By Tim Groen
Ask Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas about her preference for animal portraiture and she’ll turn as enigmatic as the Scandinavian wolves she spent an entire year photographing. “It was an intuitive development,” she explains at one point.
The Amsterdam-based photographer and her American husband were in New York for half a week, to attend the opening reception for her solo show, Repose, at Julie Saul Gallery. A few days later, she attended the New York Art Book Fair to support independent publishers Dashwood Books. who presented her latest publication, also titled Repose.
Julie Saul had first noticed Charlotte’s work at the Armory, several years ago, where the photographer was represented by Paul Andriesse Gallery from Amsterdam. Julie bought Charlotte’s work on the spot, and not just —she points out—because she’s a dog lover. “I never even think about animal photography; It really doesn’t function very much in the art world,” says the gallery director, who believes that Charlotte’s animal portraits stand out because “they are free of artifice, they are direct and pure and straight.”
The works in Repose, both the exhibit and the publication, represent a cross section of her body of work so far. “I’m a classical artist in the sense that I work on an oeuvre; a connecting thread. I want to have told a single story, at the end of my life.”
Since graduating from the Rietveld Academy and continuing her education at the Rijks Academy, Charlotte has spent almost a decade producing roughly a series per year. “I tend to work at a relatively slow pace,” the photographer says, “but for me it leads to the best images I can create.”
Her concepts lead her all over the place; ranging from, for example, the American Midwest for tigers in rather drab circuses, to the Swedish and Norwegian wilderness for the aforementioned wolves, and from the streets of Palermo for stray dogs, to animal shelters of New York for abandoned pitbull terriers. Her series take about a year each to produce, and in the end, Charlotte’s strict editing process eliminates all but five to seven images.
Photographing the animals in their own environment (available light, no studios, no sets), Charlotte wants for her subjects to be aware of the session. “I think that’s a prerequisite for any portrait.” Then she waits to learn how close up she is allowed to get, sometimes seeking the animal out more than once. “The distance between me and the subject is extremely important,” she explains, “And when it comes down to it, the animal has the last word.”
It’s not hard to see why it almost seems easier for Charlotte to describe her work in terms of what it is not. Even Julie Saul says: “ I love that it is not anthropomorphic!” Viewers who have no affinity with animals, might dismiss the photographer as a sentimental animal-freak. Animal rights activists, on the other hand, might read a political slant into her work.
While Charlotte obviously loves animals deeply, and is vehemently against any kind of abuse, her work is neither naïve or cute, nor can it be mistaken for a political pamphlet.
“I’m a great believer in the power of the image. When you approach a subject profoundly, the resulting image places responsibility with the viewer. I’m trying to make my viewers conscious of how they look at animals, and what follows is an awareness of how animals are treated.”
And how we treat animals, Charlotte argues, says everything about us. Human behaviour, she reasons, is based on territorial urges. And while territorialism is by no means exclusive to humans, we are the only species with the ability to rationally define ourselves through the existence of other species. So in the end, she states, her work is about how animals mirror us to ourselves.
“In both literature and art I’m drawn to subtlety,” the photographer says, ”It’s appealing when a work of art doesn’t tell you what to think, but nonetheless hits you like a truck.”
At the same time her portraits are very much about the individual. Charlotte points out that she is “not making a blanket statement about every stray dog on Earth. The dogs I followed and photographed were pretty proud animals, and not pathetic in the least.” Photographing sad animals would catapult her work straight into the pamphlet category, Charlotte thinks. Portraying an animal that is truly broken is impossible; the pain and vulnerability, she reasons, would turn the portrait into something else.
“Although I do find myself in a strange grey area sometimes, I don’t deal with trainers or keepers who do things I can’t bare to look at. When I see footage of someone slinging hooks in an elephant’s legs, it turns my stomach. But that’s not what my work is about. I focus on animals that actually persevere, and which have adapted to this human domain they can’t escape from.” That the portraits exude a certain dignity is key, thinks Charlotte. “In spite of everything, there’s a stoic quality. That dog who lives on the street is still that dog, and that tiger on an old cable spool is still that tiger.”
The photographer recently returned from Liguria, Italy, where she completed a carte blanche assignment; as long as it was shot locally, she could do what she wanted. After contemplating the subject (read: “species”) at length, it became clear that she wanted to return to dogs. “When everything you try to come up with seems farfetched, it’s probably best to just stick with what’s close to you,” she reasons, and chose the theme of “working” dogs.
“I know,” she laughs, “it can sound corny. Like slapping an easy-breezy documentary series together, you know? Just pick the cutest dog out of each profession, select a good shot, and call it a day.” But the reason she works with themes such as working dogs, strays, police horses or circus tigers, is not to make the series easier to understand, but because she knows that she can expect a lot of personality from her potential subjects when she ‘casts’ from specific categories. “It’s the same as with people; their personality has to strike me.”
Her assignment allowed for an excellent assistant, who did all the research and came up with a great lineup of working dogs. “It was kind of hilarious,” she says, looking back, “We felt like we were doing an elaborate fashion shoot. Going to all these locations where the dogs would be waiting, some of them freshly groomed. And then hop into helicopters, or jump in the ocean, or hunt for truffles, or whatever it was these dogs do for a living.” Out of the many dogs she shot, three portraits made the cut.
“Two weeks resulting in three good shots, that makes me pretty happy.”
When she gave birth to a daughter almost a year ago, Charlotte welcomed the break from photography. Taking time off after a decade of “incessant energy” gave her the opportunity to reflect on her body of work.
“Starting out, during my art school days, I felt an urgency to keep going, because I knew that what I was doing was bound to be misunderstood—it needed some quantity to explain itself.” Now, all these years later, she is very much aware of what she has created. “At this point,” she says, “I have specific expectations from each new series. I need to have a clear idea of how it relates to all the previous work, how it benefits the overall cohesion.”
Shows like Repose, or like Paradis, her recent overview at FOAM in Amsterdam, give the viewer an insight into Charlotte’s determination to make all the pieces fit together, series after series. Julie Saul: “I’ve worked with so many artists, and Charlotte is the real deal. I sense the seriousness of her work.”
Now she is gearing up to start writing, and it won’t just be about animals, she clarifies; her focus will be on the people around the animals. “They’re a funny bunch, these animal-people,” she says, perhaps more than a little aware that she might be one of them. “There’s people who turn animals into half-gods and place them on a pedestal, and of course I’m guilty of projecting all kinds of stuff myself!” But the ones who really work with animals, she explains, the trainers, groomers, hunters, jockeys, and the policemen, have a much clearer understanding of what animals really are. They demand something from their animals, and she says, “and that might be hard for us to accept sometimes, but it is not abuse. These people are, for the most part, completely devoted to their animal companions.”
But how she will fit writing in, she doesn’t know yet. “I feel like I had oceans of time at one point.” Now, she figures, she’ll have to do some serious scheduling to set aside a substantial block of time for a single project.
“I’m at the point where I need to handle my time efficiently,“ Charlotte says, and laughs, “Now all I need to do is figure out how you combine art and efficiency!”