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The Burial Horses at Arlington National Cemetery are the subject of a new photography exhibit now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The exhibit, Anima, marks the premier of the horse's portrait series by Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas. The horses, which carry caskets of fallen soldiers to their burial sites, participate in at least eight and sometimes as many as 20 "missions" or funerals per day.
The horses encounter mourning wives, husbands and children every day, but are they aware of what's happening? Do they feel the sadness and grief that surrounds them each day? These are the questions, Dumas says, that drive her work.
She has photographed animals, both domestic and wild, all around the world. In 2011 she received international attention for her portraits of the dogs that assisted in search and rescue at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon following Sept. 11.
Dumas sees Anima as a continuation on that same theme. "The job [the horses] do is very related to the dogs," she says. The horses are involved with the funerals, which were due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It came full circle in a way."
Dumas photographs the horses at eye level, from as close as they would let her get. "With animals, if you come too close, they'll let you know, but if you stay too far off, it doesn't become a portrait." She walked that line by setting up her fixed-zoom camera at the edge of the horses' stalls, waiting hours until the horse would relax and begin to fall asleep.
For technical reasons, Dumas focuses her series only on horses with white hair (low light in the stables made the darker horses appear too dark). Their white hair glows against the shadowy background, creating a dreamy effect that recalls the portraits (albeit of people) painted by Dutch artists Rembrant and Vermeer.
Although her work does reflect hundreds of years of art history, Paul Roth, the Corcoran's senior curator and director of photography and media arts, points out these portraits also buck a long standing ban on animals as subjects of fine art.
"One of the things that I was first taught when I learned about photography was not to photograph animals," says Roth. "It would invite people's sense of sentimentality, that we all experience daily when we experience viral videos of cats." Dumas is interested in getting beyond that, he says, and digging into the relationship we have with animals; how these funerary horses are comforting the mourners with their presence. That's why, Roth says, they named the exhibit Anima--Latin for soul or spirit.
Fewer and fewer people interact with animals on a daily basis, 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.
Anima is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through Oct. 28. 2012
[Music: "Pictures of You" by The Cure from Mixed Up]
Photos: Charlotte Dumas