Elephant Reflections

A glimpse inside the world of the earth’s most massive creatures.

Elephant Reflections By Karl Ammann and Dale Peterson Univ. of California Press 272 pp., $39.95

Elephants. Most Westerners see them only in zoos and circuses – often alone, rocking back and forth. I don’t know about you, but even as a child I thought they looked incredibly sad.

No wonder. In the wild, elephants live in highly developed, matriarchal societies with group parenting and baby-sitting available 24/7.

I once reported a story about a group of young male elephants out on their own in South Africa (their relatives had been culled) who had been behaving like juvenile delinquents without families to guide them. Some old bull elephants – including a magnificent fellow named Thabo – were brought in to restore order and discipline. It worked.

Elephant Reflections by wildlife photographer Karl Ammann and writer Dale Peterson (author of the biography “Jane Goodall”) brings us some of this rich world of African elephants.

Elephants make great photographic subjects – their ever-present wrinkles forming patterns on their gray skin. It’s heartening to see portraits of elephant groups, their families largely intact, as they move across the African savanna, spending 18-hour days eating their vegetarian diet and drinking. Peterson describes them as ghostly, otherworldly – huge ships moving across the horizon.

Ammann’s scenic shots place them in their environment. I especially love a photo of a blue, cloud-filled sky. At the bottom of the frame, looking almost diminutive, an elephant stands under a Seussian acacia tree.

The written parts of this book exhaustively cover most aspects of the elephant. Our largest land animal, the elephant has a thick skin, but inside lies a sensitive soul. As Peterson points out, although their faces remain largely immobile, their trunks – the most animated part of their bodies – are incredibly expressive. They can be used to intimately touch each other’s faces, as well as to trumpet and woof.

Elephant ears can also express excitement or anger, as elephants flap, flap, flap them vigorously. The patterns of veins on the backs of their  ears are each unique, like snowflakes. Scientists use their ears – with their nicks, cuts, and veins – as identifiers.

“Elephant Reflections” fascinates but also has its disappointments. Ammann’s images don’t achieve the status of art. They have more of a documentary feel and rarely surprise. Some of the pictures feel repetitive.

I also wondered why there were no shots depicting elephants killed for their tusks or as meat. Today elephant meat is worth more than the tusks, leaving these creatures again vulnerable to slaughter.

Also, there are so many elephants in the game parks now that nations sometimes have to make the difficult choice to cull – destroying family groups. To look at these photos, however, you would think elephants’ lives are charmed.

I’ve had many different opportunities to observe elephants – both in their homes in the wild and in captivity. One of my early assignments for the Monitor was to photograph some circus elephants in New York City.

I was given the special privilege of riding on the back of an elephant in an elephant train that was making its way into Manhattan. Trying to hold onto the huge neck of a massive elephant while taking photographs was challenging. With each step she took I rocked wildly from side to side – so I had to shoot with my camera in one hand while holding on with the other as tightly as possible.

I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.

The photos in “Elephant Reflections” aren’t strong enough to put you on the back of an elephant. (Could any picture do that?)

But, together with the text, they take you partway there, and that’s enough to make you care about these massive, mysterious creatures – which is just what the photographer and author had in mind.

Melanie Stetson Freeman is a Monitor staff photographer.

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