Zana Briski: Animalograms |Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco

BY Emily Wilson, January 1, 2024

To make the photograms in her show Animalograms (there are 12, along with two photographs – of a mountain gorilla and of gelada baboons) – Zana Briski positioned huge pieces of light-sensitive paper in the woods of upstate New York and the jungles of Borneo, among other places (including Ethiopia, Arizona, and Papua, New Guinea) and waited for animals, including bears, raccoons, and civets, to come. She had prepared by studying the animals’ patterns, such as where they foraged and what paths they took. (The show is on view through February 3.)

Zana Briski, Bearogram #19, 2020. Courtesy Robert Koch Gallery

Briski, who won an Academy Award for best documentary for Born into Brothels in 2005, made the photograms on nights when there was little moonlight, and in order to cause the least disturbance, she used a small, hand-held flash to record the image of the animal when it crossed the path of the paper. The resulting images – made over the course of four to six months – are stunning. In Bearogram #18 (2020), for example, the life-sized silhouette of the bear is so detailed it’s as though it’s imprinted on the paper; the separations in the fur are visible as well as the animal’s slightly open mouth. The leaves at the bottom of the image appear to glow (Briski gold tones the prints); some have clear, sharp outlines while others are slightly smudged, due, perhaps, to some slight disturbance in the air. The element of chance plays into these images: they might not come out, or she might fall asleep and miss the moment. Briski has said that she sometimes wakes up with her face in the mud. 

Zana Briski, Cicada, 2019. Courtesy Robert Koch Gallery

Briski has also made photograms of the insect world. Cicada (2019) shows the perfect symmetrical patterns on its wings, while the insects in Praying Mantises (2015) look otherworldly. Briski has said that the photogram process allows her to feel closer to nature because there is nothing between her and her subjects. We’re accustomed to seeing mammals such as bears or a civet as sentient beings but less so with insects. In her photograms of them, Briski’s images invite us to rethink our relationship to nature, to see it as something wondrous but also ephemeral.