When Diane Fox, a photographer and design professor at the University of Tennessee, took her first diorama landscape photo, she had intended for it to turn out kitschy. It was 1998, Fox was shooting in black and white film at the Natural History Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and she wanted to capture a fake frog floating atop fake water in the midst of a particularly ill-constructed underwater pond scene. “It all looked very plastic, which is not typical of dioramas,” she says. “I took a picture because I thought it was going to be funny.”
When she developed her film, though, the plastic scene appeared strangely beautiful. Without color, the shallow depth of field made the painted background looked like an actual habitat; the manmade wildlife looked alive. The too-bright museum lightbulb hanging above the diorama gave the underwater scene an eerie glow. That dreamlike blurring of real and unreal, living and merely pretending to be, became the basis for Fox’s nearly decade-long ongoing series UnNatural History.
Since that first photograph in Michigan, Fox has visited nearly 30 museums and galleries—most of them museums of natural history—in cities across the U.S. and in Europe. She has photographed roaming buffalo in Bremen, Germany, at the Ubersee-Museum Bremen, and lanky giraffe at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Most recently, she’s also expanded her work to include surreal portraits of taxidermy animals against a blank backdrop, staring squarely at the camera as if taking a school photo.
At first, Fox fit in museum visits whenever she traveled for work or vacation, but lately university funding has allowed her to travel to cities solely for the purpose of visiting natural history museums for her series. Her photos—which she takes inconspicuously, like just another museum visitor—have also evolved. Once shot in film and black and white, her photos are now digital and in color, and she prints them off in massive sizes.
What remains consistent throughout all of the photos in the series is the subtle infringement of the built environment on the scenes depicting wildlife and nature. Unlike the unassuming photos of photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who also works in dioramas, Fox’s images always hint at the fact that the scenes are constructions, even when the flatness of the photo makes the scene look real. In several images, the museum can be glimpsed through a reflection in the glass. In others, ceiling lights disrupt the placid nature scenes, or a break in the glass panes distorts a Saharan habitat.
“I was interested in pointing out the falseness of what we were seeing before us,” says Fox. She hopes that viewers will approach the photographs thinking the scene is real, then experience a shift in perception when noticing the other elements. “Art is most interesting if you keep going back to it and it’s different every time,” she says.
Fox teaches graphic design courses at the University of Tennessee’s college of architecture and design, where she also used to teach a course in architectural photography. She says her design background always comes into play in her photography work, most notably when she’s creating compositions. She does all of her work in-camera—she doesn’t alter the images in photoshop in post-production. “I definitely feel that having a designer’s eye that connects to composition, whatever type of composition that may be,” she says.
In 2006, while shooting at the Milwaukee Public Museum, in Wisconsin, she decided to switch to color photography after finding a scene of antelope that were still wrapped in plastic after being moved into place. The contrast of the landscape and the dusty tarps looked more vivid and uncanny in color. Since then, her more recent digital color photos have made the line between real and false somewhat sharper than when she first started out. Ultimately, Fox hopes that by making the separation between man and nature so visible in these bizarre scenes, people will think about why the museums need to construct the dioramas in the first place.
“The reality of those lives and the way that we’ve mistreated animals and taken away their habitats is that some of those animals are already extinct,” says Fox. “The only way we are going to see them now is in a natural history museum.”