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HomeContentsThemes > Mythical beasts

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In ancient mythologies fabulous animals abounded and in the medieval period manuscripts were illustrated with wondrous beasts and sea charts were accompanied with strange monsters that were a threat to sailors. The human psyche seems to require animals that embody physical and mental attributes that mere mortals can only dream of. Art and fantasy literature are full of these and they have been explored by writers like Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell who tried to fathom why we need these symbols and what part they play in our religious and mystical thoughts.
Painters and sculptors can use imagination and then their craft to turn fantasies into a physical form but with photography it is not quite so simple. If photography is about capturing images of something that exists in the real work then how does one capture something that exists in the mind? An intermediate physical representation has to be created and then photographed and there are many ways of doing this.
Photomontage is used to combine different images into forms that do not exist, for example a cat with a human body or a mermaid. When William 'Dad' Martin in the early 1900&lsquo's produced postcards of farmers herding 12 foot high geese to market all was obviously not as it appeared.
Use of photomontage to create mythical animals
William H. Martin
How We Take Our Geese to Market 
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Artists such as Frederick Sommer (1905-1999) with his butchered remains, Michiko Kon (1955-) where her clothing and shoes made of fish and all the produce of the sea, and Adam Fuss with his rabbits create surreal images that are unsettling. All the parts in them are from the natural world but when used like this they take on a mythical status.
Frederick Sommer (1905-1999)
Frederick Sommer
Frederick Sommer was an inspired artist who blended sculpture, painting, drawing and photography to create a varied and stimulating body of work. A recent book on his work and the exhibition at the Frederick Sommer: A Centennial Tribute at the Getty (May 10 - September 4, 2005) has introduced his genius to a far wider audience.
The use of found objects occurs in his still life work but between 1938 and 1941 he collected remains from a butcher's refuse box. At that time butchers would kill and cut up the fresh chickens and discard the parts the customer did not require - by photographing the remaining parts one has a strange object - a vivisectionists dream. When photographed the results take on a mythical and disturbing form - it is like a malformed fetus or an unfinished animal. The viewer knows what a chicken looks like but the parts become almost an iconic representation of something else.
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Mythical animals - The Centaur
Unidentified photographer/creator
Kelly Grider
Ancient sculpture and vase painting has many representations of the mythical combination of man and horse, the centaur. These animals have the lower body of a horse with the torso and head of a man.
In these two photographs the centaur takes essentially the same pose but one is from an ancient sculpture in Princeton University Art Museum whilst the other is a contemporary photograph by Kelly Grider. The calm virility in the photogravure is wonderful but the bolts holding the legs on are left visible. We are deliberately shown the mythical but at the same time given the evidence that it is false.
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This is a stub for a theme that is under active development if you have any thoughts on what should be included please send them to so they can be incorporated. Many thanks.
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