LIANE HANSEN, host:
From the outside, an unusual structure on a pier over the Hudson River in New York looks like a large stack of cargo containers. Inside, it's more like a temple. This is the Nomadic Museum, built entirely from reusable materials, including 148 of those shipping containers. The museum houses the work of photographer and filmmaker Gregory Colbert. He traveled the world for more than 13 years, photographing interactions between humans and large animals. The exhibition is called Ashes and Snow. NPR's Margot Adler has more.
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MARGOT ADLER reporting:
Cars barrel by on the West Side Highway here in Manhattan. Helicopters drone overhead. But inside, there is silence and music from an ongoing film--a long, narrow space with high ceilings that seems a cross between an Egyptian temple and a Zen garden. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban used cargo containers for walls and large paper tubes for the columns, all easy to pack up and move. There is also a curtain made from tea bags. Gregory Colbert's large sepia-tone photographs hang from thin wires. All depict human beings and animals, together in perfect repose, some might say in communion. A Burmese boy is reading a book beside an elephant. A child sits next to a cheetah. A woman in white dances in an Egyptian temple holding feathers while a hawk flies within inches.
Ms. NICOLE BECKENCOURT(ph): When I first saw the pictures all around the city, I thought it was maybe a Banana Republic ad or something really commercial 'cause they looked so beautiful. It was, like, `Oh, what are they trying to sell me that I don't want?'
ADLER: This is the second time Nicole Beckencourt is wandering through the Nomadic Museum, and at first, she thought the photographs were not real. The bodies are so perfect, like ones you see in fashion photography, but having learned that nothing has been digitized, that they are all real moments, she loves the meditative quality of the place and calls it a temple to the godliness of large animals. The images are printed on plant paper, a process going back to 13th-century Japan. I asked Colbert how he got the animals to pose.
Mr. GREGORY COLBERT (Photographer): I would never use the word `pose.' I would just use the word `collaboration.' You follow their lead. Oh, there we can hear some whales, actually, in the background.
ADLER: Oh, those are the whales?
Mr. COLBERT: Those are the whales in the background. So we really do follow their lead and it's--and there are helicopters, so we have human presence above us as well, but it is a place that's all about that interaction, and so, therefore, these are not objects that are posed beside human beings. These are other sentient, created spirits, of which we are only one in a whole orchestra of nature.
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Unidentified Man: Feather to fire, fire to blood, blood to bone, bone to marrow, marrow to ashes, ashes to snow.
ADLER: The humans and the animals in the photographs are from Burma, Sri Lanka, Egypt, India, Ethiopia and Kenya. Colbert calls his collection a bestiary. In one photograph, a mangrove root covers a girl surrounded by two elephants, one nestling the root in such a way that its truck seems an integral part of the root. In another, Colbert is swimming with sperm whales. In another, he is with an elephant.
Is that you right there? Are you lying down in...
Mr. COLBERT: No, no. I'm swimming underneath the elephant.
ADLER: You're swimming underneath the elephant.
Mr. COLBERT: Yes. Yeah. They're very graceful.
ADLER: Colbert believes most people live in a human ghetto removed from other species. When asked why the animals have their eyes open and the people, their eyes closed, Colbert says humans almost never look into the eyes of other beings. He wants you to experience these photographs in a certain way.
Mr. COLBERT: When you walk by a painting of Vermeer, he demands that you stop and stare, and when you walk by an elephant, he demands that you stop and stare. So in that sense, maybe it's a reflection of that infinite grace that is in nature.
ADLER: The photographs hang over white stones. A wooden boardwalk goes from the entrance to the back, where an hourlong film of many of the same creatures, both human and not, can be seen. The reaction is mixed. Occasionally someone mutters `new age,' but others seem reverent. Security guard Lavish Holt(ph) has watched more than 100,000 people walk by. Some people say it's spiritual, he says.
Mr. LAVISH HOLT (Security Guard): Some people in the back, it's erotic to them. They're making out behind the curtains. You know, you get so many different things here, but then the greatest thing that I saw--someone said, `No, I don't care about the photos. It's not the photos. And the film in the back? It really doesn't really do it for me,' but they reached over and they grabbed one of the rocks and they said, `This right here, this is my art.'
ADLER: Dragimire Morinov(ph), a Bulgarian exchange student, looks at the images. He says softly, `I never thought humans could interact like this with animals.' Then he said...
Mr. DRAGIMIRE MORINOV: Someday, a hundred years from now, when all of this is gone and it won't be possible for humans to exist like this with animals, someone will find one of these photographs in a dusty corner and he'll cry very much.
ADLER: The museum and the images will go to Los Angeles next. Other stops include Beijing and the Vatican.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
HANSEN: Examples of Gregory Colbert's work and photos of the Nomadic Museum are at our Web site, npr.org.