Animal Dreams

The first thing you focus on is their eyes. The animals in James Balog's portraits seem to be -- to borrow baseball's colloquialism -- staying within themselves: living in the moment, thinking clearly, and being completely comfortable with their animalness. Head-on and dynamic, the images challenge the catch-all designation of "wildlife photography," catapulting human perceptions of the animal world into a whole new galaxy that's as age-old as it is brand-new. Now definitively collected in Animal, Balog's fifth book, the Boulder photographer's work may finally make a quantum leap to match -- right into the popular consciousness. He's launching the book this week with an exhibition at Camera Obscura Gallery, which will be followed by a lecture-and-exhibition tour across the country.

As a photojournalist, Balog stumbled on the nature format by way of climbing a mountain. His love of the outdoors, paired with the childhood experience of watching the woods around his New York home be swallowed up by urban sprawl, led him down an open path into, you might say, the Garden of Eden. Spurred by the desire to raise public awareness of the vanishing natural world, he began photographing wildlife to make metaphoric statements. That segued into the more stylized approach he began to develop in the 1980s.

"I realized that the best work I was capable of would not be assigned by magazines -- my ideas for a deeper, more visceral project were not within the realm of literary documentary," Balog recalls. "In the course of shooting, I realized this new approach was an incredible way to access the animals' hearts and minds. Once I got close to these guys, I got a very acute sense of them looking and observing and watching. Some animals you could see forming judgments and opinions, maybe even forming some sort of philosophy about what they were looking at. I began looking at the boundaries between humans and nature, and I've been doing that ever since."

Less reliant on action than the typical wildlife shots seen in National Geographic and the like, Balog's work since that time has relied more often on capturing the animal soul or spirit, an ambiguous yet forthright designation that means something different to every viewer. As a result, he never has complete control over a shoot, even in a tightly composed situation. And he doesn't always know what he's looking for until he's found it. "Sometimes a shoot will be abstract, free-form, improvisational jazz," Balog explains. "Other times it's jazz with a blues structure."

The exceptional portraits in Animal go both ways -- not to mention in ways heretofore unperceived by man on any scale -- ranging from the posed studio shots for which Balog's become famous to his latest venture, a gamut of shots from Africa made with the lowest-tech equipment he could find "and still put a picture on film": a $15 Holga's throw-away camera with nary a bell or whistle to fiddle with under its plain plastic shell. "They're as simple as it gets," Balog says. "They have one shutter speed and the optical purity of a Coke bottle. It lets you experience the moment more purely than the whole past century's worth of fancy equipment."

What's different about Balog style captured by the new, more primitive means? Aside from being starkly black-and-white, Balog says the Holga's images are more raw, sometimes dropping out of focus or getting corrupted by visual impurities. "The picture plane is not pure and perfect -- sometimes it's ripped by shards of sunlight," Balog says. "Editing the contact sheets is literally like Christmas day -- you don't know what you've got until you see them. It takes you into a more unconscious way of seeing animals, though I'm not sure how and why.

"My wife calls this whole line of work 'Jim Balog unplugged,'" he adds, noting that he's far from finished with the technique, though he owns plenty of the more sophisticated gear generally used in modern photojournalism. He's eager to continue exploring low-tech simply because, if for no other reason, no one else seems to be following suit. Since traveling to Africa, Balog's taken his equipment to Borneo and China to shoot orangutans and giant pandas. Later this fall he'll head up to Hudson Bay, where he hopes to shoot polar bears in a monochrome setting certain to produce stunning results in the camera's unsophisticated resolution.

The polar bear shoot, he says, is a gift to himself for persevering at promoting Animal. He'd like to turn some of his philosophizing on the lost nature of man into a book of prose rather than photography. And he'd like to try his hand -- and eye -- at landscape and plant photography, perhaps shaking up another genre or two of the photography world. Whatever the case, you just know it'll be something. "Quests are what drive me or pull me," Balog says. "Sometimes I think that if I didn't have that, I'd just sit in a corner, shrivel up and die."

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd