A Fine-Art Approach to Photographing Animals

By Conor Risch

© Charlotte Dumas/Julie Saul Gallery/Galerie Paul Andriesse
Buck, one of the horses working in Arlington National Cemetery. To see more images by Charlotte Dumas, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

While studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, an art school in Amsterdam, Charlotte Dumas was discouraged from making photographs of animals by instructors who believed that animals were not worthy subjects for contemporary artists. They reacted to her work by saying: “Nice, but now you have to move on to do something more serious,” she recalls.

After she graduated she was awarded a two-year studio residency at Rijksakademie in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which supports artists from all over the world working in all mediums. There she was given space and resources to work “without the judgment of people looking over my shoulder,” she says. The ability to follow her instincts and “to do whatever I liked, free of the concept that it had to sell or how it was going to be seen” by the contemporary art world proved pivotal.

In her second year she made a series of four portraits of Rotterdam police horses and showed them in her studio. The response she received from peers and others who came to see the work made it clear she was “on the right track.” She says she knew, however, that “I had to work another ten years to make it clear [my work] wasn’t just about esthetic images,” and that her animal portraits explore serious conceptual themes.

Her realization was prescient. This month, a decade after Dumas finished her residency at Rijksakademie, a solo exhibition of her work will open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (Though it’s not her first solo show at an institution and her career as an artist is well established, it will be her first major exhibition at a U.S. museum.) The exhibition, “Charlotte Dumas: Anima,” will feature a new series of portraits commissioned by the Corcoran, as well as a retrospective of previous bodies of work.

The new series of portraits depicts the horses that work in burial ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, by pulling caissons bearing the deceased. To make the images, Dumas spent long hours at night in the stables, photographing the horses as they laid down and fell asleep in their stalls.

Dumas relied only on ambient stable lights to create her images. Her multi-second exposures emphasize the textures and colors of the horses’ hides, which combine in the frame with shadows cast by the stable lights to give the portraits beautiful depth and a compelling, tranquil atmosphere.

The visual layers, which are enhanced further in the actual prints by film grain, provide an entry point for viewers into the conceptual significance of Dumas’s multifaceted images, which draw on the histories of portraiture, photography and the use of horses by the military.

By photographing the Arlington National Cemetery horses at rest, Dumas emphasizes their vulnerability and their state of “surrendering to complete relaxation,” which we rarely see, she says.

Dumas notes, these horses also have “ties to the past” when war horses used to pull caissons loaded with canons or other materials, or ride into battle with their masters.

People who work with animals are rare in modern society, Dumas says. They are “in this lucky position because they get to experience [animals] in a different way than just having them on a pedestal and completely adoring them or using them for food or in horrible ways.” Between the extremes of how humans relate to animals, Dumas says, “there’s this big middle part that’s basically completely eroded because it only exists with very few people who maybe train animals.”

Since her earliest series on Rotterdam police horses, Dumas has been interested in animals that have unique or rare interactions with human beings. She chose to photograph stray dogs in Palermo, Italy (collected in Heart Shaped Hole, 2008), for instance, because she was interested in showing the way they thrive in the urban setting, rather than living the awful lives generally associated with stray dogs.

She has photographed gray wolves in sanctuaries in the U.S. and Europe (Reverie, 2005); dogs working in various capacities in Liguria, Italy (Al Lavoro!, 2011); and the search-and-rescue dogs that worked in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Retrieved, 2011).

The Retrieved photographs also inform her portraits of Arlington’s horses and bring a political element into the work. The “horses have done many funerals of soldiers who have lost their lives overseas in the wars that followed those attacks,” in the aftermath of which the search-and-rescue dogs worked.

The two bodies of work also combine to emphasize the ways that animals help human beings in times of crisis. “Horses and dogs are the two animals closest to man through history, and they both had very important functions in this case,” Dumas explains. Both the search-and-rescue dogs and the Arlington horses provide comfort in addition to performing their duties. “In crisis or in disasters, then we realize how much we need them to give a different perspective than our own,” Dumas says.

As with her images of 9/11 search-and-rescue dogs, which were widely recognized in the mainstream media internationally, viewers may be tempted to read into the portraits of Arlington horses signs or reflections of the experiences they’ve had. With the 9/11 dogs people were “quick to say you can see [their experiences] in their eyes, and it doesn’t matter if it’s true or false because it’s real as soon as somebody appoints these values to these animals.”

But Dumas suggests, “Maybe it’s nice to see them for what they are. One of the roots of my work is that we have this desire to have this relationship with [animals] and we find all these different ways [to try to relate to them], but in the end they always stay on the other side.”

Dumas says she can still suffer from insecurity at times and feel frustrated that her work is not taken very seriously by the elite fine-art world, though she notes that more artists are using animals as primary subjects in their work. “Luckily I do have some people who really believe in it, who are in good positions and very influential,” she says. “I have the opportunity to exhibit it or show it in a context that’s kind of challenging the art world.”

Related Article:

Charlotte Dumas Photo Gallery

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