Private moments, primal beauty

Ginger Danto writes on the arts for a variety of publications.

In the picturesque marshlands of southern France known as La Camargue, wild horses run free. Or free as they might across a terrain that is also home to prize-bred bulls and surveyed by herdsmen astride domesticated Camargue ponies.

Yet even with the nuisance of humans in their midst, the Camarguais exhibit the instinct-driven traits of freedom. They travel in packs, several mares to a stallion. The sires fight bloodily over their brood. The colts imitate in awkward play. All graze when possible, and when not, run. Most almost never sleep. For the photographer seeking to capture the horse in all its natural beauty, La Camargue is a facile paradise: Every pose in the tall grass is a picture. The aesthetic challenge lies nearly everywhere else in the modern world, in stables and paddocks and fenced fields, at shows, race tracks or tethered to a carriage, where horses rarely fully act themselves.

So it is testimony to Michael Eastman's skill that the veteran photographer was allowed into some rare, primal, possibly private moments in the lives of his equine models, by way of recording them. These 118 glimpses, collected in the volume "Horses," with forewards by Jane Smiley and William H. Gass, afford some of the most genuine images of a species not altogether humbled by civilization.

The achievement is all the more notable because Eastman's horses -- affiliated with a stable in the photographer's home city of St. Louis, along with a few shot in the environs of Santa Fe -- are no more wild than most house pets, who by dint of care and coddling are no longer capable, or even much desirous, of being on their own. These well-bred horses trust humans more than their wild counterparts. But they seem to have especially trusted Eastman.

Experts will read in the particular set of hindquarters, the flex of a tail or fetlock joint, qualities of an entire animal, but most of us rely on features that readily convey personality to judge whether we like a horse or not: the head with its expressive eyes, a neck with its mane spilled this way or that.

In many of his studies here, Eastman, who is not a horseman, is similarly drawn to the head shot. Even without the horse's full body in the frame and but a patch of muted sky beyond, his portraits are deeply revelatory.

Some of the subjects look dead on, chest and oblong head full frontal. Irises pooling in dark eyes, ears pricked forward, these horses appear to see us as much as we see them and to frankly want to know more. Others understand that it's all about posing, and present a handsome profile. They look demurely down or away to some far-off place as the light falls behind their eyes and the camera traces the tapered horizon of ears to nose, to velvet lips limning what appears as a faint smile. Here the mood is all the horse's own, one that we may sense but never fathom, no matter a thousand pictures taken. Still others elegantly contort themselves, flaunting the fine musculature of their torsos, turning toward us like movie stars whose cameos show off long necks or backs caressed by artful shadow. Eastman goes along, giving these horses their pin-up moment as poseurs, poets or plain clowns.

In recounting the accidental project that gave rise to "Horses" -- he was commissioned in 1988 to photograph the New Mexican landscape when a horse happened through his line of vision -- Eastman equates his equine subjects to supermodels.

It was a novel exercise for Eastman, whose signature work documenting vanishing places -- visions of gorgeous heartland landscapes at that hour when everything goes still or scenes of old Cuba, full of mood and history, without a soul occupying the frame -- has graced the cover of Time magazine and been widely exhibited in art galleries. When faced with a live animal subject, he sought out some special, hidden quality -- what Smiley describes as "momentary flashes of equine personality ... that grow only out of painstaking concentration and lengthy relationship."

So here is a horse caught in an unbecoming yawn or lazily rising from a roll in the dust. Here, too, a mare nuzzles her newborn foal, so close we might feel her breath. And here are two horses quietly communing. One teethes at a flea while the other hovers low, in a duet of quintessential friendship.

For all their apparent serenity, however, horses are never still. Eastman learned as much: That even in repose, there is always an ear twitched, a trembling lip or subtle inhalation, a tendon readying at some infinitesimal level of musculoskeletal reflex for takeoff.

That Eastman became as interested in movement is evident in take after take of horses shown full tilt, dust billowing behind flying hoofs, coats aglow under an absent sun, the working flesh delineated. These are the horses that thunder through our dreams, as coded effigies from our subconscious. Fittingly, the landscape is often out of focus as if we, as spectators, are also moving too fast, and so made to enter what is by every definition a still picture.

Elsewhere in "Horses," Eastman revisits the scientific optic of Eadweard Muybridge by creating a series of images with figures in motion. With backgrounds blurred to streaks of light, and edges of the frames overexposed like half-realized negatives, these panels convey as much as any conventional portrait their protagonists' capacity for speed.

A sepia cast to the entire volume lends an otherworldly quality deliberately reminiscent of Edward Curtis' 19th century Indian portraits, achieved via computer technology. Eastman makes no secret of using photographic tools that he has said "Ansel Adams could have only dreamed about," to produce the rich monochromes of contemporary prints.

The soft brown tones speak perhaps to the timelessness of the species, whose ancestors, after all, still canter across the cave walls of Lascaux. But there is nothing dim or faded about Eastman's tableaux, and with reason: Horses offer a perennial source to which artists of all ilk render homage. In these photographs, which record so many states of graces afforded his patient eye, however, Eastman seems to have had the homage rendered to him. *

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