If flamingos dined together at a table in Miami, Florida, what would it look like? How about cheetahs in South Africa or sloths in the Peruvian Amazon? These are the gatherings that fine art photographer Claire Rosen brings to life.
Over the past six years, she’s photographed 55 species in about 20 locations worldwide, creating whimsical images of animals reveling — and indulging — around elaborate banquet tables. The resulting work is called The Fantastical Feasts.
Rosen, who is based in Pennsylvania, hopes that by depicting animals in a scene normally reserved for humans, viewers will question whether we have more in common with scaled, furry and feathered critters than we realize.
"The project’s intent,” says Rosen, “is to encourage people to consider animals more humanely and kindly, and to think about how we interact with them; what responsibility do we have to the creatures we share the planet with?”
The photographs impel viewers to empathize with the animals by recalling the way many of us imagined them when we were children. Growing up, Rosen embraced books that anthropomorphized animals. Author Beatrix Potter of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was a favorite, as well as Lewis Carrol of Alice in Wonderland. After beginning Fantastical Feasts she stumbled across some of her old books in her parents’ attic. It struck Rosen that the project was heavily influenced by scenes she absorbed as a child.
For the most part, Rosen thanks a combination of serendipity and synchronicity for the animals that appear in her photos. Many of the images are made while traveling for her work as a photography instructor. Once a destination is confirmed, Rosen researches what animals are important to the region and starts mapping possible images in her mind.
Access has come about in myriad ways. In Jordan, where Rosen photographed the Arabian oryx, the country’s national animal that was saved from extinction through captive breeding, access was gained after fortuitously stopping at a coffee stand in the middle of the desert. (Watch a video showing how the oryx was brought back.)
Rosen struck up a conversation with a fellow coffee drinker about her project. He offered to call his cousin who’s a friend of a scientist on the breeding team. Seven minutes later Rosen was in the back of a pickup truck on the way to get keys to the reserve.
Having examples of the work to show people has made access significantly easier.
Upon recently moving to rural Pennsylvania, several residents in the area volunteered animals they know and love. Some, like the horses, dogs, goats, cows and sheep, Rosen expected. The peacocks and giant caterpillars her neighbors offered were a welcome surprise.
Rosen get creative and resourceful, too.
The budgies, which are Rosen’s pets, were photographed in a former apartment after a rain storm. “A tree had fallen down, so I dragged a big branch inside,” says Rosen, “and my mom made the little treats for them with her cake molds.”
But most of the time, she looks for recommendations on Facebook. “My network has been very helpful in facilitating these shoots and getting access,” Rosen says.
To unify the images, Rosen uses the compositional structure of the The Last Supper, and the table spreads are arranged in the style of 17th century Dutch still life paintings. The items and food on the table are chosen based on both aesthetics and the animals’ proclivities. “I get excited about going to hunt for all the stuff to put on the table,” says Rosen, who sources the objects locally to reflect the area and culture.
Before making decisions about what to put on the banquet table, Rosen consults the animals’ handler or owner about what can be eaten safely, whether there are decorations that could pose a safety risk, and the types of settings that echo the characteristics of the animals she’s photographing. The animals’ guardians are typically present during the shoots and, along with Rosen, ensure that no animals are harmed while making the photographs.
Once the animals arrive, nothing is truly predictable. “The camels took about 10 minutes,” recalls Rosen. “They were so excited about all the food.” The elephants, too, were easy customers: “like vacuum cleaners with the peanuts.” And although the starfish in Norway “were very cooperative,” remembers Rosen, “their dining table kept drifting away.”
The flamingos, however, proved difficult. After serving shrimp cocktail, Rosen waited — and waited — in shallow tropical water for the birds to feast. “They just ate the krill and bugs out of the water,” bemoans Rosen with amusement, adding, “I get such a kick out of this project.”
“The Cobra Feast,” which is a favorite of Rosen’s because of the polarizing feelings that snakes incite — esteem or horror — was shot in Jaipur, India. With the help of a local photographer, Rosen made arrangements with a fifth-generation snake charmer to photograph the reptiles. She chose a blue wall, found on a side street, as the backdrop. The color is a reference to Shiva, the blue-skinned Hindu deity often portrayed with a king cobra around his neck. Rosen searched the local markets for a miniature brass tea set, a textile for the tablecloth, milk, samosas and flowers to place on the table. The eggs were chosen for their symbolism; snakes represent fertility as do eggs.
“Each image is a completely different set of circumstances and challenges,” says Rosen.
Once the scene has been photographed, Rosen chooses the most photogenic frames of each animal to construct a final composite image in post-production.
“I like that this project makes people happy when they see it,” says Rosen. “I’ve always had a desire to create a magical world around me.”