film), and only printing a small selection of the pictures he has taken. Panar’s photographs are really a sampling of everything he sees while out in the world. His online collections have titles like Walking Home, The Sun Rises in the East, and 20 New Pictures—suggesting an engagement with the mundane rhythms of everyday life, and a certain randomness in method.
An artist who photographs nearly everything that comes into view would, by mere probability, capture repeated instances of certain objects. In his walking tours of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California, for example, Panar caught a certain number of utility poles, frame houses, signs and handwritten notes in doorways. Gazing at the contact sheets over the years (works in this exhibition span a period from 1993 to 2010), the artist must have also in certain instances seen a pair of eyes gazing back.
The eyes appear in Big Sur, peering out from behind an enormous tree stump. This image is a study in light, shadow, and texture, and in its sea of dense black, a tiny squirrel holds court. The animal’s gray fur is barely noticeable amidst the gnarled gray of the tree’s bark, captured in rich detail by Panar’s camera and careful printing technique. Detail is abundant in Along the Monongahela River as well. A cat stares out from amidst a thick shag of dried grass and barren branches. In both photographs, the animal is a footnote in the composition —positioned midway between near and far, insignificant in size. Chance is a convincing explanation of its presence, yet it somehow makes the photograph.
Morning Commute and Early June are much more like snapshots, both taken close up and blurred slightly. In the first, a shaft of raking light right reveals a duck insolently flapping its wings—apparently not pleased to find a human in its path. In the second, a deer’s enormous head gazes into a rain soaked car window, not quite the “deer in the headlights” we are used to seeing. Although an animal is a central to both images, its location in the frame is off-center, suggesting that neither was conceived as an animal portrait. It is clear that the non-human is doing the surveillance in these shots.
The cow in California Valley looks much more like a character in a regular animal shot. Gazing over a barbed wire fence on a relentlessly hot day, the brown bovine is planted in the precise center, horns and back aligned with the horizon. Though this image is tightly composed, the cow’s intense stare puts it in the same vein as the others. Her stance and coincidental positioning next to the mailbox reminds us that this is her home, and we are passers-by.
A viewer of “Animals the Saw Me” expecting another zoo full of fluffy friends is bound to be disappointed. Like Panar’s other work, “Animals that Saw Me” is less about the particular objects in view than the patterns in which they occur. Walking through life and picturing the world, we find that others—including some with fur or feathers–are picturing us. This lesson must be obvious to an artist like Panar who is constantly willing to soak up what the world has to offer.
“Animals that Saw Me – Ed Panar,” to Feb 24. Tiger Strikes Asteroid, 319A N. 11th St. 2nd floor