Robert Koch Gallery: Animalograms, Zana Briski

Robert Koch Gallery
On view through Saturday, February 3rd





By Emily Wilson

January 1, 2024

To make the photograms in her show Animalograms (there are 12, along with two photographs – of a mountain gorilla and of gelada baboons) – Zana Briski positioned huge pieces of light-sensitive paper in the woods of upstate New York and the jungles of Borneo, among other places (including Ethiopia, Arizona, and Papua, New Guinea) and waited for animals, including bears, raccoons, and civets, to come. She had prepared by studying the animals’ patterns, such as where they foraged and what paths they took. (The show is on view through February 3.)Briski, who won an Academy Award for best documentary for Born into Brothels in 2005, made the photograms on nights when there was little moonlight, and in order to cause the least disturbance, she used a small, hand-held flash to record the image of the animal when it crossed the path of the paper. The resulting images – made over the course of four to six months – are stunning. In Bearogram #18 (2020), for example, the life-sized silhouette of the bear is so detailed it’s as though it’s imprinted on the paper; the separations in the fur are visible as well as the animal’s slightly open mouth. The leaves at the bottom of the image appear to glow (Briski gold tones the prints); some have clear, sharp outlines while others are slightly smudged, due, perhaps, to some slight disturbance in the air. The element of chance plays into these images: they might not come out, or she might fall asleep and miss the moment. Briski has said that she sometimes wakes up with her face in the mud. Briski has also made photograms of the insect world. Cicada (2019) shows the perfect symmetrical patterns on its wings, while the insects in Praying Mantises (2015) look otherworldly. Briski has said that the photogram process allows her to feel closer to nature because there is nothing between her and her subjects. We’re accustomed to seeing mammals such as bears or a civet as sentient beings but less so with insects. In her photograms of them, Briski’s images invite us to rethink our relationship to nature, to see it as something wondrous but also ephemeral.

Following her graduation from the University of Cambridge, Briski attended the International Center of Photography in New York. Her thirty-plus years of dedication to her field have earned her recognition in the form of prestigious awards and fellowships. Her documentary film, Born Into Brothels, achieved highest acclaim by winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005.  Her film also received an Emmy, along with 33 other awards. Notably, she was also the recipient of two distinguished New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships in 1996 and 1998. The Open Society Institute recognized her with a prestigious fellowship in 1999, and in the same year, she was awarded the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize. Among her numerous distinctions, she was honored with the esteemed Lucie Humanitarian Award in 2005, in recognition of her commitment to humanitarian causes.