Of the many layers that make up who we are it’s the skeleton that you can depend upon to stand the test of time. It’s our bones that record our journey in life and remain to share our stories long after. In a new exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, Canadian artist Deborah Samuel seeks to evoke expressive stories from the skeletons of animals, to capture a beauty made delicate by their nature and fragile in a world still home to disasters both natural and human in origin.
Elegy is a unique photography collection. At first glance you think you’re looking at X-rays or a kind of processed MRI scan, but these are regular images of naked bones taken with the use of a flatbed scanner. They have the clarity and sharp detail you’d expect from a device used for capturing documents, but because the lens of the scanner is allowed to see the bones as objects in the dark there’s a surprising depth as the view extends off into a slowly fading gloom, suggesting more secrets in the distance.
It was the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that originally drew Samuel to this theme. She had wanted to capture the plight of the birds caught in the event through normal photography, but with government agencies blocking access came upon this solution in its place. The inky black of the original oil may have been powerful the way it obscured and chocked the birds, but now it becomes a background darkness that preserves Samuel’s subjects instead.
Using specimens supplied in part by the ROM itself, she’s created thirty images that capture a wide array of different species including a barred owl, anteater, lizard, shark, and even a wolverine.
The cobra, with its coiling, slinking array of intricate vertebrae, may be the crowd favorite, I find mine is the armadillo. There’s a picture of its shell with the rim placed clear against the surface of the photograph while the concave interior drifts back ever so gradually, deep, deep, into the drifting gloom, until there’s just the hint of a meeting in the distance where you can make out the ribs of the very back.
It reminds me of the amazing transformation our bones make, from being mere support structures at the very centre while we live to external shells when all else is gone. Empty, except for a reminder of who we are.
Elegy: Deborah Samuel will be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum until Monday, July 2nd, 2012
It will also be a featured exhibit at the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival