As if he needs a reminder: he photographs wolves.
His images – deep-toned close-ups sometimes printed on cowhide – have a visceral impact, showing piercing eyes, bristly fur, hunched shoulders and bared teeth. But the series “Shadow Within” is as much about humans as it is about wolves. Mr. Houge, who is based in Oslo, wants us to reconsider the impulses, fears and instincts we keep in check as man allows his own nature to be boxed in by nurture. It is a theme that runs through his other projects, from a nude portrait series to another on a distant, frozen island that houses the Global Seed Vault.
“I like exploring what culture does to us,” he said. “I see nature and culture being juxtaposed both within and without us. We are born as something much larger than ourselves. Then you have culture coming in with boxes, with identities, teachers, religion. Before all that, we are nature and we still have all this nature inside us. Well, some more than others.”
That’s where the wolf comes in. Growing up in Norway, Mr. Houge was well aware of the Norse legends and Viking lore in which wolves played a central role, as they did in other cultures. Then there are the fables and fairy tales – ostensibly for children — in which the Big Bad Wolf was always the dark, malevolent force. And as much as the wolf may be wise, it was also feared.
Perhaps too much.
In modern Scandinavia, he said, there has been a debate on how to deal with recent incidents in which wolves had been spotted on the outskirts of Oslo or how packs have killed sheep that ranged free on farmland.
All that played into his decision to turn his lens on the lupine. During the course of his research, Mr. Houge met a woman who studied wolves, and she invited him to a nature preserve. But before he could embark on his project, he had to take a safety course.
“Things can happen if you don’t understand their language,” he said. “Things can go very wrong.”
He had to learn to let go.
“You have to face your fear,” he said. “They are in your face, and they have their tongue in your mouth, if they choose to come and greet you. This is how they get food from their parents when they are young. It is a sense of security, but it is their way of showing they’re in charge.”
In his various shoots, Mr. Houge has found the animals to have distinct personalities: from bullying and aggressive to loving and curious. They have tested him, too, pushed him down to the ground or huddled up close.
“The preconception of being a human in nature really shifts after an experience like that,” he said.
And that’s his goal: to get viewers to recognize in themselves what the wolves show openly, whether how they set boundaries or use nature.
“Humans can learn a lot from wolves,” Mr. Houge said. “The debate in Norway about if we should get rid of this animal is astounding. It says something larger about how brutal we are with nature. It’s mostly about how to make money.”
The idea of the lone wolf — the iconoclast who follows his own rules — may be admired in some cultures, but it’s a hard job in nature. Mr. Houge has seen how wolves that did not learn their place in the pack’s hierarchy trail behind the pack for months seeking to be let back in.
Even one of the more often-cited traits admired in some circles loses its luster after a conversation with Mr. Houge. Corporate titans — or photographers — want to see themselves as the alpha male, a concept Mr. Houge dismisses.
“The wolf pack that has longevity is a family,” he said. “It is a pair, not one male, but a male and a female. If they are secure enough in themselves, they let the weak individual lead the pack. If one has a fantastic nose, even if it is weaker, they’ll let it run first to lead the pack to the kill. These weaker individuals feel part of something larger — it’s ‘We need you for the pack to be stronger.’ That’s a perfect example of how business should be led. Including people, not excluding. Without me, this would not be as strong.”
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