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Three Books by Charlotte Dumas

Paradis, Al Lavoro! and Retrieved by Charlotte Dumas

I can understand approaching Charlotte Dumas' work with hesitance. Images of animals are among the quickest ways to attract interest in humans, play on our sympathies, tug on our heartstrings. Advertisers seem to be well aware of this, using animals for cheap attention grabs to manipulate our empathy for the promotion of a product. While Dumas' images may initially gain attention due to their subject matter, her photographs move beyond this basic attraction, speaking to the core of the human desire for a connection with animals. Depictions of animals are everywhere, omnipresent in videos and memes on the internet, and growing in importance in the family structure of our homes -- there seems to be a sizable societal yearning for closeness with animals. Not only is the way we relate to animals shifting, but also how we relate to each other -- animals often become a proxy for human relationships, but can also be a foundation for relationships between humans, a bonding element in a world of increasing disparity.

from Paradis by Charlotte Dumas

Dumas has said of her own images, "the state of mankind can be read and studied by the way we relate to animals." She is a formidable portrait artist, her subjects captured as elegantly and thoughtfully as we expect of the best portraits of humans. Painterly lit and sculpturally rendered, her subjects seem to emote through every part of their being, their posture, and most compellingly, their eyes. The animals captured by Dumas are soulful and her images feel revealing. But what is it, exactly, that we are seeing when we look at Dumas' images? Are we glimpsing the soul of these animals, or are we seeing a reflection of our desires for them? In his essay for Al Lavoro!, Francesco Zanot states: "What you can read in the expressions of these dogs is, above all, a projection of our thinking. Their eloquence is, at least in part, the eloquence of those viewing them.” That eloquence is also a large part from Duams, the expressions captured a reaction, or not, to her lens and presence.

from Paradis by Charlotte Dumas

Paradis collects images from a number of Dumas' projects, including her sold out book Heart Shaped Hole. It opens with a few portraits of dogs, soft and low lit, leading into two of Dumas' series of horses, the first of many well-sequenced and surprisingly natural transitions between projects centered on different species. The first equine image depicts a horse in an oddly vulnerable position, lying down, back to the camera, creating a striking parallel to an image of a German Sheppard a few pages prior. Moving through these images, we are left with an overwhelming sense of an inner life behind the eyes of these creatures, but as the book progresses the animals depicted grow more wild -- from domesticated dogs and horses, to strays, to wolves, and here the expressions become more inscrutable. A street dog sitting in a box is paired with an image of a wolf, the animals linked by the similarities of their coats, but the wildness of the wolf is notable. Without the generations of co-evolution that have made man and dog so compatible, these canines are harder to connect with, but the urge to find meaning in their gazes is still palpable if only in its attainable absence. A wolf with downy white fur leads into an image of a white tiger, here again, back to Dumas' lens. In these images the viewer is also confronted by the captivity of her subjects, the power of the cats contrasting with the shabby concrete human-made surroundings. Ultimately I am left wondering -- what is it that we do to these creatures in our attempt to make them part of our lives, in our attempts to bond with them? The book opens with a delicate essay by Mooseje Goosen and finishes with a plate listing, including images from these projects that are not pictured in this book.

from Al Lavoro! by Charlotte Dumas
from Al Lavoro! by Charlotte Dumas

More straight forward in concept, Al Lavoro! features a series of Duams' images of working dogs with jobs ranging from lifeguard to retired lab animal. The book also reveals a bit of Dumas' process, featuring seven medium format images filling the page in fantastic reproduction, but also 24 of her preparation Polaroid images, presented in smaller size in the intervening pages. The essay by Francesco Zanot in English and Italian accompanies the smaller images on these pages, which has the dubious attribute of being a bit too engaging for this format -- at times it can distract from the images. Ultimately, the effect is rather like a slide lecture, and the publisher can be forgiven for not wanting to hide the text at the end of the book. In these portraits, Dumas captures the canines in their work environments or at home, each photograph captioned with the dogs name, age and occupation. There is a subtle tension in these images -- the animals occupying a space more complex than the average pet, they are employed in our service. The cover image, Ursus, the 16 year old lifeguard dog, is a showstopper, eyes fixed to the ocean with what seems to be concerned vigilance. One gets the sense that Ursus finds his job fulfilling, which contrasts with the images of Cannella and Diva, a laboratory dog and racing dog, who are depicting lounging, grateful in their retirement.

from Retrieved by Charlotte Dumas

Retrieved follows the theme of working dogs, but Dumas achieves something different in this book. Following up on the rescue dogs who worked at the World Trade Center and Pentagon sites during 9-11, Dumas photographed dogs who were still living 10 years after the event. For Dumas, the images of these events that most stuck with her were of the animals, sniffing through the rubble, and captured here in her tender, thoughtful style, for me, these images become a representation of the psychological usefulness of our emotional connection to animals. In Retrieved the dogs provide a proxy, an easier way in to the tumultuous ordeal of dealing with a paradigm-shifting tragedy ten years later. Time passes quickly, and our distance from the events can be hard to perceive. Here, that time is written on the faces of the dogs, grey appearing around many of their eyes and snouts. Photographing them in their homes, the dogs look noble and alert, brave. There is catharsis in these images; the silence of these dogs allows them to become symbols, a perfect space to project what we humans may have difficulty dealing with. The book ends with a statement from Dumas and bios of the 15 dogs portrayed in the book.

from Retrieved by Charlotte Dumas

All three books are slim and modest sized books, all approximately 8-1/2"x11". Retrieved is a soft cover, the images beautifully printed on Japanese-bound pages. The others are hardcover, Al Lavoro! with splashy bright yellow endpapers and big glossy images. Paradis is more understated, the images smaller, but finely reproduced, and ultimately the most intimate of the three books.

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