Photographer Deborah Samuel unveils “Elegy,” a beautiful but haunting exhibit at the ROM
A few days before the latest exhibit from renowned photographer Deborah Samuel is due to debut at the ROM, the exhibition space is still bare. “But I’m told the walls have been painted cotton-ball white,” says Samuel, examining the room where her latest exhibit, “Elegy,” will take shape.
“Elegy,” which makes its world premiere tomorrow (March 31) in the Hilary and Galen Weston Wing of the ROM, features dozens of haunting images of animal skeletons. The images are stark and set against a deep black background and are a powerful statement on the transience of life.
At first glance the images look like normal — though very beautiful — photographs, but they were made using an unusual technique.
“I was raised in the dark room,” says Samuel, who has photographed the likes of music legends Rush and Leonard Cohen. “But this time I decided to embrace technology completely.”
So, rather than shooting the skeletons with a camera, the artist placed the bones on a scanner then used a digital process to get the black in the background just right. “I had to manipulate the skeletons to get the point I wanted into focus,” she says.
This method gives the skeletal subjects the air of almost being able to crawl off the page. One in particular, a series of three separate images titled Cobra (shown at bottom), are placed in a way the you could swear the snake is actually slithering through the frames. “When you see the skeleton it’s as though you could imagine it alive,” says Samuel, “because that’s its imprint on the world. It’s really only capturing the essence of the energy that it contained.”
The photographer, whose career spans over three decades, began her work in fine art, before moving into commercial photography, doing promo shots for friends who had started rock bands. “Eventually they would get signed to a record label and then I would get to do an album cover,” she says. “I met a lot of people that way.”
Samuel’s commercial work has appeared in the pages of Esquire, GQ and Rolling Stone, but in her personal projects — like “Elegy” — she has moved away from the rich and famous and towards animals.
For Samuel, “Elegy” began with the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “I saw images of all these oiled birds in Louisiana and I wanted to go there to take pictures of them, but BP and government regulations wouldn’t allow me to,” she says.
After that, she decided to make a statement through her work, finding and buying animal bones and then photographing them. “I used skeletons because I made the leap from the oiled birds to their death. At the end of the day if we don’t take care of our environment, we all die.”
Once she began, she became fascinated by the anatomy of the skeletons she was photographing. “Even though they’re skeletons it’s almost like you can see the whole animal in relation to another animal and the magnificence of how we were put together to survive.”
Of the 50 photographs that make up “Elegy,” 33 will be shown at the ROM, and 10 of those images are of skeletons leant to Samuel by the ROM. “They saw my stuff and offered me the space because it fits the subject matter that they’re already working with,” she says of the ROM’s current program, Life in Crisis. “That’s also why they offered me access to their collection. They have this enormous collection that’s been there for who knows how many years. To have that access was really special.”
“Elegy” will be featured as part of the Contact Photography Festival in May.
Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park, 416-586-8000. March 31 - July 2.
All images shown in this article are courtesy of Deborah Samuel.