A Study of the Pigeon
With its slightly ruffled feathers, direct and alert gaze, and its claws firmly gripped to a piece of quarts, this pigeon appears to be both self-conscious and totally at ease with its environment. This is the delicate balance that Daniel Naudé is striving for in his latest body of work, in which the complex relationship between the natural and man-made provides the inspiration for his photographic practice.
This work is a significant departure from Naudé’s earlier animal portraits, in which the animal is captured in its natural or living habitat. Instead of seeing it framed by its immediate environment, we are now privy to a view upon the animal in which it finds itself in a carefully constructed tableau. For Naudé, this was prompted by a renewed interested in the preproduction processes that inform and shape the final photograph. As he explains, 2016 marked an important shift in his work, as he started to explore the physical practices that precede the actual taking of a photograph. His earlier work captured those moments of stillness when an animal happened to be perfectly positioned, when the balance between the animal subject and its natural environment was just right. These are not easy moments to capture, as it calls for extreme patience and perseverance on the part of the photographer.
In his recent work, this dedication to the photographic process is invested in a new interest, namely that of the recreated natural environment. Naudé’s eye for detail and his painstaking craftsmanship are evident in the staged backdrops and tableaus within which he places and photographs the animal. Here, Naudé is drawing inspiration from the work of set designers and diorama artists – people who spend much of their time studying natural environments, cityscapes or theatrical productions to understand the way in which the experience of an alternative reality can be facilitated.
The idea of physically constructing some utopian, or substitute, reality appealed to Naudé, as he set out creating intricate dioramas within which he could photograph live animal subjects. These dioramas consist of hand painted backdrops, as well as rocks (such as crystals and fluorite), sand and other natural objects that Naudé collected in the Karoo or found in old mining quarries. These different elements were carefully curated and it took Naudé months to set up the perfect scene in which each component found its balance in the picture frame. Only then would live animals be introduced to these created environments, with Naudé patiently waiting for them to rest in the exact position where their own colour and form works with that of the diorama. For Naudé, this was the moment of stillness where animal subject and background existed, albeit briefly, in poetic synchronicity.
Naudé found these constructed dioramas to be the perfect instrument with which to explore human-animal relations. The word ‘diorama’ literally means ‘through that which is seen’, and its practical application is most often witnessed in natural history museums where three-dimensional, full-size replicas of a landscape is used to illustrate some noteworthy event or environment. Most often, such dioramic displays would be constructed on a tilted plane, use a hazily painted backdrop and employ false perspective to create the illusion of depth. Such techniques serve the function of compressing a potentially large scene into a compact space, thus making it possible for the viewer to enjoy the illusion of seeing a larger reality from a single viewpoint, with foreground, middleground and background all perfectly balanced as if by magic. The diorama proved to be the perfect device for making the natural world seem real within a constructed and constrained environment – in fact, dioramas presented the possibility of granting their audience a view that was more real than they would, most likely, ever experience for themselves.
These dioramas constitute the fictional habitat into which Naudé released live pigeons and waited for them to settle in the perfect spot before they could be captured by the camera. Like all the elements chosen for this photographic study, Naudé’s decision to include the pigeon is strategic. The pigeon is a significant bird that shares a long history with the human. The domestic pigeon forms part of a larger family (it is a subspecies of the rock pigeon) that makes it one of the world’s oldest domesticated birds. While the domestication of pigeons already occurred around 10 000 years ago, it has continued to serve various important functions in human life. The use of pigeons ranged from carrying messages in times of war to smuggling diamonds out of restricted mining areas. Whether one wishes to describe their employment as heroic or cunning, it cannot be disputed that the homing ability of pigeons have made them a valuable asset to their human owners. With their alleged ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field with tiny, sensitised tissue in their beak, trained domestic pigeons are able to find and return home even from a distance of 1 000 kilometres away. And it is exactly this ability to conceive of home, to instinctually yearn for that place of return, that has made them so appealing to humans.
For Naudé, this interest in the pigeon is also personal. As a young boy, he used to build intricate traps in his home garden, using seed as bait to attract the pigeons and snares to catch them. The ensuing game of catch and release left an indelible impression on Naudé, who became aware of the power we wield over these animals, but also their furtive allure that make them so attractive to the human spectator. As he explains, pigeons exemplify our complex relationship with the natural world, as they can easily live their own solitary lives, flying free and unfettered, but they can also be rendered dependent on human intervention and care. Humans have, in many ways, changed this animal into what it is today – a change that reflects our own needs and desires.
This resonates strongly with Naudé’s earlier animal portraits, in which dogs, cattle and bowerbirds were some of the subject matter with which he explored the way in which animal and human worlds have become inextricable enmeshed. However ‘natural’ some of these photographed environments might seem, the viewer is always left with an unsettling awareness that the human subject left its mark somewhere in the photographed image. In fact, Naudé’s work to date has served as a poignant reminder of the way in which humans have shaped the world around them, with even animals carrying the sign (and the burden) of our existence.
This awareness makes his recent work all the more polemical and relevant, for he is presenting us with clear signs as to his own involvement in the construction of a scene that looks natural – in fact, it looks even more natural than the world we might find outside. In this way, his photographs serve as a reflection of our own desired gaze upon the natural world – one in which we still seem to dream of unfettered access to ‘the real’ and to ‘the uncorrupted’. However, as Naudé’s work reminds us, our access to the natural world is always mediated in some way, and to find that which seems (albeit to our tastes and desires) to be ‘real nature’, is dependent upon our own ability to imagine and create it for ourselves.
Dr. Ernst van der Wal, PhD (Visual Arts)
Senior Lecturer: Visual Arts