Photographer Ed Panar: Sharing Space with Animals

  • A small, white dog sees photograher Ed Panar in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. Photo: Ed Panar

June 21, 2013

Ed Panar pauses in front of a glass front door and raises his camera. A fluffy white dog inside sounds the alarm, its sharp, stacatto barks breaking the morning quiet.

“The rule is if the dog barks at me he gets a photo taken, definitely,” Panar says, clicking the shutter a few more times, smiling.

On a sunny Sunday morning, the hip, up-and-coming Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville is busy with families and 20-somethings. But the Lawrenceville Ed Panar directs me to its side streets, alleyways, and train yards. 

Panar’s work begins with walks around the city that can cover 20 to 30 miles. He doesn’t photograph people, much. Instead, he’s on the lookout for a different kind of perspective.

“My interest is more in bringing to life or showing or revealing the life of all the other things that we interact with on a daily level, especially in urban environments and including the animals,” Panar says. 

The experience of flipping through Panar’s book, Animals That Saw Me, is quiet and oddly calming. Each animal locks eyes with you: a bull behind a fence; a raccoon gnoshing late-season cherry tomatoes; a sheep in a stand of trees. The book feels like one long storybook stroll, but it actually came together from Panar’s photo archive over the years.

“There was a pile of animal photograhs and it was these particular images where there was this feeling of one-to-one awareness. There’s some kind of acknowledgment when they were looking at me,” he says. “Maybe they could care less and I’m the one that’s more curious, but there’s this, at least, idea of mutual recognition.”

Panar’s work has appeared on the American Photo Magazine blog before, but this collection has been picked up throughout the national blogosphere, and images were reprinted in Orion magazine. The New York Times blog noted that, depending on how one digested Panar’s images, that moment he captures between species could be humorous or creepy.

Panar says he thinks this work has garnered attention outside typical photography circles because it speaks to a human fascination with our fellow creatures, like an exchange Panar had with a big, lanky dog hanging over a fence.

Mid-sentence, Panar goes quiet and slowly begins unzipping his camera case. The dog stands silent with its snout lifted and gives Panar the once-over.

“You gotta watch out for these guys,” Panar whispers. “They’re silent but deadly.” He moves a foot closer and frames the shot. At the continual sound of the camera, the dog bays like a hunting hound.

“Shhhh,” Panar tells the dog. “He’s not that mean,” he adds, making kissing sounds over the fence. The dog quiets.

It is like a scene from a nature documentary: lone man establishes connection with and soothes startled creature. The vignette prompts me to ask Panar what he would say to someone who contended that there is no wildlife, no nature in a city.

“I’m of the mindset where there really is no division. When you start to define those things, I mean, what is nature? A federally sanctioned park that’s been designated “nature”? In the anthropocene, is there any place in the world that has been untouched by humans?” he asks. “I don’t really make a distinction. To me, wherever I’m at is nature.”

Taken over ten or 12 years in 15 different places, the photos in Animals That Saw Me speak to one of Panar’s larger fascinations.  

"I love things that just remind us, it’s not all about us. You know, we tend to just take for granted that the way we perceive the world is the way it is,” he says.

Animals That Saw Me may be the first in a series—Panar is on the lookout for more animal interactions. If anyone knows where Panar might find a porcupine, drop him a line. He’s dying to have one see him.

For more of Panar’s work, check out his website and his tumblr, Sun Stood Still.