JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the back gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2008 and 2017. The prints are shown in two sizes: 9×9 or 18×18 inches, each in editions of 15. There are 10 small prints and 4 large prints on view. (Installation shots below.)
A monograph of this body of work was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (here). Hardcover, 126 pages, with 45 reproductions. Includes essays by Gene Bauer and Anne Wilkes Tucker.
Comments/Context: When we look at well made photographic portraits of the elderly or the aged, we are inevitably drawn in by the way the passing of time is reflected in their faces and bodies. If the people happen to be our own parents or grandparents, there are of course many additional layers of familial love, connection, and memory that infuse our impression of these images, but even if the sitters are strangers to us, and even if they are afflicted by diseases, traumas, and losses that have left them less than they once were, we still see the hardened traces of their individual stories etched on their faces. They seem to poignantly carry their history with them, almost regardless of the specifics of their lives, and do so all the way to their last days.
Isa Leshko’s photographs of the elderly fit right into this tradition of attentive portrait making. After building trust with her sitters, she gets in close, making empathetic portraits that tenderly capture the personalities of her subjects. Like many elders, they each continue to struggle along, with loneliness, weariness, battered bodies, and the residues of hardships endured, both physical and emotional. But Leshko has photographed them with respect and dignity, teasing out flashes of recognition from even the most reluctant of her subjects. She has taken the time to be present, and that investment pays off in pictures that consistently tell rich stories.
The twist in this narrative comes from the fact that her elderly sitters aren’t people, but animals. Saved from the slaughterhouse, deliberate extermination, or the veterinary euphemism of “being put down”, these aging farm animals, racehorses, wild sheep, and rescue dogs now inhabit various animal sanctuaries around the United States, where they can comfortably live out their days in the animal equivalent of a human nursing home or retirement community.
That we’re not particularly used to seeing photographs of elderly animals is mostly a reflection of our often one-sided relationship with horses, cows, pigs, sheep, and other farm animals. We tend to see these animals through the lens of our own human needs, so when they are too old to do our back-breaking work, to provide us with milk or meat, or to create the next generation of thoroughbred race winners, we tend to consider them worthless. And so we summarily end their lives, leaving very few to actually reach old age.
Leshko’s sensitive portraits of these unlikely animal survivors will make you wonder about the morality of such decisions, and about our treatment of animals more generally. Short captions accompany the portraits, and the backstories they tell offer little to be proud of. Babs the donkey (now aged 24) was repeatedly used for roping practice. Marieclare the horse (now aged 27+) was rescued from a factory harvesting pregnant mare urine for pharmaceutical products. And Melvin the goat (now aged 11+) spent the first six years of his life tied to a tire in an unsheltered yard. Leshko’s images become a sorry parade of broken wings, paralyzed legs, and scarred skin (from shearing and other injuries), each unlikely survivor holding on and slowly healing, long after their human owners gave up on them.
Leshko’s portraits repeatedly capture wariness in the eyes of her subjects – these animals know from experience that trusting a human may not end well. But her pictures wait, allowing a sense of comfort to come in and soften the visual exchange. Lesko is particularly attentive to the details of aging – long whiskers, shaky limbs, fogged eyes, thinning hair, mangled feathers, and grizzled muzzles – each becoming a badge of courage or a sign of perseverance. But it is the expressions we see on the faces of these animals that deliver the most force. In almost every case, Leshko gets down in the dirt and straw to make a ground-level approach to her sitters, and the eye-to-eye connections she makes are consistently engaging and real.
Most animal photography has a cloying cuteness or a reflected sense of what humans want animals to be, so the fact that Leshko’s photographs reframe the interaction, in essence giving the animals the opportunity to tell their own stories for once, makes her pictures stand out. By respectfully showing us the beauty and dignity to be found in aging animals of all kinds, she has offered us humans both a measure of guilt at how we have treated them and an encouragement to forward-looking advocacy on their behalf. Her compassionate, gentle, well-crafted portraits remind us that we can do better for these animals, if we only take a moment to see them as sentient, feeling individuals.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $800 or $1600, based on size, in rising editions. Leshko’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.