Dag Knudsen spends a lot of time photographing symmetrical faces. Usually they belong to beautiful people in fashion magazines. But increasingly, his models are llamas. Lizards. Even snails. It’s a veritable Symmetrizoo—as close to “blue steel” as the animal kingdom gets.
It all started in 2017, when Knudsen cast a sphinx cat as a co-model in a beauty editorial. The feline is a luxury pet, with bald skin, big ears, and eyes as buggy as a 500-year-old hobbit’s (which some, inexplicably, find beautiful). On a whim, he took its portrait and mirrored half the image in Photoshop, like a Rorschach.
“I immediately realized why the ancient Egyptians worshipped these creatures as gods,” he says. “It looked like a divine being.”
The next year was the year of the dog in the Chinese zodiac, and Knudsen’s calendar quickly filled up with portrait sessions for unusual breeds like Mexican hairless dogs, Japanese Shiba Inus, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks—some which he scouted as they trotted down the street with their owners. In his quest for ever-more-peculiar subjects, he visited exotic pet stores, chatted up veterinarians, and joined Facebook groups for teacup pigs and giant African gastropods.
It would have been easier to stick with humans: They don’t leave slime trails, are potty trained, and can follow simple instructions. Knudsen’s new models had to be coaxed with catnip and squeaky toys. One domesticated fox refused to look at the camera until his assistant began howling like a wolf. Another peed on his gear. “The owner said, ‘Oh my god, fox pee never comes off!’” Knudsen says. “I’m like, ‘What?’”
To avoid stressing his subjects, Knudsen limited each shoot to 10 minutes. He illuminated each animal’s best side with a strobe and lightbox, and later replicated it in Photoshop, also removing stray hairs, eye boogers, and other “disturbing” elements.
Nature is rarely, if ever, 100 percent symmetrical, and the effect makes you stop and stare as you match whisker to whisker, tentacle to tentacle, resting bitch face to resting bitch face. “It’s hypnotizing,” Knudsen says.
He sometimes calls them “animaliens.” They’re unnaturally perfect, and like their human counterparts, have a look no creature should try to attain.