Robin Schwartz: The Communion of Animals

© Robin Schwartz ‘Velvet’ [detail] 2017 from the series ‘Amelia, Emily and Babie’

For me, the human–animal boundary was always blurred.


Companionship between animals and humans has a long history. Towards the end of the last ice age, some thirty to forty thousand years ago, resources were scarce. The two top-of-the-food-chain species, wolves and hominids, found it mutually advantageous to combine forces. Wolves can only digest pure meat, while humans require a more mixed diet. Bringing down a large animal created a temporary surplus of raw protein which the hunters could share with the wolves. In turn, the wolves proved useful partners in the hunt. Evolutionary scientists believe this to have either been a reciprocal initiative or that, in fact, it was wolves that effectively domesticated humans, becoming dogs in the process. Much later on, cats were hanging around human settlements for several thousand years before they permitted themselves to become domesticated, subsequently to be venerated by the ancient Egyptians, endowing them with expectations they maintain to this day.

It is this deep connection between people and animals that drives the artmaking of photographer Robin Schwartz. She began by making animal portraits that revealed the character and individuality of our primate cousins. But it is the photographs of her daughter Amelia communing with a remarkable array of animal companions for which the artist is best known today. From early childhood, Amelia displayed an innate affinity with creatures great and small. Dogs and cats, of course, but also a chimpanzee, a tufted capuchin, a lemur, deer, llamas, kangaroos, and even an elephant. What marks these images out is the extraordinary ease exhibited by both child and animals. These are not cute pictures, there is no sugar coating of sentimentality. Amelia and her animal friends demonstrate a relaxed mutuality and matter-of-factness that speaks to authenticity.

In images that span the arc from infancy into womanhood, Amelia remains self-possessed, never hamming it up for the camera; engaging her animal friends with dignity and respect. Meanwhile, the creative relationship between mother and daughter has evolved, with Amelia bringing her own ideas to the artmaking process until, in the most recent series, she assumes the role of art director. Together, they have created an extensive body of work that explores and celebrates the profound companionship to be shared in the communion of animals.

Alasdair Foster

© Robin Schwartz ‘Tower’ 2006 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’


What is it that attracts you to photographing animals?

I was born drawn to animals. It is an empathic pull, a connection. For me, the human–animal boundary was always blurred. I grew up with lots of images of Margaret Keene’s stray cats, and I loved Thomas Eakins’ cat photos in ‘Life’ magazine. I collected postcards of cats and other animals dressed like humans. At home, my pet cat was my brother. My father verbally abused my mother and me – it was scary. But when my father yelled at me, my cat loudly defended me.

[Left] © Robin Schwartz ‘Amelia and Ricky’ 2002 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’
[Right] © Robin Schwartz ‘Elmo, Amelia, and Abu’ 2002 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

When did you begin photographing Amelia with animals?

I had been photographing Amelia with our domestic pets since she was a baby. But the project began in earnest when I was photographing a two-year-old chimp called Ricky. My husband and three-year-old daughter came with me. The connection between Amelia and Ricky was totally unexpected, unplanned: love at first sight. They hugged, kissed, fell off a chair hugging. I photographed them but had no plans to develop a project around my daughter with animals. I knew that any whiff of cute – playing the ‘mother card’ – and I would not be taken seriously as a photographer. Yet that day was what started the project that is now twenty years old.

A little later, I was offered an opportunity to photograph a lemur called Elmo. Amelia was happy and so relaxed with Elmo as he flew over her head.

[Left] © Robin Schwartz ‘Shiba Up’ 2002 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’
[Right] © Robin Schwartz ‘Shiba Swing’ 2006 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

Then we met Shibu the elephant. Somehow Amelia and Shibu connected on a level deeper than she ever experienced again. Amelia and I just talked about her relationship with Shiba, for the first time. She said Shiba was different to any other elephant she met, and Shiba showed great interest in Amelia. They seemed to communicate easily.

What are you seeking to capture in these images?

My goal from early on has always been to photograph animals and people as equals. As a child, I would photograph my cat–brother while I was home alone while my parents were at work. That was the deal: my mother would work full-time, and I would be allowed to have a cat in the house.

[Left] © Robin Schwartz ‘Feeding Flat’ 2006 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’
[Right] © Robin Schwartz ‘Jack, Addie, and Rooney’ 2012 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

Photographing my animals as a child – then my animals with Amelia as a mother – made me happy. And when I went out to photograph other animals, I didn’t leave Amelia at home, I took her with me. She was so low-key: animal-smart, brave, and strong. There is this photo of Amelia lifting a big-bellied lamb with these Orthodox Hasidic kids looking on. Amelia was just really comfortable with animals; didn’t mind getting dirty. When we were photographing some shy alpacas, it was Amelia who thought of lying down with a pan of food on her tummy. And then there were the kangaroos… we had to brain storm every interaction. Amelia is a problem solver. She has great ideas, is very calm with animals, very patient. Making these pictures has very much become a collaboration.

© Robin Schwartz ‘Angelica Touch’ 2014 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

Amelia’s affinity with animals seems quite remarkable. Is this learned or inherent?

I have to assume it’s both nature and nurture, probably more nurture. Amelia grew up with two whippets, and one of them, Rebecca, was like a sister to her (just as my cat had been my brother). Amelia loved her like no other. When Amelia was ten, Becky developed a brain tumour and we took turns sleeping on the floor with her, as her seizures and their aftermath were distressing for her. It was Amelia’s turn to stay with Becky on the night she had her final seizure and entered a coma from which she did not awake. Later that spring we drove fourteen hours to collect a highly unusual blue eyed whippet, which Amelia named Ruby, her favourite name. Ruby is a boy.

© Robin Schwartz ‘Trunk Sniff’ 2005 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

How did the project develop to include other, sometimes very large, animals?

This project has evolved over many years. Early on, I had an opportunity to work with a well-respected trainer who enabled me to photograph with his elephants. So, large was not an issue. I networked to find safe animal situations, a mixture of serendipity, recommendations, and networking. I understood each opportunity as a gift from a trusted caretaker of the animals concerned.

How did you ensure Amelia’s safety when interacting with the larger animals?

I used to get asked in interview about situations where things had become dangerous. Frankly, I find it somewhat offensive. To make my point, I tell them of a time when we were visiting cousins. This was just a family visit; I was not photographing. The cousins had a fluffy medium-sized dog which proceeded, unprovoked, to bite Amelia on the face. Thankfully, the skin was not broken, but that family pet scared us, its behaviour was so unexpected and shocking. And, again, I was not taking photographs, this was just a family visit.

Whenever I am photographing Amelia with other animals I discuss our safety with the animal’s caretaker during my initial inquiry, again when we are on site, and again while photographing. The caretaker or owner remains right there, helping us and guiding us with the animals they know so well. They would never allow us to be at risk because that would be a risk for all concerned. If the caretaker or owner thought we would be in any kind of danger, we would simply not be allowed in.

[Left] © Robin Schwartz ‘Silver and Purple’ 2017 from the series ‘Amelia, Emily, and Babie’
[Right] © Robin Schwartz ‘Emily’s Birthday Gown’ 2016 from the series ‘Amelia, Emily, and Babie’

In the more recent work Amelia and her animal friends are dressed in some very fine outfits.

Emily and Babie are two rescued, injured, primates bred in the USA. These rescues now live in a loving forever home with a wonderful caretaker. Babie is thirteen years old. She survived a dog attack followed by a butchered amputation of a leg, an arm and half a tail. While her injuries do not impede her activities on her jungle gym, she does appear to have phantom limb syndrome. Emily is a twenty-five-year-old black capped capuchin, also recovered following injury.

Amelia has an increasing interest in fashion and sustainability. Emily regularly wears clothes both for warmth and for her own enjoyment. Incorporating thrifted fashion into these portraits speaks to the sameness of Amelia, Emily, and Babie. The couture blurs the line between human and animal, where animals are part of our world and humans are part of theirs, co-exiting and interacting as partners. Amelia, Emily, and Babie trust each other.

The mise-en-scène is quite painterly.

When Amelia was very young, in a stroller, we would spend winter days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The guards were tolerant of a young child throwing her toy monkey dolls in the air and there was a cafeteria. We spent a lot of time looking at the formal painted portraits. That memory, combined with my change to a Mamiya 7II camera and 220 film, influenced me for the more formal approach and the more dramatic couture of ‘Amelia, Emily and Babie’.

[Left] © Robin Schwartz ‘Two Ferrets’ 2010 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’
[Right] © Robin Schwartz ‘Reach’ 2005 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

I have interviewed other mothers who have built an artistic project around their relationship with their children. Oddly, this seems to draw criticism from some quarters. You mentioned earlier your concern that if you took pictures of your daughter and animals you would not be taken seriously…

As an academic, I faced criticism from the bottom to the top, including my departmental chairperson, my dean (who was at least nice about her disapproval), the previous dean, the provost, and the university president. These people either told me straight out to stop photographing my daughter, or disparaged my photos and denied me art-release time to work on the project. I was on tenure track for a permanent university position and this kind of judgementalism left me feeling stressed and vulnerable. Nor did the criticism stop when, in 2008, Aperture published my first book on this subject, ‘Amelia’s World’.

Twenty years ago there was such a double standard in the academic art world. Men had always been free to photograph their families, their households – think of Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Nicholas Nixon, Alfred Stieglitz, Larry Towell, Larry Sultan… and male painters before them. But not women. If they did something like that it was dismissed as ‘cute’. Things are somewhat different now.

When did things change for you?

It was only when I was invited by Elizabeth Krist to present my series ‘Amelia and the Animals’ at the National Geographic’s 2012 annual seminar. I got such an unexpectedly positive response. It changed my life! After that, the criticism stopped but, by then, many of the people at school had changed as well. I don’t think Elizabeth Krist fathomed just how downtrodden I had felt at the university, listening to how I should stop photographing my daughter.

[Left] © Robin Schwartz ‘Amelia and Babie’ 2016 from the series ‘Amelia, Emily, and Babie’
[Right] © Robin Schwartz ‘Velvet’ 2017 from the series ‘Amelia, Emily, and Babie’

What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?

On the whole it’s good, but definitely better in Europe than in the USA. America tends to have a colder, more puritanical attitude when it comes to pictures of children and animals. Maybe it is this sterile attitude that produced a distaste in the fine-art world for the positive emotions in my work. In contrast, photojournalists are very positive, as I found when I got that life-changingly affirmative response at the National Geographic seminar. And I do see that the next generation of women photographers that are having children and photographing them, are receiving support and being published.

I experienced the difference between USA and European art-world attitudes when I was a finalist in the 2010 Hyeres Photo Festival. In France, there was just a more open attitude to my work, while there was less interest in the more sterile institutional work favoured by galleries in the USA. I have just returned from Italy where I received wonderful feedback on an exhibition spanning almost twenty years of my work, curated by Rica Cerbarano for the Photolux Biennial in Lucca. The Hyderabad Photo Festival was also a great experience.

© Robin Schwartz ‘Feeding Fawns’ 2018 from the series ‘Amelia Lore’

How do you see this project developing in the foreseeable future?

I had not seen the project developing at all. My 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship had been intended to support me to begin a new project. But then photographing Amelia evolved into the project with Emily and Babie, and thrift-shop fashion became a new component. I had also been photographing designer dog couture and people in New York City who dressed their canine companions in gowns.

‘Lore’, the series that came next, features images of Amelia in which some are with and some without animals. The most recent photos were taken while we were in Italy and were art-directed by Amelia for her Instagram account which explores thrifting and issues of sustainability. As challenging as it can sometimes be working together, we seem to keep going…

[Left] © Robin Schwartz ‘Doug Connie’ 2013 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’
[Right] © Robin Schwartz ‘Baby Minna Bat’ 2013 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

What have you learned about yourself – or your sense of yourself in the world – in the process of making your work?

Photographing animals, and the people that are devoted to animals, is what I have always cared about. It’s the driving force in all my work. And I have come to realise that photographing Amelia with animals has also been a way of photographing myself.

I have learned that the happiness this brings me should be valued. That ten-year experience of ongoing criticism of my photographic practice while I was applying for university tenure taught me something. I learned never to tell a student to stop photographing what they loved.

Having had cancer really put me in my place; the treatments permanently disable me. Photographing a cover story for The New York Times Magazine was the last assignment I was able to do before I started chemotherapy. Now, I just want to photography joyful subjects: my animals, my daughter, the women I sometimes hang out with who dress their dogs, and people who love their animals. These are the things that make me happy. For me, animals are my spiritual connection: my religion, my vice, my addiction, my therapy. Animals calm me and comfort me – they save me.

© Robin Schwartz ‘Tash Love’ 2012 from the series ‘Amelia and the Animals’

Biographical Notes

Robin Schwartz was born in Passaic, New Jersey, USA, in 1957. In 1979, she received a BA from the William Paterson College of New Jersey and, in 1981, an MFA in photography from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. She has held a number of teaching positions and has been a professor in photography at the William Paterson University of New Jersey since 1990. Her photographs have featured in thirty-three solo exhibitions and over one hundred group shows around the world. Her work is held in many prestigious public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York); the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Bibliothéque Nationale (Paris, France); the Museum Folkwang (Essen, Germany); and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, UK).

The photographs of Robin Schwartz have been published in four monographs: ‘Like Us: Primate Portraits’ (W.W. Norton & Co. 1993); ‘Dog Watching’ (Takarajima Books 1995); ‘Amelia’s World’ (Aperture 2008); ‘Amelia and the Animals’ (Aperture 2014). She has won numerous awards, grants and commendations including a Ford Foundation artist grant (New York 1979); a PDN Personal Work Award (New York 2014); a silver Lead Award for Photographic Portrait of the Year (Hamburg 2014); and the PDN Book of the Year Award (New York 2015). In 2016, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography. She lives and works in New Jersey.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.