Natural History – Animals



As if in reply to Arthur Janto’s statement that « the only picture we have of the future is the erased picture of the past … , »
Stephen Sack gives us pictures from Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, but not the ones you might expect.

Buffon’s work was intended as a catalogue of the entire natural world.
The engravings in the early editions have bled through to the reverse sides, producing ghost images,
and it is these ghosts that Sack has photographed.
The photographs register time’s passage and its tendency to leave blurred and distorted afterimages.

But the actual depictions, the « right » sides, were themselves hardly accurate reflections of nature.
Buffon’s illustrators were hired hands who in many cases interpreted the writer’s detailed descriptions of creatures they had never seen.
Their representations were based on the language of a naturalist whose penchant for slanting observations to advance his own hypotheses
stirred nearly as much controversy as the scientific implications of his work.
Histoire Naturelle now reads a bit like inspired science fiction.
In Buffon’s menagerie, extinct varieties and imaginary ones exist within a gamut of familiar species ranging from fairly exact to loosely approximate likenesses.
Sack, like Buffon, treats all these creatures as emanations of a seamless reality,
like shadowy fossils of a distant past when art and literature, facts and fantasy commingled naturally.

.                                                                                                                                                                    Sarah McFadden