For those who don’t know the work of Charlotte Dumas, a small sampling of her photos is on view in Dutch Seen, a group show of Dutch photographers currently at the Museum of the City of New York, curated by Kathy Ryan.
The subtlety and scope of Dumas’ images actually justify the definition of “artist who works with photography,” as she tends to see herself. Something apparently simple is going on: a grouping of five “dog portraits” titled “Heart of a Dog.” Each shot is composed in the tradition of classical portraiture, with the subject at its center and artful light. They are all pit bulls from New York City shelters. But in this confrontation one slowly surrenders to the dogs’ gaze and a dialogue begins, arising questions of intimacy, empathy, complicity, and above all of the essence of portraiture.
How do dog images, historically a “genre” species, become actual “portraits” here? What defines that relationship between viewer and subject? With these questions in mind, I recently sat down with Dumas.
Alessandro Cassin (Rail): Dog portraiture seems dangerously close to the periphery of art photography, the risk of kitsch and sentimentality is always around the corner.
Charlotte Dumas: Absolutely! I feel that it is never the subject but how one approaches it that is important. It was one thing to photograph horses, wolves or tigers, but dogs—it’s a slippery slope toward pets. People initially think of photos of dogs as something possibly “cute” but not “serious.”
Rail: Your work with the dogs of New York relates to your series of strays from Palermo, Sicily. Could you compare the two experiences?
Dumas: In both cities I focused on the relationship between animals and humans. In Palermo the stray dogs roam around freely while in New York they are rounded up and kept in captivity.
Rail: Logistics must have been completely different.
Dumas: I had been invited to Palermo for an artist residency in 2006, and coincidentally started taking pictures of stray dogs. I worked in ideal conditions, enjoying great freedom. Over there everything happens in the street! I did not need to ask anybody’s permission.
Rail: Were you working toward a show?
Dumas: I started taking photos of dogs with a Polaroid camera, for the pure pleasure of it. When I returned to my studio, I realized that something was emerging. Months later I returned to Palermo with my Mamiya. I published that series as The Heart Shaped Hole.
Rail: Which in turn led you to be accepted at ICP, giving you a reason to spend more time in New York.
Dumas: Yes, and that is when I began researching the local stray dogs: I knew there were a lot of them in New York. I went around with the patrols who pick up the dogs.
Rail: Are there still strays in some parts of New York?
Dumas: Yes, there are, though they get picked up rather quickly!
Rail: You must be aware of a lot of photo work that has been done about stray dogs. How would you differentiate your own?
Dumas: Most of the work I have seen is about the dire conditions of the dogs, a certain sadness, or sense of the pathetic. I wanted to show their dignity and pride. In Palermo despite their nomadic existence they are fully integrated in the city life. This gives them a sense of self respect, which makes them much more interesting.
Rail: And in New York?
Dumas: Here I found the dogs very repressed: people are afraid of them, they in turn are afraid of people. The New York City Animal Care and Control is the only facility that takes all animals, regardless.
Rail: In the New York dog shelters the pit bulls are dominant.
Dumas: Yeah. The pit bull terrier is either a victim or a criminal and every one has an opinion about him, and a strong one! These dogs have a violent past and it’s impossible not to take it into account. It is part of the social make up of the city, of its underworld.
Rail: Your portraits cut through generalities, they are not pro or against pit bulls, but deal with a very specific individual.
Dumas: Yet on another level my pit bulls represent not just all pit bulls but all my animal photographs.
Rail: How did you come up with the two titles for your dog portrait series?
Dumas: The Heart Shaped Hole came because one of the dogs was in a cardboard box with a triangular hole that looked heart shaped. Some people looking at these images are quick to say that they find them sad, to me instead, they are optimistic, life affirming. Heart of a Dog comes from Bulgakov, very concise and perfectly fitted. Pit bulls are known for their giant hearts: the quintessence of dog loyalty.
Rail: There are lot of literary references in your work.
Dumas: At the moment I am catching up on American literature: stuff about New York in the 80s, but my passion is the Russians: Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Chekhov.
Rail: Your photographic work has a lot to do with painterly traditions...
Dumas: There is some confusion around my participation in the show Dutch Seen that I would like to dispel: I am interested in a way of looking at, not imitating 17th century Dutch painting! Having said that, of course, I do recognize that I use many of the same traditional ingredients: composition, light, a classical approach to portraiture.
Rail: You don’t really seem interested in many of the technical possibilities offered by photography.
Dumas: Cinema captures speed and movement better than photography, freeing it to do other things. There are problems with group shows where the emphasis is on the medium. Both my subjects and my medium are extremely slippery slopes! [Laughs.]
Rail: Most of your photographs are of a single animal, but the subject is the relationship with the viewer.
Dumas: I would venture to say that my work is totally about humans, insofar as we reflect ourselves in animals.
Rail: I also feel that the strength of your images comes in part from an implied narrative, and more specifically from feelings of intimacy and empathy with the animal.
Dumas: For years I tried to deny it, to move away from that and stick to the animal. But the truth is that my connecting with the animal is going to come through. I like to be at eye level with the subject as a departure point to establish intimacy.
Rail: What is the single aspect that you enjoy most about photographing animals?
Dumas: That it really is an interaction of intuitions: the animal always lets you know what distance he will or will not allow. The definition of a portrait for me is that you are at the right distance from your sitter. The whole thing is the interaction between the subject and the person making the portrait and this does not change at all if the subject is human or animal. Animals are more clear in letting you know if you have stepped inside their comfort zone. If you get too close you break the spell, if you are too far there is no intimacy. With a zoom the animal would not be aware of my presence, it could still be a beautiful photo, but it would not be a portrait. What interests me is the whole spectrum of emotions I go through while making these portraits.
Rail: Often the animal looks back, allowing us to imagine a story. Is this part of your intention?
Dumas: Not necessarily, but I like it if people do. The most important to me is that when one looks at my photographs, an emotional response is unleashed. That’s more important than seeing a dog.
Rail: In Why We Look at Animals, John Berger argues that animals became objects for study and appreciation at the moment when we no longer had to rely on them for utilitarian reasons. Part of their fascination is as reminders of a different, earlier time.
Dumas: There is clearly an element of this in my work. For instance, in the army horses photos from Rome, I wanted to recapture something about what it must have been like to be at war on horseback. That partnership is probably the single most interesting one that I can think of between animals and humans. Soldiers and horses went through everything together with a kind of bonding rarely seen today.
Rail: Your photographs of the Carabinieri a cavallo have an almost epic quality.
Dumas: It all started with reading Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, and imagining this man that had never ridden a horse finding himself at war on one. When I found out that in Rome the Italian Carabinieri had the last active military cavalry, I had to go and see it for myself.
Rail: How would you define the scope of your work?
Dumas: The intention of my work lies on the side of giving comfort by creating alternatives. The art that touches me the most is that which allows you to get away from things, to dream. In life we also need confrontation but that is not what my art is about.
Rail: What’s next for you?
Dumas: Maybe it’s time to move east. I’m thinking about India, where animals are much more part of the culture, not neatly confined to designated areas. In terms of the development of my work, I would like to integrate more of the context of the animals.
An overview of Charlotte Dumas’ work titled Paradis will open at FOAM in Amsterdam on September 3 with an accompanying catalog from Jonge Hond Publishers.
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.