Wednesday, October 17, 2018

intricate, communicative, highly personable, unique: Animal portraits by Walter Schels

For the first time in decades, Walter Schels, one of the most important German photographers of his generation, is showing a selection of rare vintage prints of his famous animal portraits. A cabinet exhibition will also feature some of his dog photographs from the seventies.
Walter Schels, born 1936, worked as a window dresser in Barcelona, Canada and Geneva before moving to New York to become a photographer. In 1970 he returned to Germany and became known for character studies by artists, politicians, and celebrities of the art and intellectual worlds. He has been portraying animals with the same intensity for decades.
As a passionate explorer of physiognomy, Walter Schels is interested in making the essence and personality of a motif visible in photography.
In long-term photographic projects, such as on the blind, people with disabilities, premature infants and transsexuals, Schels dedicates himself to extreme situations in human life. For his series, which shows hospice patients shortly before and immediately after their death, he received numerous awards, including the Hansel Mieth Prize, the World Press Photo Award, a gold medal from the Art Directors Club Germany and a Lead Award.

Walter Schels has lived and worked in Hamburg since 1990. He has published numerous books, his works have been shown in many exhibitions at home and abroad and are part of important international art collections.

03-01-2019 - source
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Great portraits not only expose the inner workings of the subject but also create an emotional resonance that elicits an association for the viewer. Here, Schels encounters another level of complexity because his subjects are animals, seldom viewed as individuals in their own right. Schels's sophisticated black-and-white studio portraits consist of head shots of earnest and supple cats, quirky and noble dogs, observant sheep, stern roosters, and a few exotica, including a gawky kangaroo, a ruggedly etched elephant, and a resplendent golden eagle. Simply placed and directly viewed, the faces of these animals are intricate, communicative, highly personable, and surprisingly unique.
Overall, the animals seem at ease and aware, often even participatory.
From the reflective gaze of a chimpanzee to the scrutiny of a house cat, Schels settles for none of the more common sentimental and sugary ideas of these animals but seeks and repeatedly finds undeniable and frequently comical evidence of their distinctive personalities and universal traits.

This book is recommended for large public libraries and, though not intended as such, will also make a delightful addition to well-endowed children's collections.

Debora Miller, Minneapolis

In the brief afterword to this album, German photographer Schels, a fine portraitist, confesses what may seem a strange orientation to the art: “For my portraits of people, I wanted 'animal-like' faces without poses and superfluous smiles, without the implied question: 'How do I look?'”
Which attitude accounts, perhaps, for the stunning quality of his black-and-white images of animals' faces, all presented, proper portrait-wise, against black or white backdrops.
Although they can't smile, animals don't hide their feelings, Schels opines, and “that is why we sometimes think we recognize a carefully hidden part of our own inner selves in an animal's expression.”
Dunno about inner selves, but the camel looks like a bully, the bear looks like a bishop, and the pigs all look like city councilmen. Most impressive is the pictures' presentational force, thanks to which it is possible to stare enrapt at the elephant's head and ear that, with every wrinkle and texture of skin ruthlessly exposed, resemble nothing so much as a relief map of an alternative Africa.

Ray Olson
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Walter Schels has photographed the animals like portraitists photograph people: using a large-format camera, sometimes in his studio, often outside pens or cages, with great earnestness and a deep desire to capture the very essence of what he is portraying.
He has thus achieved something unique in animal photography: astonished and strangely touched, we find ourselves confronted with an animal face that reminds us of human features.
The decadence in the face of the cat, the melancholy in the eyes of the monkey, the attentiveness in the gaze of the elephant. The links we make are reminiscent of the dialectics of essence and appearance anticipated in the case of humans by 18th century physiognomists.
Dennis C. Turner / ScD, Director, I. A. P, Institute for applied Ethology and Animal Psychology / Hirzel, Switzerland

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