Picks and Pans Review: Zoobabies
Michael O'Neill is an accomplished portrait photographer whose luminary subjects (Orson Wiles, Paul Newman, Glenn Close, Jodie Poster) usually grant him their undivided attention and complete cooperation. Tell that to a potbellied piglet.
Visiting half a dozen zoos around the country to photograph baby animals, many of them endangered species, O'Neill would set up lights and a sheet of seamless background paper in a spare room and await the arrival of his often-unwilling subject. Sleeping Beauty, an 8-month-old potbellied pig residing at the Cincinnati Zoo, was more interested in clambering onto the lap of her human keeper than in sitting—or just standing still—for the photographer. Each time O'Neill would approach, she would squeal so piercingly he finally had to steel himself with earplugs. In the book, she looks utterly unassuming and demure, evidence not only that photographs can mislead, but that humans cannot resist imparting human qualities even to creatures with corrugated snouts and bristles sprouting from every pore.
"I never knew what to expect," O'Neill writes. "A tiger snarled from only a foot away, an alligator jumped high off of the floor, and an orangutan wouldn't let go of my camera. As I do when making any portrait, I tried to find the essential characteristics of each personality."
When that personality is determined to scurry offstage, like the armadillo or the timber wolf, the results are unremarkable. But when O'Neill can get close and the lighting falls just right, as with the Indian elephant, the white alligator and the Sumatran tiger. the pictures arc arresting and graphically fascinating. In these cases, even O'Neill's human subjects couldn't have given him more. (Villard, $17.00)