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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Between man and beast

Photographer inhabits a small town with wild animals

Photographer Amy Stein’s “Howl’’ is featured in her show “Domesticated’’ at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Photographer Amy Stein’s “Howl’’ is featured in her show “Domesticated’’ at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. ()
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 30, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - It’s easy to confuse Matamoros, which is in Mexico, with Matamoras, which is in Pennsylvania. The confusion isn’t just because of similar spelling. Both are also border towns. Matamoros is just over the Rio Grande. Matamoras is on a less obvious, but surely more significant frontier. Abutting a state forest, it’s frequently visited by bears, foxes, coyotes, and the like. As Amy Stein documents in her vivid and thought-provoking color photographs, the interplay between nature and town in Matamoras is at once discrepant, unsettling, and inevitable. And it’s not just a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania where this is so. The other night I stood 20 feet from a raccoon waddling down a sidewalk a block from Mass. Ave.

“We at once seek connection with the mystery and freedom of the natural world,’’ Stein writes, “yet we continually strive to tame the wild around us and compulsively control the wild within our own nature.’’ Seventeen of her photographs make up “Domesticated: Modern Dioramas of Our Natural History.’’ The show runs at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History - not all that far from where I glimpsed Mr. Raccoon - through April 18.

As the word “dioramas’’ in the title indicates, Stein stages her photographs. She doesn’t imagine the scenes, though. Stein collects stories of wild animal encounters in Matamoras, either through conversations with residents or from articles in the local newspaper. She then reenacts the scenes, sometimes with live animals, sometimes with ones that have been stuffed and mounted. The images are startling - except that they’re not. That is, they have the stillness of taxidermy (and the people in them can look less natural than the animals do).

An ancillary pleasure of “Domesticated’’ is trying to guess which photographs show creatures in which state. The gulls attracted to a parking-lot feast consisting of a large order of Wendy’s fries and half a hamburger bun in “Fast Food’’ are clearly the real thing. The bear whom we see from behind staring at a little girl on a diving board in “Watering Hole’’ just as clearly is not. Or at least it better not be. Who can say, though, about the bobcat lolling on a log, with a highway viaduct in the distance, in “Riverside’’? He couldn’t look more languorous if his perch had been booked through Club Med.

One reason it’s hard to determine the degree of artifice in “Riverside’’ is that it’s shot at dusk. Stein uses different degrees of light to great effect. Many of the photographs are in sun-drenched daylight, and the absolute clarity heightens the sheer surrealness of the scene. Others were taken at twilight, or night. House windows glow with an inexplicability and menace that one more normally associates in fairy tales with forests or other wild places. Who are the more domesticated creatures in “Trash Eaters,’’ the foxes sniffing at a garbage bag or the unseen humans within the sinister-looking home? Who’s more real, us or them? At what point does the unnatural come to seem natural, and vice versa?

The light in “Trash Eaters’’ and “Riverside,’’ with its blend of the mundane and mysterious, very much recalls that in some of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s photographs. Stein’s pictures aren’t just about art imitating nature. They’re also about art imitating art. Without ever seeming derivative, she manages to evoke the work of a number of other photographers. Her pictures are big, 24 inches-by-30 inches, and their size - as well as their being staged as tableaux not quite vivant - immediately brings to mind the work of Jeff Wall. “Birdhouse’’ has the calm and delicacy of one of William Christenberry’s images of decrepit Southern structures - in this case, it’s a birdhouse that’s toppled rather than a sign. Throughout the show one senses the tutelary presence of Christenberry’s friend William Eggleston. Like Eggleston’s work, Stein’s is flat, affectless, and given to incongruity, while also clear-eyed, curious, and nonjudgmental.

Many of the photographs are deadpan funny. The titles “Fast Food’’ and “Watering Hole’’ tell you that. A few are disquieting. In “Roman Candle,’’ a pair of teenage boys have a raccoon trapped in a tennis court. “Backyard’’ shows a man on a deck about to shoot a turkey who’s wandered up to the house. (Let’s hope that one’s staged.) “Window,’’ a diptych, is the rare instance of Stein being heavy-handed. On the left, we see an evergreen with multiple bird feeders. On the right, a woman sits in her house looking out; by her side are two birdcages with parakeets.

In an apt and amusing touch, the museum has set up a temporary diorama - the real, three-dimensional kind - as part of “Domesticated.’’ We see an exterior corner of a house-like structure. On one side, a coyote is checking out a dog’s water bowl. On the other are a skunk and her kit. It’s like being in Matamoras, only less aromatic.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

DOMESTICATED: Modern Dioramas of Our New Natural History

Is at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, through April 18. Call 617-495-3045 or go to www.hmnh.harvard.edu.