Transcripts

Dutch Photographer Captures Somber Tradition At Arlington

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Our next story is also about animals, specifically horses, the horses that work at Arlington National Cemetery. Roughly 21 funerals take place each day at Arlington and the majority are simple graveside burials. But for those who have earned full honors funerals, meaning sergeants, majors, officers, U.S. presidents and soldiers killed in action, the casket is brought to the grave by a team of horses pulling an antique wagon called a caisson.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:31
These caisson horses are the subject of a new exhibit by Dutch photographer, Charlotte Dumas at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Emily Friedman joined Dumas at the stables of Fort Myer, the U.S. Army post adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery and brings us this story.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

00:00:47
We're walking around Fort Myer and Dumas explains this is the first time she's seen the horses in broad daylight. She shot her series at night around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, though the horses look a little different than she remembers them. She walks through the stables like she's visiting old friends.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

00:01:04
Do you know every single one of the horses?

MS. CHARLOTTE DUMAS

00:01:07
Yes, more or less.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:08
She peers over stall doors and between wooden slats, identifying each horse.

DUMAS

00:01:14
Our Sergeant Amos here. They're, like, they're huge.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:19
Some of the horses are just heading back from their most recent "mission," that's the lingo around here for funeral. Our tour guide, Army Specialist Luke Wentworth leads us in the direction of the clomping.

MR. LUKE WENTWORTH

00:01:30
Well, we go down this way because they're going to be coming down this way.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:34
We stand silently as the soldiers unhitch the caisson and take off the horses saddles. The horses seem sad, although I couldn't quite tell you whether the horse is feeling sad or I'm feeling sadness for the horse. Dumas says that question is what drives her work.

DUMAS

00:01:54
I do think that portraits of animals specifically give room for reflection of one's own emotions.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:02
It feels possible that if you look at one of these photographs long enough, the horse might somehow tell you something about life and death. Dumas photographs the horses in a way that makes them seem wise. She shoots from the horse's eye level, from as close as she could get.

DUMAS

00:02:20
If you come to close they'll just let you know right away but if you stay too far off it doesn't become a portrait. It stays a picture.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:27
Night after night she sat with her tripod at the edge of the horse's stall with no extra lights, no zoom lenses.

DUMAS

00:02:35
I observe them a lot of the time. I just sit there and wait and look and then sometimes I take a picture.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:42
Dumas photos show us a horse after the day's work is done, resting in its stall. Its white hair glows against the shadowy background. Low light in the stables creates a dreaminess that makes you wonder whether these are photographs at all. These portraits resemble the paintings of Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer says the exhibit's curator, Paul Roth. At the same, he says, these portraits buck a longstanding tradition in fine art.

MR. PAUL ROTH

00:03:09
You know, one of the things that I was first taught when I learned about photography is that you should never photograph an animal because it would invite people to have a preconceived notion usually typically a romantic notion that we all experience daily when we see viral videos of cats.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:26
In the Corcoran Rotunda Gallery, assistants are arranging Dumas's photographs deciding what will hang where. All around us are photos of horses but none of them beg to be used an adorable screen saver.

ROTH

00:03:40
Charlotte is really interested in getting beyond that. Their whole working life, eight funerals a day, year around is about caring soldiers to their graves and in doing so in a way that recognizes the importance and the value of the sacrifice that they've made. It's a really powerful thing and so it does seem almost as though they are accompanying spirits.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:00
That's why, Roth says, they named the exhibit Anima, Latin for soul or spirit. Back in the stables Dumas says the horses at Arlington aren't simply carrying the casket to the grave site. For the wives and husbands and children mourning the horses' presence, she says, means so much more.

DUMAS

00:04:23
I think we need them to help us to understand what's going on. In a way they are the witnesses of our existence.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:31
Fewer and fewer people interact with animals on a daily basis, Charlotte Dumas says. With her photographs, she tries to get viewers to pause, look an animal in the eye and question how much we really know about animals' inner lives. I'm Emily Friedman.

SHEIR

00:04:50
You can Charlotte Dumas' photographs of the burial horses at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through the end of October and a quick tip, if you visit the museum any Saturday before Labor Day, you get in for free.
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