The Goat and the Portrait Photographer
Kevin Horan moved to Whidbey Island and found local farmers who allowed him to set up portrait studios in their barns.
by Michal Ann Carley
Yes, goats. Specifically, studio portraits of goats. These are the subjects of Kevin Horan’s suite of 16 photographs from his 2014 series Chattel that is on exhibit at Pictura Gallery through July 29th. Formerly a photojournalist, Horan has published his work in The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, LIFE, U.S. News & World Report, National Geographic, and numerous other sites, but this series is decidedly not documentary. Nor, as one might anticipate when one has actual goats as subject matter, are the photographs coy or cute, stylized or commercial; rather, they are drop-dead deliciously beautiful portraits of subjects that strongly emote through their corporeal presence.
Kevin Horan moved to Whidbey Island in Washington state in 2006 where, after having been an editorial photographer for over 30 years, he began to explore local subjects of his own choosing. His neighbor’s sheep relentlessly serenaded him with a choir of unique voices as he passed by and, he imagined, told him their individual stories. But when he attempted to gather and corral that energy into individual photoshoots, he was met with skittish, squirrely subjects who tried to maneuver dangerously through his lighting setup. Not defeated, Horan determined to find animals who were naturally calmer because they were accustomed to human interaction, such as herd dairy animals that were used to twice-daily milking: intelligent and somewhat docile sheep and endlessly entertaining and social goats.
Horan found local farmers who allowed him to set up quasi-formal portrait studios in their barns and who willingly assisted the artist with the handling of their flocks. A photo portrait studio is generally a careful configuration of specialized photofloods and diffusion umbrellas fixed onto tripods with booms and flash box controls tied into cameras, all of which engulf the subject who is positioned against a large neutral backdrop. Erecting this setup in an actual barn is no small task, but Horan found that working with the spirited animals was even more formidable. Unlike human subjects whose ego and vanity would be distinctly in play and would elicit active cooperation during a portrait photo session, the animals had no such pretentions; they were unruly and otherwise distracted, as curious goats are wont to be.
Many of the portraits were taken at the New Moon Farm Goat Rescue and Sanctuary also on the island. It is likely that viewers might project feelings of longing, want, and gratitude onto these goats as a natural response to having been provided haven; but, to this viewer, the unique personalities of the goats are not projections but are real and inescapable — we are witness to their faces and eyes penetrating, seducing, and laughing.
The artist uses the conventions of traditional portraiture: isolating the head and shoulders in a neutral frame, orchestrating light and shadow-play over the figure while creating a focus on the most expressive features, and using a full range of tonality to create visual complexity and amplify volumes. Horan uses a Pentax medium-format digital camera to shoot the frames in black and white and then digitally superimposes subtle tones of sepia and umber to create richer, more naturalistic though staged images that reference formal portraiture of the 19th century. “Chattel” means the possessions, or in this case, the livestock that one owns. The British traditionally heralded the status of their prize animal specimens with a commissioned, oil painted portrait and with the advent of photography, a daguerreotype, a practice that carried over to the colonies. These portraits were intended to display the “beauty” of the animal through the documentation of its use value: its height, width, girth, weight, and the amount that it could pull or push. Horan’s title Chattel borrows from this notion of documentation and pride, but in his accounting, presents the subjects’ most salient characteristics as their facial features, physiognomic structure, and the texture and drape of their hair instead. These are cues to us, as viewers, to infer or sense the personality of each goat, recognizing it in the turn of their head, the lilt of their ears, or the gaze of their eyes.
The individual goats in Chattel are not identified by breed but rather by name, further indicating that they are not anonymous members of a herd, but are a part of a family, of sorts. Sherlock, whose head is shown in profile barely turns at the shoulders revealing a series of articulated creases in his back. His masses of cream-colored curls form an irregular contour that is in dramatic contrast to the deep black space that envelops him. This presentation is unlike those for pedigree shows, beauty pageants and the like. Instead, by virtue of his uncoifed and irrepressible waves of coiling hair in richly layered, umbered tonalities and as his curled horn that encircles the crown of his head and returns us to his attentive expression, he is uniquely aesthetically and psychologically compelling.
Ben stands intimately close. He is positioned frontally to compositionally isolate him in a sea of black, while his upturned chin and short horn imply a youthful innocence. Together with his widely-set imploring eyes and flaxen colored fur, these features solicit an atavistic empathic response. If there is a patriarch to this menagerie, it is Jake. Presented as the largest photographic print (36 x 44”, edition of 3), Jake commands the pictorial space, filling it almost entirely with his emphatic girth, gnarly muzzle with a Mohawk ridge, heavily veined, silken ears that droop lower than his chin, and horns that spiral diagonally to almost the corners of the frame. His is midtoned overall with only slivers of deep shadows in the furrows of his wrinkled flesh and clearly inhabits the depth of field with its almost shared tonality. But it is his pronounced under bite turned upward as if in a grin and resonant eyes that emote a languid but playful dignity. We are captured in his gaze.
Ella formally is the most sophisticated composition and the subtlest evocation of the suite. Ella occupies the lower one and one-half quadrants of the lower right, but almost merges into it as her burnished black fur swallows the light and her soft eyes and nose, that barely stand proud, are coal black. One hesitant, shimmered reflection on the very edge of her long neck that reads as a barely perceivable line of light, demarcates her muscled body from the environment. Atop her head are a pair of ringed horns poised in arabesque flight that through the precise focus on their ridged growth patterns provides the only dimensional perspective of the piece. Horan’s withholding of chromatic and tonal contrasts makes viewers all the more active in their pursuit of telling information: her feathery eyelashes that obscure eye contact, the dirt on her muzzle that suggests active work or at least exuberant curiosity, the multi-hued layered rings that make up her horns and bespeak her age, and her sustained composer that appears at once distant and present with equanimity. We are her captive audience.
Kevin Horan has at his command all the tropes of photographic portraiture and exploits them to make lushly beautiful images of common animals we might well have overlooked. Chattel is a testament to not only his formal and technical prowess, but his patience and affinity to speak with and allow the animals to speak through him. He presents the ordinary and lets it tell its story quietly with no affectation beyond light and shadow and compositional arrangement.
Michal Ann Carley is an artist, free-lance curator, and teaches Arts Management classes in IU SPEA’s Arts Administration Program.
“These pictures insist upon an active engagement of our own feelings about the souls within other beings, human or otherwise, and how visible they are from out here. If we are paying attention to our own responses, we must grapple with the cause of our response.”
Horan found local farmers who allowed him to set up quasi-formal portrait studios in their barns. But unlike a human subject whose ego and vanity would be distinctly in play and would elicit active cooperation during a portrait photo session, the animals had no such pretentions; they were unruly and otherwise distracted, as curious goats are wont to be.
Michal’s Note on images: The images are really important so I hope that the four Sherlock, Ben, Jake, and Ella can be run, in that order.
Each image can be captioned with the name of the goat in question