When ewe were young: what can cute baby animals teach us about ageing?
16th April 2022
From a teacup piglet to a hoary pig, from a menacing owlet to a magnificent bird – Gerrard Gethings’ animal portraits show there’s grace at every age
From creamy lamb to serious sheep … Photograph: Gerrard Gethings
They say not to work with babies or animals, but the photographer Gerrard Gethings chose to combine the two for his latest project, a series of portraits of young animals alongside their adult counterparts. Baby Animal Match was conceived as a memory card game, in which players are asked to pair duckling with duck, owlet with owl, hoglet with hedgehog, piglet and pig – and so on, through 44 combinations. These fluffy, tousled, bug-eyed babies are, inevitably, adorable. But not always in obvious ways. “There is a universal cuteness,” Gethings says. “But that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. The baby racing pigeon, for example – that goes through an incredible transformation from an awful yellow hairy squab to a beautiful iridescent bird that can fly 100 miles an hour.”
Gethings, who is based in London, grew up in Lancashire, and worked for the photographer Terry O’Neill for a decade before striking out on his own as one of Britain’s finest animal portrait photographers. Previous projects have included human subjects – such as 2018’s Do You Look Like Your Dog?, in which an Afghan hound needs to be matched to his windswept, long-haired owner – but increasingly Gethings finds himself gravitating towards animal-only work. “With animals, I feel in control, more fully present. They don’t understand language, but they understand body language and the way you are with them. With people there’s more going on, a subtext.”
It took a little while to zoom in on exactly what makes baby animals so engaging, he tells me. “They’ve got to be really young, but not too young. Too young, and they can’t support themselves. They’re just a blob. There’s a sweet spot after a few days when they can stand up, open their eyes, show that first bit of life. It’s really fascinating.”
From a piglet to a hairy hog, and a dinky donkey to a wild jenny. Photographs: Gerrard Gethings
Gethings captures his babies at the sweetest spots of all: a creamy lamb standing four-square, its spindly legs braced shakily against the ground; a donkey foal whose ears are entirely out of proportion to its dainty velveteen muzzle; a duckling dressed in primrose yellow fuzz, caught mid-quack.
The quality of “universal cuteness” that Gethings alludes to is something that has been carefully studied. In the 1940s, the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz – who became world famous for demonstrating that baby goslings would bond to and follow the first moving thing they saw, whether that be mother goose or Lorenz himself – outlined what he called the “Kindchenschema” (baby schema): a number of features common among babies of different species that elicit a positive response from humans. These included a large cranium and eyes; small nose and mouth; plump body and chubby, squeezable cheeks.
It’s an appealing aesthetic. For species whose young are born needy and reliant on their parents, attracting kind and caring attention might make all the difference for survival. More recent research supports Lorenz’s belief that the appeal transfers across the species divide – that the same psychological mechanism is involved in spotting and appreciating the cuteness of babies, puppies and kittens alike. It’s an evolutionary explanation for why we find small, wet-eyed pups so appealing, and may be what drives us (and other animals) to care for the orphaned young of other species.
An adult chameleon and its baby hatchling (top), and a menacing owlet becomes a magnificent bird. Photographs: Gerrard Gethings
Still, not all of Gethings’ baby animals fall into the straightforwardly adorable category: in one pairing, a swivel-eyed adult chameleon clings to a bare branch, tail tightly coiled and its back crenellated with a fine, teeth-like crest; its baby hatchling – though smaller and more delicate – also has an eerie, alien aspect. As does the bristling caterpillar, its etched-bronze body carefully illuminated against a black background, intricate as a museum piece. Even the downy white owl chick retains an air of menace, opening its beak to screech in complaint, eyes pressed shut with the effort of it, outsized talons outstretched.
Little spike, big spike (top) and mooving on up … Photographs: Gerrard Gethings
That was one of his favourite shoots, Gethings says. “You don’t get to handle owls every day. And barn owls in particular are so beautiful that to get the opportunity to photograph them was dreamy.” The proximity to the animals was one of his main motivations for the project, he says. “Getting to hold a baby hedgehog is reason enough to be there. The animals are, inevitably, cute. But I didn’t want to rely on that – the portraits had to stand up in their own right.”
Unexpectedly, it was the donkeys that caused most issues. “They’ve been portrayed as docile and cute, but in reality they were quite wild.” While shooting a jenny and her foal, Gethings spotted a male donkey watching nearby and suggested they let him in. Big mistake. “He came charging in, making a horrific sound and jumped on the female donkey. He really wanted to make some more baby donkeys. We were in a confined space and couldn’t get him out, it was terrifying! Amorous donkeys – there’s no stopping them.”
Just purrfect… from kitten to cat. Photograph: Gerrard Gethings
Gethings’ portraits act as a clear visual shorthand for how we all grow and change – whether man or mouse, horse or hedgehog. Those liquid, puppy-dog eyes are soon outgrown, the teacup piglet on its tiny trotters will morph into a whiskered, squinting sow. Such is life; age comes for us all. I just wish that, like the squab, my own trajectory was to grow only more beautiful with the years.
Baby Animal Match: A Memory Game by Gerrard Gethings is published by Laurence King on 26 April.