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Think for a moment about an iconic image of wildlife: the howling coyote.
What might this animal's surroundings look like? Locations like a cliff face or hilltop are probably the most obvious choices. There might be a forest of dense spruces or spindly pines it just stepped from. The clearing is rocky, the coyote's neck is raised, its eyes are closed, its mouth open to the moon above.
New York photographer Amy Stein suggests that this circumstance occurs in nature less and less frequently; the march of humanity has eliminated this habitat. Instead, her world shows us trees that have been clear-cut and terrain now leveled and paved. The baffled coyote is left standing in the middle of a parking lot, its majestic stance beckoning nothing more than the overhead street lamp.
The animal Stein depicts in Howl is not real, of course. Or rather, it was real once — now it is a taxidermist's model.
But the image created is stunning — comic, tragic and completely plausible. This is the clever twist to Stein's "Domesticated" series, showing at the Print Center through Feb. 14. The rich, colorful scenes these photographs suggest are artificial. But a willing suspension of disbelief is not necessary, since the scenarios are absolutely credible.
I'll admit, I fell for the illusion. My initial reaction to Trasheaters (pictured, detail) was a gullible, "Wow, I'm glad I never come home to a pair of timber wolves rummaging through my garbage cans." Then I read further about how Stein created the series; the fact that I was duped made Stein's visual and narrative skill all the more impressive (to say nothing of her taxidermist's).
As human domesticity presses onward and communities sprawl further into undeveloped regions, the wildlife in those regions runs out of places to remain wild. Think of it as the gentrification of nature; the wolves or coyotes or bears are pushed further and further out until they have nowhere left to go, and coexistence is ultimately forced. Except Stein sees it less as coexistence, and more as entrapment — a visual motif recurrent in the series.
In Between shows a whitetail deer attempting to get from one side of a field to the other, but a four-lane highway slices across the middle and places the animal in a predicament. Having successfully negotiated one-half of the journey (probably narrowly avoiding roadkill fate), it stands amid the tall grass in the barricaded divider, panicked eyes gazing out, wondering where to go next.
The possible outcome for this animal is suggested in Net — not included in the Print Center exhibit, but featured in Stein's book accompanying the series — where a bird, entangled by a soccer net in its flight path, has expired.
Obviously we're not expected to believe, even if we did fall for Stein's ruse, that these animal-characters have been around for centuries and had to adjust their lifestyles because of humans. It's fairly implausible, for instance, that the bobcat in Riverside, a wistful silhouette gazing at the traffic-heavy bridge in the distance, can actually remember the land as it was before.
Deer cross highways as part of their daily routine, birds don't give a second thought to coasting above the sporting fields, and wolves are appreciative of the culinary bounty in their neighbor's trash. (They seriously are — check out those smiling jaws!)
In that sense, the impact on these specific animals is not as invasive as Stein sells it. But the impact on the animal kingdom is. These photographs might star decoys, but the situations come from true-life stories of the northern Pennsylvania town of Matamoras, where the series was shot.
Deer are trapped on the highway. Coyotes do become lost on paved ground. And Stein's world, though illusory, rings true.
"Domesticated," through Feb. 14, Print Center, 1614 Latimer St., 215-735-6090, printcenter.org.