Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tim Flach: Going Bats

Photographs by Tim Flach

Bats are among the least anthropomorphised of creatures. Disney brought us a smiling mouse, T.S. Eliot humanised his cats and the British children's TV show "Fingerbobs" even created a friendly scampi. But where are the cute bats? Bats that don't suck blood or get tangled in people's hair and don't embody the Gothic horrors of the night? Bats we can identify with?

Philosopher Thomas Nagel summed up our attitude when he wrote, "Anyone who has spent time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life."

Yet Tim Flach's photographs make you wonder why humans have been so unwilling to see their own natures reflected in these mammals. Turn his portraits upside down and suddenly you see bats in a new light. As they pose, they look oddly like us.

Topsy-turvy world - Turn a photo of an Australian fruit bat upside
down and it appears to walk like a human
And indeed they are. Bats breastfeed their young, can live for more than 30 years and have wings anatomically equivalent to human hand.

Cheryce Kramer, a cultural historian working with Flach on a book about how we perceive bats, argues that it's their human qualities that make us react as we do.

HUMAN QUALITIES - "I originally intended to do shots of flying bats,"
recalls photographer Tim Flach. "Then I noticed them chatting among
themselves on a branch. They were communicating something, and
 I realized that this was what I should be shooting

"Those who have looked closely at bats have seen the anthrophomorphic qualities. In the Linnean system of classifying life forms, bats are grouped with primates and humans.The similarities are precisely why we find them so eerie."

Early naturalists were not particularly interested in bats. It was only in the 1930s, when US military scientists began to see them as intriguing machines, that bats underwent an image shift. In 1938 teams developing radar technology recorded bat calls -- pitched beyond the range of the human ear. To prevent confusion when flying in swarms of hundreds of thousands, each bat uses a different frequency so it can distinguish its own echo and avoid becoming disoriented.

At about this time Batman, a comic-book vigilante using scientific knowledge as a weapon, appeared. "The bat was reinterpreted through science," says Kramer.

RELATIONSHIPS - Like humans, many bats pair for life
and most species have only one offspring a year

During World War II, a bizarre study moved things on. In Project X-rays, the US Navy tried to see if incendiary devices attached to Mexican bats could be used to attack German and Japanese cities.

It involved releasing the animals from planes in huge numbers just before dawn. As daylight approached, the bats would look for somewhere to roost - probably crevices under the enemy's rafters. The explosive backpacks would detonate, incinerating the animals and large numbers of civilians. Tests were carried out, but the success of research into the atomic bomb meant the study was abandoned.

Sinister as it was, Project X-ray added greatly to our knowledge of bats. It also led to a further revision of their image. In Britain, bats are now a protected species, and David Attenborough has appeared on television knee-deep in bat guano.

For most people, however, bats still mean Count Dracula and utter panic if one flies into the bedroom (Britain even has a national helpline for those who find themselves in this position). But stare into the faces in Flach's photographs and you begin to feel the daylight of recognition putting the vampire to flight.



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