Deborah Samuel is a Canadian photographer currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After an impressive career in commercial photography, Deborah now focuses exclusively on her personal photographic practice. Her latest body of work, Elegy, suggests the poetic intricacy of lives once lived. Rising above scientific documentation, the images reflect Samuel’s compassionate consideration of the natural world. Elegy is currently on exhibition in Toronto at the Royal Ontario Museum and will also be a feature in the 2012 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.
Your photographs speak to the sensitivity and fragility of life. Why did you choose to examine the skeletons of birds and vertebrates, and what do they represent for you personally?
‘I had gone through a lot of loss with my animals over a period of 5 years and was amazed at their individual resilience in their will to live, how fragile we all are and how persistent the cycle of life is.
‘Two years ago the Gulf Oil spill happened and I was mesmerized with the disaster…watching the counter on the bottom left of the screen forecast how many gallons of oil were being spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. It was horrifying to think that they could not stop this. Then the photos of the oil-covered birds started to be broad-casted. I wanted to go to Louisiana to photograph the oil covered birds as their plight was the iconic face of this disaster, but was unable to get access to photograph these birds due to regulations from the government and BP. I thought if I cannot go to the birds then I will bring the birds to me. Because of the nature of this disaster I made the leap to skeletons; they represent the final chapter if we do not reconsider what we are doing to the planet and to life forms that share the planet with us.’
How did you go about sourcing the skeletons used in your photographs, and at what point had you been offered the Royal Ontairo Museum’s collection of skeletons as a resource?
‘I initially went on the Internet to source bones. I made a connection with a woman in South America who had very interesting specimens, so I dealt primarily with her. The ROM had invited me to work within their skeleton collection approximately 4 months before Elegy opened at the ROM.’
In your photographic process you have predominantly worked with film, but with this series you have employed digital photography in a very interesting way. Can you explain your process?
‘I worked with a scanner to capture the imagery. Much like working on a canvas only an electronic version of the canvas. There has been an interesting debate re-fixed vs. fluid image which had made me think a lot, especially in that I was making the conversion from film to digital. Film is fixed in a moment in time and fluid is the ever changing file of the digital domain. What became interesting is that when scanning I realized I was fixed with a number of limitations given my process and that I had to work within this fixed dilemma in order to produce the fluid images.’
Can you talk a bit about your favorite image in the Elegy series?
‘I have many favorites so this is a challenging question as there are different aspects that speak to me in the exhibition. I would probably have to say Cardinal and Solitaire II. The underlying structure in the photograph is why I started working with skeletons in the first place. After watching the oil covered birds from the Gulf Oil Spill try to figure out what had happened to them I really thought a lot about how this spill had not only impacted their habitat but also its impact on their interpersonal relationships with each other; how it affected their homes….their relationships with their young. How would they look after each other now…and how had this impacted their daily structure and their relationship with others?
‘Cardinal and Solitaire.II speaks of the intimacy in relationship. I was fascinated by the residual animation in the bone that was left in the last remaining evidence of a life lived.’