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Seeing Inside Photographer Dick Blau’s ‘Elephant House’

The mysterious world of pachyderms at Woodland Pattern exhibit

Jan. 10, 2017
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There is a famous old story about a group of blind men and an elephant. They describe the elephant as they know it through their sense of touch. One man feels the animal’s leg and says the creature is a pillar. Another, with hands on its ear, declares it is a hunting basket. Another who holds a tusk characterizes it as a pipe, while the man holding the tail says it is a rope. All are right, yet all are somewhat off. There is only a part-truth in the understanding of each.

Photographer and filmmaker Dick Blau takes on the pachyderm as subject in “Elephant House,” his exhibition currently on view at Woodland Pattern Book Center. The project originated with a conversation at UW-Milwaukee with his colleague, Nigel Rothfels, and eventually became the book Elephant House. This collaboration between the two men was published in 2015, and the exhibition showcases nearly two-dozen large format prints by Blau.

He succeeds in his stark and direct approach, tinged with curiosity and, at times, wonder. The photographs include wide views in which entire rooms or animals may be seen. This has a sort of emptiness, as the gray institutional architecture of concrete and iron bars unavoidably come off as cold. This is tempered by the sensitivity of Blau’s presentation of the elephants, as well as the rituals of daily care given by their keepers. 

These bring us to some of the most intriguing compositions, such as grooming rituals. Who knew that elephants are given pedicures with large files? We see these activities up close, but in the cropped compositions it is hard to say exactly what we see. What comes through is focused intensity of the moment. We are left with a mysterious feeling, as the details may be hard to grasp.

Which also brings us back to the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each tells of their experience, drawing parallels with what is known to them. It takes all of their stories, and all of these images, to begin to arrive at a sense of understanding. 

Elephant House: Photos by Dick Blau continues through Jan. 31 at Woodland Pattern, 720 E. Locust Street.

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