Ruta Saksens Kalmane
Updated: Feb 28
Jeff Wall (2015) has proposed that photographers can be divided into two categories: hunters and farmers. While photographers-hunters are focused on ‘tracking down’ and capturing images of a world as it is, photographers-farmers are interested in ‘cultivating’ images over a longer period of time (Wall (2015) in Cotton, 2018: 49). I believe this distinction between the two groups is not complete and there is the third category missing that combines the two, as many photographers are both, hunters and farmers at the same time.
The genre of children’s literature gives plenty of possibilities for constructed realities to complement a writer’s story. While some photographers choose to represent the world as it is and do not stage their images for children’s storybooks (photographers-hunters), like photographer April Pulley Sayre in her book ‘Best in Snow’, it is more often that photobooks with stories for children include carefully designed and staged scenes in response to the storyline they represent. As Peter Smith and Carolyn Lefley have observed it, there are photographers who are in favour of making or constructing images (being photographers-farmers) rather than taking photographs (2016: 113).
Smith and Lefley further explain that “a constructed photograph is one that is formed by bringing together discrete elements to create a final picture. The photographer creates a scene for the camera, often carefully selecting location, actors and lighting just as a film director would” (2016: 113).
One of such constructed realities developed for entertaining young children is the fictional handcrafted miniature world of Mr. Peanuts, the main character in the book ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’, written and photographically illustrated by a Canadian photographer Nancy Rose.
Fig. 1: Rose c.2014. The cover for the book ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’
To show the world of Mr. Peanuts, Rose carefully staged each scene in her backyard creating miniature objects that are representations of things humans use in daily lives. In an interview for a Workman blog, Rose explains how she captured the image for the book cover:
“I have always laid out birdseed and nuts in my backyard and I loved taking photos of the birds and squirrels who came to snack. […] I made a little mailbox out of card stock, decorated it, and added some tiny envelopes for Valentine’s Day. I hid peanuts inside the mailbox, and as the squirrel sifted through the “mail,” I waited for just the right “pose.” He came along searching for the nuts and I was able to capture a shot of him “mailing the letters”” (2021).
Anthropomorphism plays a major role in her book. The story implies that a squirrel can play a piano, read books, write letters, cook and do other things that are typical to humans. Although children might quite enjoy the lovely photographic images of a squirrel performing human activities, an adult will recognize that the main trick behind the scenes is a squirrel that tries to find hidden food in each of the constructed scenes. Obviously, making choices about how to frame each shot are highly important as the success of the final image depends on how well the world around a constructed scene is excluded from the shot. Due to sometimes involving staged vertical backgrounds one might even assume that the shots are taken in a studio, but that is not the case. Neither are any of the photographed squirrels the photographer’s pets. When talking about the process, Rose continues saying the following:
“Most times I don’t really have a full idea of what I’m making—it just develops as I go along. There’s a lot of trial and error. I might take some photos and then decide to add more details and change the props a bit. Every setting has to function as a “still life” on its own before the squirrel enters the scene, and I need to think about how the squirrel will likely behave, like whether it will stand to look into the washer or peek into the dryer” (2021).
Fig. 2: Rose c.2014. Scenes from the book ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’
As the target audience here is meant to be primarily children, I believe the photographic images are a success and will certainly make a young child wonder if squirrels really know how to vacuum-clean.
Rose’s work is much concerned with planning and performing pre-photoshooting activities and less with post-production. When describing the arranged, constructed and staged photograph, Michael Köhler explains that : “In making this type of photograph the artist behaves much like a commercial photographer or a film director: First he develops an idea for the picture — the “script” so to speak - then has the appropriate sets, props, costumes, and if needed, make-up prepared, selects performers and ultimately employs all of these elements to stage fictional events or scenes from everyday life, from history, legend, mythology or science fiction. No alteration of the exposed negative or the prints is made” (1995: 15).
In contrast to Rose’s constructed world for her story of Mr. Peanut’s daily life, my work doesn’t involve creating an alternative reality, but it is also not entirely a straightforward representation of the world like the work of Pulley Sayre as some parts of my work do involve photomontage and pairing images together, when two images organically become as one. I agree with Köhler’s opinion that there must be something special about images to nowadays hold the attention of a viewer as the invention of camera is by far no longer a novelty. Köhler explains that camera media “have become a part of the everyday, the boring everyday. We therefore consume images fleetingly and randomly. It takes very special pictures to grasp and hold our attention. We need to be seduced by images that outdo reality through excessiveness — as in advertising and movies” (1995: 23).
I aim to find a way how to represent my story in a playful way, sometimes showing nature scenes for what they are, sometimes using an image to deceive the eye and sometimes constructing a scene with the help of a photomontage or pairing. Finding a balance in between it all is what is going to be challenging. Much of how my story will develop also depends on what happens in reality. For example, creating a fictional character that is in reality an actual bird (like Mr. Peanuts is a real squirrel) means that the action of the real bird will influence where the story goes and how it develops.
Fig. 3: Kalmane Saksens 2022. A bird character for the work in progress [digital photographic image]
I believe Rose and I share one thing in common during the creative process – that is the excitement of working with animals. The unpredictability of the outcome makes it all interesting, even if a scene in staged. Only a stuffed animal would guarantee having full control over the outcome.
Fig. 4: Kalmane Saksens 2022. A conversation between a craw and a leaf [a pair of digital photographic images]
At the moment neither the images nor the story has an upper hand (in terms of emphasis) in the process of developing the work. It is rather a symbiosis of the two, both moving forward like synchronous swimmers and being dependant on each other. I see myself as being more a photographer-farmer rather than a photographer-hunter. Constructing, selecting, cropping, adjusting, rotating, pairing until it makes sense are all the decisions I regularly make to achieve a certain goal in my mind.
KÖHLER, Michael. 1995. ‘Arranged, Constructed and Staged - From Taking to Making Pictures’. In Michael Köhler (ed.). 1995. Constructed Realities. Zurich: Edition Stemmle.
ROSE, Nancy. 2021. Interviewed by Workman Publishing in Workman [online]. Available at: https://blog.workman.com/a-conversation-with-nancy-rose-author-of-oakley-the-squirrel-the-search-for-z [accessed 4 February 2022].
SMITH, Peter and LEFLEY, Carolyn. 2016. Rethinking Photography: Histories, Theories and Education. New York, London: Routledge.
WALL, Jeff. 2015. In COTTON, Charlotte. 2018. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
Figure 1: ROSE, Nancy. c.2014. The cover for the book ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’. From Nancy Rose. 2014. The Secret Life of Squirrels (cover). New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Figure 2: ROSE, Nancy. c.2014. Scenes from the book ‘The Secret Life of Squirrels’. From Nancy Rose. 2014. The Secret Life of Squirrels (p. 6, 7, 11 and 17). New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Figure 3: KALMANE SAKSENS. 2022. A bird character for the work in progress [digital photographic image].
Figure 4: KALMANE SAKSENS. 2022. A conversation between a craw and a leaf [a pair of digital photographic images].