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A Photo Homage To The Working Class ... Of Animals

There are roughly 21 funerals a day at Arlington National Cemetery. The majority are simple graveside burials. But for those soldiers who have earned "full honors," the casket is brought to the grave by a team of horses pulling a caisson.

These horses are the subject of a new series of portraits by 35-year-old Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The horses seem sad, and Dumas says that's what drives her work.

"I do think that portraits of animals, specifically, give room for reflection of one's own emotions. And not just projecting, but maybe ... identifying with," she explains. "The presence of animals can be of great importance for us to process what is happening around us — because they are a different species, but they are living like us."

Over the course of a year and a half, Dumas sat with her tripod at the edge of the stalls. She often photographed from the horses' eye level, a technique widely used for portraits of people.

In Dumas' photos, we see the horses after the day's work is done, resting in their stalls. Their white hair glows against the shadowy background. There's a dreaminess to the images, which Dumas achieved without extra lighting, or zoom lenses, but simply by waiting.

"I photographed the animals at night, as they were falling asleep, which to me emphasize a vulnerability," she says.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art commissioned this body of work. And curator Paul Roth says it bucks a long-standing rule of fine art.

"One of the things that I was first taught when I learned about photography was not to photograph animals," he says. "It would invite people's sense of sentimentality that we all experience daily when we experience viral videos of cats."

None of these photographs begs to be an adorable screensaver, though.

"Charlotte is interested in getting beyond that. Their whole working life — eight funerals a day, year round — is about carrying soldiers to their graves," says Roth. "It's a really powerful thing, so it does seem that they are accompanying spirits."

Dumas has made a career of photographing animals. She first gained international attention for her series on the dogs that worked to find survivors in the rubble of the twin towers. Those dogs, and these horses, she says, have a lot in common.

"It came full circle in a way," she says. That is — from the dog photos in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to now, almost a decade later, the horses at funerals resulting from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Charlotte Dumas' photographs question how much we really know about animals' inner lives. And in asking those questions, she says, there's a lot we can learn about ourselves.

The exhibition, Anima, will be on display through late October at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2012 WAMU 88.5

Emily Friedman