Animal portraiture, a continent's wildlife in focus at Sohn Fine Art

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LENOX — A diagonal rain pelts them from behind, streams of water visible against their black stripes. Tall grass and gray sky surrounds. The three zebras frozen in a Serengeti National Park expanse aren't exactly in a joyous state, according to their photographer.

"You can see the mood," Anton Lyalin said by phone of "Africa #3."

The photograph is part of Lyalin's first color collection, "Africa," which captures a handful of wild animals in the Serengeti conveying more circumspection than traditional images of lions roaring and cheetahs dashing. Some pictures from "Africa," as well as some from Lyalin's prior black-and-white collection, "Portrait of Africa," are currently part of a show at Sohn Fine Art that runs through Jan. 13. Though acquiring animal portraits can be more unpredictable than photographing humans, Lyalin revels in his African safaris.

"It's like a drug," he said.

The Sochi native made his first trip to Africa in 2001. A veteran of the restaurant business, Lyalin was just learning how to use a digital camera.

"I could hardly photograph with it," he said.

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But when he returned from that journey, he realized he had quite a haul of compelling photos. He took a class in portraiture with Greg Gorman, who regularly shows work at Sohn and has served as a mentor to Lyalin. The Moscow-based Lyalin continued to hone his photography skills and ventured back to Africa on several different occasions, traveling throughout the continent and following animals for hours, even days. A rhinoceros, with its weathered skin and massive frame, is perhaps his favorite animal to photograph.

"They look like they're not from this planet," he said.

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For years, Lyalin has converted his photos to black and white because he feels that these hues are "much more powerful" than color in portraiture. In one of the "Portrait of Africa" works on display, a kudu's spiraling horns form a "V" that aligns with the billowing clouds' contours above. In another, a giraffe's head almost appears illustrated as its dark and light patches of skin coalesce.

At the same time, Lyalin recognizes that color can illuminate, for example, an animal hiding in a tree, or the rain in the aforementioned photo of zebras. He doesn't want to "overplay" it, though; while "Africa" is in color, the series isn't exactly colorful.

"This is pretty much like no color," Lyalin said.

With plenty of blue sky, green grass and wildlife, Lyalin believes that the Serengeti's landscape has led to many oversaturated photos.

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"The picture itself is getting so busy in terms of color," he said.

Lyalin's color photos have a monochromatic quality, their yellow, green and blue parts dulled to emphasize the animals' and landscapes' textures. A cheetah's black spots in "Africa #2," for instance, contrast with the blurred grass below and shapeless sky above. The photo is shot from a low angle, highlighting the animal's haunches in the moments before a sprint.

"I try to shoot it as low as possible, to be on the same level as the animal," Lyalin said.

The photographer wasn't crawling in the grass next to the animal, mind you. On guided safaris, he has only been allowed to take photos from vehicles. He can still get creative. In this particular case, he put a camera on a doorway near the cheetah's baby to get the shot. For better or worse, animals are used to seeing cars and often don't flee upon their approach, according to Lyalin. With that kind of access, the photographer can reveal their full spectrum of emotion.

"They let you in," he said.


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