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Elephant House (Pennsylvania State University Press), by Dick Blau and Nigel Rothfels

Nov. 4, 2016
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It’s easy to feel sorry for elephants at the zoo, huge creatures penned for life in confined spaces, until you think: the alternative might be extinction in the wild from the guns of poachers. In composing Elephant House, Milwaukee photographer Dick Blau repeatedly visited the pachyderms at the Oregon Zoo in the company of historian Nigel Rothfels. In his introduction to Elephant House, Rothfels painstakingly distances himself and his colleague from any agenda, yet he clearly finds that the lot of zoo elephants has improved over the years with greater care given to simulating their natural habitat. He especially praises the “openness and transparency” of the Oregon Zoo, a place where cruelty or neglect would be hard to conceal.

Rothfels and Blau evidently spent a good deal of time in the facility, getting to know the elephants and their keepers and venturing repeatedly into the back rooms of the Elephant House that zoo visitors never see. “Dick and I often noticed how much the animals and the people working with them enjoyed the time they spent with each other,” Rothfels writes.

Blau’s photographs convey an almost matter-of-fact tone. They are the work of a trained eye that seemed concerned to capture representative moments in the quotidian routine: glimpses of the keepers work room, the elephants going about their paces in the public yards and disappearing into the inner chambers where they are cared for. We see the zoo workers with the elephants but with the usual perspective reversed: in some shots, they appear bigger than the animals they serve.

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