I find this salmon image haunting my dreams. It keeps me awake at night. It’s got me thinking about death, and life, and the inextricable relationship between the two. It makes me ask myself: Is it only the inevitability of death that makes our short lives seem so precious? And I think the answer is “yes.”
This salmon is just one small player in the grand cycle of life. But its floating body caught Corey Arnold’s eye, and now it’s caught mine. It is beautiful in its awfulness. It is raw and mesmerizing. It forces me to look closer, holds my gaze, and then stays with me long after I look away.
And it’s just one image in Arnold’s new body of work “Wildlife” that has a hold on me. Through some magic, he manages to look animals straight in the eye and find a way to make them stare right back.
“I want people to ask themselves questions about what they are seeing,” he says. “I want people to think about their own relationship with wilderness, and with animals, and with nature.”
Looking through Arnold’s images, I am profoundly struck by the power of the animals’ eyes. Whether peeking out from behind a rock, bearing down from above, or frozen in a death mask, the eyes draw viewers deep into the creatures’ world.
Viewing his work, I can’t not feel the pain of this wounded bear; the humiliation of this harbor seal; or the sad grin of this salmon shark on its final voyage on the sea:
But Corey Arnold’s spare captions leave interpretation up to each individual viewer. You might not really know what’s going on in each frame, but you probably have a feeling about it.
“This series is about instincts and our relationship with animals,” says Arnold. “I like to take pictures that make people dream about the greater world and our place in it.”
Arnold has done a fair amount of thinking about his own place in the animal world. He grew up hunting and tracking every animal that came through his boyhood backyard, as well as sport fishing with his dad. But while he was hunting squirrels and gophers with a BB gun, he also volunteered at an oddball wildlife refuge down the street, helping to save animals’ lives. He’s now a commercial fisherman with an extensive body of photographic work to his name.
(The New York Times ‘Lens’ blog did an excellent profile of him last year.)
“Wildlife” is a collection of images from many of Arnold’s different journeys. While it mostly features animals, he also includes the occasional human. He mainly shoots using natural light and his hunter’s instincts. For example, to get the photo of the eagle he lay on his belly on a dock, while other eagles swarmed around his head, screaming at him. He had to pull his hood over his head to protect himself.
“So much of why I’m shooting the pictures has to do with curiosity and mystery, and hopefully that’s inspiring to people, he says. “I like to think I have a unique connection with animals.”
During our conversation, I complemented Arnold on his photo of a white bird staring down from above, remarking on the intensity of its gaze.
“Some of my friends have been trying to talk me out of using [that image],” he says.
“But no. I told them: ‘We are a having a connection right now. We are looking into each other’s souls.’ The bird was trying to kill me because I was standing near its nest. It was making serious eye contact. He’s trying to figure me out the same way I’m trying to figure him out.”
And as Corey Arnold continues to try to figure out the animal world, he will keep adding to this body of work, as well as to a personal project called “Human Animals,” which playfully turns the lens on ourselves and our strange interactions with the critters among us.
Corey Arnold’s show “Wildlife” opens today at the Charles A. Hartman Fine Art gallery in Portland, Ore. The work will be on display Nov. 5-29, 2014. See more of his work on his website: coreyfishes.com