This is one of a series of black and white photographs of museum displays that Leonard took in the 1980s and early 1990s in the US and Europe. It shows two similar animal pelts hanging from the back of a wall-mounted vitrine under the word ‘CARNIVORES’. The animals are displayed side-by-side, suspended by their forepaws, with their backs to the viewer and their hindquarters and back legs hanging down, nearly touching the bottom of the case. This method of display gives them the appearance of being merely skins; however the three-dimensional volume of their heads and bodies suggest that they have been taxidermised. The animals are identified by a photograph placed on the floor of the vitrine showing an animal that resembles a bear and accompanied by a section of text, not legible in Leonard’s image. The vitrine is viewed from a slight angle, emphasising its structure as a case around the subjects of its display. A glassy surface is just visible on the right side of the image, suggesting a partition inside a much larger vitrine or a window into another display case.
In her photographs of museum displays, Leonard is deeply concerned with history and its presentation (Leonard in Secession: Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Wiener Secession, Vienna 1997, p.23). Photographing objects like the animal pelts in Carnivores and the anatomical model in the Viennese medical history museum shown in P79209 is a means for her to reframe elements that have already been framed for the purposes of teaching and learning. Her photographs question assumptions about the role of these kinds of museum displays, which for Leonard are not about anatomy or natural history, but ‘about a need to own and control. And so, by implication ... [they are] about us.’ (Quoted in Cottingham, p.68.) Leonard’s earliest museum images, a group of untitled photographs taken in 1984, but not printed until 1991 (reproduced in Secession: Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Wiener Secession, Vienna 1997, pp.30–1), feature two little girls in front of a display of the evolution of man. One is preoccupied by what she is looking at and oblivious to the artist’s camera; the other appears more self-conscious. Leonard has referred to her photographic technique in these images where she captures her subjects in movement or, as in P79209 and P79210, views them from distorting angles, as having a ‘subversive quality [that] showed that this kind of picture wasn’t allowed’ (quoted in Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle 1999, p.12).
Carnivores and other images, such as an untitled photograph taken in 1987 of a double row of coats hanging in a shop vitrine (reproduced Secession: Zoe Leonard, p.51), recall photographs taken in London in 1936 by the writer and artist Claude Cahun (1894–1954) in 1936. Cahun’s photographs Crystal Heads, British Museum, London, June – July 1936 (P79321) – a view of a display of Mexican or Aztec masks – Military Tailors showing a bizarre collection of taxidermised animals in the vitrine of a head office on the Haymarket, and an untitled image of a collection of high-heeled shoes in a multi-panelled shop window (both reproduced Louise Downie (ed.), Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, London and St Helier 2006, p.193) do not make overt comment on the mechanics of display, but refer instead to concerns related to surrealism – primitivism, masking and sexuality. By contrast, Leonard’s images have a more overtly political charge. She has said:
Part of why I like photography is that it is a form of observation. Just walking down the street I am amazed by how much of everything already exists. There is so much beauty; there is so much cruelty. Part of the wonder of photographs is that ... you are making another object, but the object that you are making is from something that is already there. There is an aspect of photography that is like hunting and gathering ... I go out into the world and find thing, images or situations that strike a chord in me. Like any good hunter or gatherer I am grateful that those things are there. And I recognise their autonomy from me even if they are inanimate objects like rocks, bones or stars.
(Quoted in Secession: Zoe Leonard, exhibition catalogue, Wiener Secession, Vienna 1997, p.9.)
The relationship between culture and nature is a central theme in Leonard’s work. During the mid to late 1990s she photographed animal carcasses that had been decapitated, skinned and eviscerated after being hunted for human survival in Alaska, where she lived for extended periods. These photographs subvert the idealisation of ‘wild’ nature, traditional to nineteenth American photography and painting. For her, human and nature or culture and nature are locked into an uneasy cohabitation, as shown in her Tree + Fence series (see P79207 and P79208).
Leonard does all her own darkroom work, printing her photographs full frame – resulting in a narrow black border – without any correction or alteration to the image. Often, as in this case, she considers an image for several years before printing it, requiring extended time to determine its significance. Leonard printed Carnivores in an edition of five with two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is the fourth in the edition.
Laura Cottingham, ‘Zoe Leonard’, Journal of Contemporary Art, vol.6, no.1, 1993, pp.64–77, http://www.jca-online.com/leonard.html
, accessed 9 October 2008.