A lion lifts his proud head, the wind tossing his mane as if he were a supermodel.
A pair of elephants ride the mist as a bird hovers above.
And a tower of giraffes gaze in different directions, suggesting Alexander Calder’s orange steel sculpture “Hats Off.” (Or did Calder model his stabile after a tower of giraffes?)
They are among the indelible images in Laurent Baheux’s limited-edition “The Family Album of Wild Africa” (teNeues Publishing Co. and YellowKorner Editions, 480 pages, $2,242). This coffee-table book, which comes in a clamshell box with portfolio and one signed and numbered photoprint, contains 288 duotone photographs. They capture not only the untamed sweep of the African landscape, but the passion of the French-born photographer, who fell in love with the continent’s wildlife on a 2002 visit to Tanzania and has been recording it ever since.
As Fedora Parkmann notes in her foreword, Baheux does not consider himself a nature photographer per se and indeed these photographs are very different from those you might find in, say, National Geographic. For one thing, they are in black and white, an exacting medium that requires an understanding of the play of light on surface. For another, they are concerned with form, which is most apparent in his animal couples canoodling, for want of a better word. A pair of zebras rest with their necks on each other’s backs — the one facing left sporting black pinstripes on a white background; the one facing right, thicker white stripes on black. Two elephants meet face-to-face — tusks locking, trunks entwining. And, in a favorite image, two hippopotamuses go in for an open-mouth clinch, the space between their gaping jaws forming a heart.
Photography, Parkmann observes, didn’t start out as the natural medium for catching the nature of animals. The long exposures did not suit a landscape that might explode into action at any moment. But advances over time have allowed for an astonishing eye-to-eye intimacy and an anthropomorphism that is anything but sentimental. Baheux’s subjects are social and familial — carrying or shielding babies, lounging, parading, fleeing, grooming, frolicking, mourning — always in groups. Dare we say there is a humanity to them?
“Artists occupy a special place in the ambiguous history of man’s relationship with animals,” Parkmann writes. “By considering the animal as an artistic subject — translating the curiosity, admiration and fear that it arouses into images — are we not in fact bestowing it with the beginnings of humanity?”
Baheux locates the lion, the zebra, the elephant, the giraffe in himself so that we can find the humanity in them.
“There’s no darkness, no ferocity in the animal portraits captured during his travels,” writes Parkmann. “On the contrary, the spark of humanity read in their eyes pleads for recognition of a sensitivity that has long been denied.”