In Focus: Deborah Samuel Photography

“It has always come back to the art of the photograph, the art of the image. That’s my voice and that’s where I’m most comfortable expressing what I’m seeing.” – Deborah Samuel

For award-winning Canadian photographer Deborah Samuel, the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill proved the tipping point. The Zoomer – renowned for her photography, particularly animal portraiture – suffered a number of personal losses in the years leading up to the ecological disaster.

Much like the leaking pipe unloading gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the event triggered a rush of themes and ideas that eventually led to ELEGY: DEBORAH SAMUEL. The world premiere of the work is currently on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and doubles as a featured exhibition for the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

The images portray the skeletal remains of a variety of animals, from birds to reptiles to a wolverine. Created using a flatbed scanner, the skeletons appear hauntingly alive, confronting viewers with striking, subtle hues that provide a sympathetically warm and almost human element.

Zoomer magazine recently visited Samuel to discuss her work, the environment, dealing with loss, and adapting to the age of digital photography.

ZOOMER: Tell us about your gut reaction to the BP Oil Spill.

DEBORAH SAMUEL: My initial reaction was this incredible sadness – I started to think ‘My God, how is this affecting all these animals and all of these fish?’ That’s when I went looking for bird skeletons because to me it was pretty evident that, unless we clean up our act, that’s what we’re going to be left with – a lot of death.

ZM: Does that play into the significance of the black background in the images?


DS: Yes. I think that because I’d gone through a lot of loss, in my culture the sensibility of loss is darkness, black, void. I’ve been around the Hispanic-Mexican culture a lot and the older cultures in the world have their celebration of the Day of the Dead, which is actually a celebration of all that have lived.

ZM: So this work goes far beyond the BP oil spill.

DS: I think in a way it was a healing for me for my losses.

ZM: As far as the skeletons themselves, their origins trace from around the world (some shipped from South America and others provided by the ROM) so their very nature provides your work with a global perspective.

DS: It was kind of a fine art finding the ones that spoke to me too. In my mind we all have a right to co-exist and be interdependent on each other in a certain way. It’s really about survival, and there’s no difference between an animal in the wild surviving and us.

ZM: In terms of the artistic process, you’ve spent most of your career working with film, and now you’re forced to adopt a more digital approach. For this work, you used a flatbed scanner. How has the changing technology affected your approach to the craft?

DS: The writing was on the wall that you better embrace (digital technology) because it is a new world. So that’s kind of why I did what I did with the scanner. I used the scanner as the canvas. And I was also really fascinated with the issues between a fixed image (the film negative) and a fluid image (digital image). Then I realized that the scanner is really a fixed way of capturing an image because it was stationary. So I had to work backwards working on it so that I had to work to the scanner. That’s what was kind of curious. I ended up working with a fixed image, but it was really fluid, so it was kind of combining all of that.

ZM: And it wasn’t a quick process.

DS: People might think ‘She’s throwing skeletons on the scanner.’ This is not easy. This is a lot of work. Just to get that black (background) was days, on each of them. People think that black’s black, but it’s not. There’s a lot of colour in black.

ZM: Of course, when talking digital work, people will want to know how much manipulation was done on the images?

DS: I’m not altering anything in the image, but I am taking out electronic noise and dust and, on occasion, I can be highlighting certain things or darkening things just to give more form to it-.That’s what’s changed about photography. It’s a new art form. We can’t hang onto what it was. It’s different now.

ZM: Cardinal+Solitaire.I is one of your favourite from the collection. Why?

DS: To me it spoke of everything I was trying to say about the work. The animation in the skeletons – that in their life they had their relationships and their emotions around things-. It’s almost like you don’t see the skeletons anymore because the life is breathed back into these skeletons.

ZM: After years of working and establishing your reputation, is the opening of a new exhibition still as exciting as it always was?

DS: Yes, because it’s always new work. Sometimes you put out a body of work that people really connect to and sometimes you don’t but this one I’m particularly proud of. It really comes from the heart. It’s different, and it speaks to a different part of all of us.

ZM: What do you hope people take from this show?

DS: A renewed respect for the natural world would be good with me. That to me is the most incredible thing about working with all of these specimens – it’s just how incredible the universe is. This is all created and all living interdependent with each other.

ZM: After working with animals for so long, do you think you could go back to shooting humans?

DS: It’s nothing against humans. I could well come back to them at some point. [Laughs]

ELEGY: DEBORAH SAMUEL is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum until July 2, 2012.