September 20, 2019

‘In Focus: Animalia’: Creatures featured at the Getty

Images of animals are everywhere these days. Pictures of our friends’ fluffy pets fill our social media feeds. Cuddly cats and baby animal photos serve as websites’ clickbait. While in the Internet age, we may well take these alluring photographs of our four-legged friends for granted, in fact we’ve been training our collective lens on them since the invention of the medium in 1839.

For the exhibition “In Focus: Animalia,” on view May 26-Oct. 18 at the Getty Center, Arpad Kovacs, the show’s curator, sifted through the museum’s collection of 31,000 photographs and selected some of the more interesting and thought-provoking examples. Our complex and interdependent relationships with animals are drawn from more than a century and a half of images ranging from early photos of Victorian game hunters and zoos, in which wild animals are depicted as things to be domesticated or killed, to contemporary photographs that portray wildness as heroic, such as in Daniel Naudé’s image of a feral dog in South Africa.

“Animals have appeared in art going back to cave paintings. But they’re this really interesting subject that every photographer is quite fascinated by, for one reason or another,” Kovacs said.

The exhibition is part of the Getty’s “In Focus” series, which has also covered the themes of play, architecture and Tokyo, as well as retrospectives of photographs by Ed Ruscha, Ansel Adams and Robert Mapple-thorpe, among others.

“We look at a topic or a theme through our permanent collection,” Kovacs said, “and we really try to show the entire history of the medium of photography.”

The earliest image in the “Animalia” show is an 1845 daguerreotype of a white foal at rest, by Swiss nobleman and amateur photographer Jean-Gabriel Eynard. There’s also an intimate portrait of a seated young woman with her beloved dog at her feet, while another features a dog standing on a tasseled pedestal, its tail wagging and its collar embellished with gold paint. Photographing animals at that time was challenging; the new medium required a long exposure time, which meant getting an animal to obediently hold still for several minutes.

Eadweard J. Muybridge (American, born England, 1830-1904); “Running (Galloping),” 1878-1881. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Contemporary photographer William Wegman, known for his “collaborations” with his beloved Weimaraners, is included with the diptych “In the Box” and “Out of the Box.” The artist’s humor is obvious in the suggestive wordplay in the titles juxtaposed with the simple images of a dog standing inside a box, and then on top of it.

“In Focus: Animalia” makes clear how long people have been fascinated with animals, using them as subjects to explore many ideas and themes.

“I think animals are beings that one can easily project one’s own ideas on, and that’s one source of fascination,” Kovacs said. “But they’re also completely sentient and sometimes unpredictable creatures, and I think that continues to pull us in.”

Whether the animals are meant to be dominated or revered, and whether they’re seen as lovable or frightening, says as much about the photographer as it does about the subject.

“In Focus: Animalia” is on view May 26-Oct. 18 at the Getty Center. More information is at