Anima at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

Charlotte Dumas most recent collection focuses on the burial horses of Arlington Cemetery. These Army horses, which belong to the Old Guard—the 3rd Infantry Regiment – carry soldiers to their final resting place in traditional military funerals. Between 2010 and 2012, Dumas photographed them in their stables and at work. The title of the series, Anima comes from the Latin word meaning soul, which is interesting as it presents a unique perspective on its definition in the context of animals. The series is focused solely on animals, so the photographer is challenging the viewer to find the emotion and connection, i.e. the soul, in non-human subject matter. All the photos are shot from a first person perspective, using a variety of angles, at night. This collection also includes a number of photographs from previous collections, Reverie, Palermo 7 and Heart Shaped Hole; this critique will be focused only on those in Anima.

I particularly enjoyed the shadows the photographer used to highlight muscle groups within the body of the horses as they are resting. She narrows the focus of her shots so her subject takes up the majority of the space with in it, leaving little room to discern what is in the foreground. This prevents the viewer from becoming distracted from the subject matter by the background. All the shots are first person, as if the viewer is in the stable watching them sleep, with minimal change in angles from shot to shot. By using a realistic, straight on, view of the subjects, it allowed for an easy progression within the exhibit as a whole and kept a cohesive, unifying, aspect to the collection.

 

In the absence of sharp angles, the photographer uses light and darkness to illicit an emotion or surreal effect. This is aided by the coloring of the horses themselves as all the horses are either white or white speckled with grey, which illuminates the horses, keeping the background out of focus, in shadow. While the lighting is very minimal, artificial, and subdued, it is in keeping with the realistic portrayal of these animals in their state of rest. At times it almost seems that the light is preventing the animals from sleeping, as it is focused on their faces. However there are other photos, “Buck” in particular, that focus the light on their body, casting the hole face, except the nose in darkness, accentuating the shadow of the face being cast on the illuminated torso of the subject. It has an almost disorienting effect, as if trying to capture the feeling of the human eye adjusting to a sharp change in lighting.

 

The job of these horses is to carry dead soldiers to their final resting place in a formal military burial. This is a deeply personal connection that I believed would add to the emotional resonance of the photographs if that had been portrayed as well. The photos show the horses resting, but not what they are resting from. If the photos of them at rest were next to what they did during the day, I think it would have achieved a higher level of understanding to the viewer of the vulnerability and emotion the photos were trying to portray, juxtaposing moving the dead to be laid to rest next to the horses at rest.

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