Colleen Plumb

(American, b.1970; resides in Chicago, IL)

Colleen Plumb creates photographs, videos, objects, and public video projections about the contradictory relationships people have with animals. Realizing that holding animals in captivity has been normalized for generations, Plumb explores themes of power imbalance and the human appetite for domination of nature. She began her series, Animals Are Outside Today (1997-ongoing), by looking for examples of "fake nature," as she describes it—simulations of natural environments or their substitutes in urban contexts. Some of the photographs illustrate how people coexist with or exert control over animals, whether by keeping them as domesticated pets, raising them as livestock, or presenting them to spectators in zoos or circuses. In many of her images, harsher realities emerge, and death becomes an underlying theme. Photographs of pig carcasses in a meat packer, for instance, underline the unthinking urges of human consumption. Meanwhile, other images depict the bodies of dead animals left to decay in public places, as in one of a gray mouse on a sidewalk being feasted upon by a fly, or a raccoon embedded in beach sand, reminders that we are not the only creatures inhabiting our city. Typically capturing these moments with a narrow depth of field and from a low angle, Plumb brings the viewer in close to the animals, entering their immediate domain, while the wider surroundings become a blur.

For her photographic video installation Thirty Times a Minute (2009-ongoing) Plumb traveled to zoos across the world that house elephants, noting what behavior biologists refer to as “stereotypical behavior:” a compulsive swaying, rocking, and pacing that only captive elephants display. The videos are projected outdoors onto buildings and streets, creating a heightened sense of spectacle and confusion of space. Plumb then photographs the installations, resulting in carefully constructed images depicting the captive animals even further removed from their native landscapes. Plumb asserts that the existing models of captivity and display are ultimately not meant to serve the animals but rather the humans that watch them.

Plumb’s work is held in several permanent collections and has been widely exhibited, including the Portland Art Museum, OR (2015); Milwaukee Art Museum, WI (2010); Blue Sky Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts,  Portland, OR (2015); and the Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL (2007), among many others. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Village Voice, Blow Photo Magazine, New York Times LENS, Time LightBox, Oxford American, Photo District News, and LitHub. Plumb is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia College Chicago.