In bringing out the dignity, grace and humor of ungulates, Kevin Horan’s wonderful photos raise questions about our curious relationship with other animals.
Look at these photos. They are portraits of goats and sheep …. but don’t you see people you know in them? They are loaded with personality; the pose of a diva, coy grins, contemplative gazes, mischievous turns of the head. Their charm is nearly irresistible, as is the want to anthropomorphize them.
Part of a series called “Chattel,” the images belong to a wonderful body of work by Washington-State-based photographer Kevin Horan. A self-described “recovering photojournalist,” Horan has traded in presidential campaigns and international assignments for projects that “look at animals as people, people as animals, and the planet as a very small place.”
The study of goats and sheep came about after Horan moved to a house on Washington's Whidbey Island – a house that came with a small herd of bleating neighbors. Noting the differences in each animal’s “voice” is what sparked the project.
“Soprano, bass, raspy, soft, quick, slow: they were all different. It occurred to me these creatures were all individuals,” Horan told the Washington Post. After attempting to make portraits of the next-door ungulates – who in their unruliness proved resistant to the idea – Horan headed to farms where the animals were more accustomed to being handled. Et voila, the glorious “Chattel” was born.
In revealing these distinct personalities, Horan is traveling beyond the typical “cute photos of farm animals” realm to explore the power of portraiture. And beyond that, the photos bring into focus the murky line between anthropomorphism and animal sentience. Does presenting an animal posed in a form usually reserved for humans just make us see them as more human? Or do these guys and gals (see? I can’t help myself) possess traits that are really more like ourselves than many people may want to believe?
In writing about the series Horan says:
These pictures insist upon active engagement of our own feelings about the souls within other beings, human or otherwise, and how visible they are from the outside. If we are paying attention to our own responses, we must grapple with the cause of our response:
Theory A: these creatures have the light of sentience inside, and I am connecting with it.
Theory B: the application of the tradition of photographic portraiture – the lighting, pose, background – nudges us into an anthropomorphic comfort zone.
After photographing so many goats and sheep, and humans as well, Horan still hasn’t reached a conclusion.
But with recent research extolling the unexpected intelligence of goats and showing that they have the capacity for complex communication with people, this (admittedly anthropomorphizing writer) is leaning towards Theory A.
“Chattel” is on display at PDNB Gallery in Dallas, Texas, as part of the “Critters” exhibition until August 27, 2016.