The Slaughterhouse is inspired by an excerpt from a short story written by Karen Halvorsen Schreck, my dear wife. Her inspiration came from a story her father told about a field trip his third grade class made to a slaughterhouse in Chicago in the 1920’s. It is hard to imagine taking children to such a brutal place, to witness such carnage, though it seemed to be common in the early 20th century. Karen fictionalized her father’s story; the protagonist became a little girl who decides to wear her white first communion dress the day her class made their visit.
When I read The Slaughterhouse, it felt like a harbinger of the violence that was to figure the 20th century: two world wars, genocides, ethnic and racial divides, environmental degradation, threats of nuclear warfare and nuclear accidents, the amassing of wealth by fewer and fewer… The list could be expanded. The world is at once more comfortable and more suffocating. The time preceding The Slaughterhouse marked the advent of industrialized killing that we all now depend upon. It pains me to point out that human life is as disposable as the animals.
We almost didn’t visit Museo Zoologico La Specola, an eighteenth century natural history museum in Florence, the oldest in Europe. When we did, we were endlessly fascinated for an entire day. We walked through an endless labyrinth of rooms, each filled with glass cases containing specimens of every imaginable species: animals, insects, fish, birds, humans, reptiles, and fetuses… a dead Noah’s Ark. Some of the models date back to the Medici family. I thought they might provide a visual parallel, a poetic foil to push against The Slaughterhouse story.
There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed,—representatives of billions of pictures,—since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.
The consequence of this will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are now. The time will come when a man who wishes to see any object, natural or artificial, will go to the Imperial, National, or City Stereographic Library and call for its skin or form, as he would for a book at any common library. (1859)
-Oliver Wendell Holmes
Many pictures in the series are 16”x 20” and 20”x 24” metal prints with a shiny surface.