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Photography Review

A camera's unsentimental lens exposes natural drama, beauty

CAMBRIDGE - We humans have a tendency to see ourselves in animals. Photographers play that up, usually to sentimental effect. Not Henry Horenstein. He's neither sentimental nor prone to anthropomorphizing, which makes him the perfect animal photographer to have an exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

"Looking at Animals" shows what an eclectic and discerning eye Horenstein has. The Boston-based photographer has published several books and had an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The photos here, all black-and-white images printed in sepia, were made between 1995 and 2001.

Horenstein approaches his subjects abstractly: He looks for patterns and composition, rather than shaping his images as portraits or narratives.

"Iguanid Lizard" demonstrates a masterful approach to pattern and texture. Horenstein cropped off the head of this lizard, which sits on a rock. The focal point becomes the cruciform juncture of tail, trunk, and hind legs, where the viewer's eye homes in on details: the reptile's stripes and the more delicate stippled pattern of its scales. It's a soft-focus image that blurs more deeply around the edges. The texture of the animal surrounded by the stony texture of its environment, surrounded by the increasingly grainy texture of the film, all coalesce into something haunting and dreamlike.

In contrast, "Hippopotamus" has a keen focus. Horenstein often gets so close to his subjects he shoots just a small part of them ("Indian Rhinoceros" offers up a tail looking like a calcified carrot, fitting snugly between cratered legs). In "Hippopotamus" we see only a part of the beast - its back as it wallows in shimmering water - but there's no doubting its magnitude. Its dark, wet hide crinkles and glistens; near its tail, you can make out the vertebrae. All the light bouncing giddily off the hippo's back and the water counterbalances the sheer mass of the animal.

There's almost no mass in the feathery, angelic "Common Carp." Horenstein has photographed a school of the pale fish from above; they appear to swim down the picture plane, their scaled tails wafting left and right like long, willowy buds in the breeze. "Brown Sea Nettles" is a gorgeous, threatening thicket of jellyfish, each translucent sack trailing dark threads embedded in delicate, light, lacy tentacles.

Horenstein catches us up in the looking, making fresh for his viewers what we thought we knew. There are fewer than 20 images in this show, and only two are of the furrier critters humans are prone to relate to. "White-handed Gibbon" shows us the back of that animal as it tosses its head like a flirtatious girl. Yet with that shaggy hair on head and shoulders, it's clearly no girl - indeed, there's something oddly disorienting about the image, perhaps because it's so familiar, but strangely not.

Some stories, and even portraits, do emerge, imbuing this rigorously abstract show with just enough heart.

Look at "Texas Map Turtle," shot as it swims upward, its snout just cresting the surface of the water. Horenstein focuses on the segmented shell over the turtle's belly and the almost psychedelic striping on its legs, throat, and tail. Yet the drama of the swim, breaking the water's surface, feels heroic.

"Komodo Dragon" is a tight shot of just that beast's dark eye, ringed by folds of speckled skin. It reads as human - sad, wise, perhaps resigned. Who has ever looked so closely into the eye of a Komodo dragon to see (or perhaps project) emotion in its depths? Perhaps only Horenstein, whose manner with animals isn't exactly Dr. Dolittle's - but he does help us to see them in ways we'd never expect.

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Looking At Animals: Photographs by Henry Horenstein

At: Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, through next June. 617-495-3045,