I hadn’t planned to do a series on how images of animals might redefine photographic humanism, but there must have been some reason this guy has been waiting on my desktop.
You might want to file him under Minotaur Sightings, which may become more common as the century progresses. Time is already a bit out of joint here, as what might seem to be a summer image (albeit on a grey day), was actually taken at the annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver, British Columbia. And how often do you see a mythical beast, anyway? This is a special moment, even before we try to make the connection between the New Year and boxing gloves. (Maybe he’s still partying from Boxing Day the week before?) In fact, it’s so special that he seems to be rising up out of the waves, and perhaps walking on water: Neptune to Nazareth, he’s got it covered. “In this corner, the devil of the deep blue sea, the terror of the tundra, the buffest bad boy you ever want to meet: Mr. Mashup!” He’s so strange and styled and ultimately ridiculous, he surely is one of us.
And gorgeous. Did I mention that he is gorgeous? That’s a fabulous body, so much so that I’m willing to overlook the technicality that his mask is a reindeer rather than a bull. The classics will just have to give a little on that, which they surely would do to get a look at that torso. And that may be part of the photo’s deeper intelligence: what begins as a comic act of artificial hybridity also includes one model of human perfection.
The mask enhances his physical beauty by isolating it, making it a thing in itself rather than the property of any one individual. That may go further still, as one can imagine that the body beautiful would be easier to obtain if hybridization were to become available. Braiding in the genes of a few other species would do the trick, and if you ended up with a little more deer than not in the head, well, we could get used to that. As I said, such creatures might become a more common sight.
For the moment, however, he is one of a kind. Surrounded by the little people in their coats and boats, he rightly is in the center of the picture. As a center-margin design, they then articulate various features that are condensed in or complementary to his central presence. And that gives the image another twist, for they also start to look like hunters, the boats circling their prey, waiting to move in with the harpoon for the kill. No wonder he has his gloves up.
There may be no question who is the more evidently human (although I think there is), but there may be no doubt who is the more noble creature. Which means, of course, that he is doomed. But, wonders never ceasing, we can be sure that he will return.
Photograph by Ben Nelms/Reuters. If you like the idea of finding mythical beasts in the modern world, I recommend a fine little novel, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, by Steven Sherrill.