Picks and Pans Review: Manscape with Beats

updated 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Barbara Norfleet

Can an opossum know despair? Can a raccoon express outrage? Can a grouse grouse? Barbara Norfleet's sensuous and subtle new book of photographs makes you wonder what animals are thinking—about humans in particular.

To take these pictures, Norfleet, 64, curator of photography at Harvard, trekked around woodsy ponds on Martha's Vineyard at dawn and dusk. Strewing chucks of food, she lured animals from hiding into human-scented, human-spoiled places, where she waited with color film and flash. In this way she photographed, for example, a woodchuck huddling amid discarded office furniture and a fox in an abandoned greenhouse—the animal frozen amid fallen panes and shattered pots.

Several pictures are humorous: Two wet golden Labradors, near a pond at dusk, mill around a flamingo lawn ornament stuck in the ground; a wide-eyed horse juts its muzzle into a window of the photographer's car.

The moody colors of morning and evening skies, combined with deft use of foreground flash and the vivacity of the Ciba-chrome printing process, give Manscape a surreal beauty. If some animals look strange—muskrats and woodchucks are buck-toothed and roly-poly—the detritus of civilization looks as strange, and more disturbing.

At times the effect is both startling and elusive: In one close-up a plastic glass and an empty wine bottle rest on a copy of The Wall Street Journal. In the glass is curled a garter snake; its steely head and the first inch or two of its chain-mail body rest delicately on the lip.

It's disturbing, too, that some of the animals seem to have visited the taxidermist. (Whether they have, Norfleet coyly says, she will let readers decide.) If an animal is stuffed, it changes a picture's meaning-makes it, arguably, even more a comment on humanity. But compared with the other photographs, these few seem—like the unhappy creatures themselves—a bit hollow.

Otherwise, Manscape is a haunting reminder that in some ways the wildest animal of all is man. (Abrams. paper, $16.95)

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