Beauty & Beasts

Photographer Charlotte Dumas delves into the spirits, lives and labor of animals in a new show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art


Ringo is one of the funerary horses who pull caisson carts at Arlington National Cemetery that Dumas focused on for her series.

If you had to name the closest relationship you have with an animal, chances are you’d say “my best friend, Rover” or “the bacon I had for breakfast.” But in many pockets of our modern world — even in our city — animals of all types live and work alongside people in unexpected ways.

Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas explores this idea through lush, solemn portraits of various beasts. And though her works can certainly pull at the heartstrings, Dumas’ intent is more nuanced.

Paul Roth, curator of “Anima,” on view through Oct. 28 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, says Dumas’ work gets at the personalities and contributions of her animal subjects.

“We live in cities, we live in suburbs,” he says. “And our relationships with animals are more likely to be owner-to-pet, or food.”

Here’s a closer look at the four series that make up “Anima.”

‘Horses at Arlington National Cemetery’
For this series, Dumas focused on the funerary horses that pull caisson carts carrying service members’ coffins. She caught the horses at night, before they fell asleep. The photos telegraph nobility, which leads Dumas to raise interesting questions: Do we read the photographs that way because we know what the horses do to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice? Are the horses themselves aware of their contributions? “They’re working animals; they’re bred and trained to carry out a set of tasks,” Roth says. “The 21-gun salute, the weeping people at the grave site, the ceremony, the flags — these are regular, happenstance things for them, but for the people standing by the grave, they are momentous and profound. I wonder if [the horses] feel that gravity. [Dumas is] really interested in those questions.”

‘Palermo 7’
A day at the races in Palermo, Italy, takes on a reflective tone in this series. “[Dumas] is selecting groups of animals quite deliberately; they are chosen for their relationship to humanity,” Roth says. “She’s always trying to think about groups or classes, because there’s a story she can tell between the images. She wants to show something the audience might not know or may not be able to imagine.” At the track, the horses are nothing but speeding blurs; in this series, the tethered, still heads of the horses are the focus, offering moments to pause and consider the animal. “You are looking into the eyes, just like you would with a Rembrandt,” Roth says.

‘Heart-Shaped Hole’
The homeless dogs of Palermo may not have a place to hang their leashes, but they do have what many homeless people lack: an identity within the mainstream community. Every dog in this series has a name. “[Dumas] would ask people, ‘Does this dog have a name?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s Tom Tom,’” Roth says. “They’d just be given a name by a community member, and that name would spread and the dog would become part of a community’s life.” Dumas captured some dogs in settings that might, at first, seem to be refuges of homeless people — cardboard boxes and shopping carts, for example. Roth says that choice puts the animal’s experience in context. “Those might be visual indicators we expect to see when looking at a documentary photograph of a homeless person,” he says. “But she’s not pretending to say anything about what it means to be a homeless dog. She’s trying to get people to ask those questions themselves.”

‘Reverie’
While horses and dogs are in no danger of extinction, that’s not the case with gray wolves. This is the focus of the “Reverie” series, which features rescued wolves in nature preserves around the world. These wolves now depend on humans for their very survival — ironic, considering it’s probably our fault they’re endangered in the first place. “I think [Dumas is] really responding to her times, which is very common for photographers,” Roth says. “Her subject is the disappearance of animals in human life. That dependence [of animals on humans and vice versa] has a great amount of depth to it. They are the witness to what we do and how we are.”

Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; through Oct. 28, $10; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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