Marilyn Maxwell’s black-and-white photographs of wild animals on the African continent are a curious mix of romance and menace. Her lions, leopards, elephants, and wild dogs gaze at the camera with a pleading quality that she hopes can prompt human viewers to consider their plight as hunted, endangered beings.
“I went to Tanzania in 2013,” says the 70-year-old Santa Fe-based photographer who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. “What I learned was that the animals were being shot to pieces. I didn’t know that. I was picturing an idyllic, naïve scene of being in the wild. But every day for [these animals] is kind of a drama. Are you going to survive? Are you going to eat? Is your child going to get eaten?”
Maxwell shoots her subjects in infrared on a digital camera and then converts the images to black and white, after which she removes imperfections and what she considers extraneous objects, like branches or tall grass that might distract from the heart of the composition. Finally, she plays with contrast, which is already intense due to the nature of infrared film, which captures light that’s not visible to the naked eye.
“I think infrared makes it easier to capture the mystical, strange qualities of these animals,” she says. “It fits them more into that magical realm.”
Maxwell captured the surreal-feeling Shy Eland with Zebra in the northern region of the Serengeti in 2014. A horned eland antelope stands casually alongside a zebra in a rocky field; the zebra looks over its shoulder at the camera in a manner reminiscent of a starlet on a red carpet. The sky is darkening but the ground is nearly white with light. Maxwell said she happened to drive upon the scene after not seeing any animals all day — although there was another zebra in the original photograph that she cropped out of the frame.
Maxwell says her photographs aren’t considered to be documentary material, nor are they arty enough to land in museums. She doesn’t mind. She has a mission. She donates all proceeds from her photography sales to wildlife rescue and conservation organizations.
“They really need help,” she says. “People all over the world are in trouble now, but the animals don’t have a voice or a vote. I want to appeal to people who might still love them or care about them. We need to stop abusing them and exploiting them.”
The series of photographs, called At Risk, recently earned First Place Single Division Wildlife and First Place Series Division Wildlife in the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards from FotoNostrum Mediterranean House of Photography in Barcelona, Spain. A solo show of Maxwell’s work recently appeared at FOMA Contemporary Art and Photography Gallery. Maxwell’s complete body of work can be viewed at marilynmaxwellphoto.com.