A book in which the protagonists are not people, but goats and sheep has been an adventure for Kevin Horan, a photographer, and Elena Passarello, a writer. But this is no zoological tome, nor is it a children’s book, nor even a “nature” book in a broad sense. It’s an art book, in every sense, and therein lies the challenge. No effort has been spared to make the finished product as alluring as possible, from the two-tone printing, designed to draw the reader’s attention to every detail of the fleece and the animal’s gaze, to its binding and finish and to the text introducing the series of photos.
The unusual nature of this publication leads to an understandable curiosity about those who worked on the project and believed in it. And indeed, there is also the opportunity to delve into this matter, having first inexorably been drawn into the book by the powerful, yet droll portraits of these farm animals.
The book celebrates the unity of nature, removing the familiar barriers separating the human world from the animal. Being photographed in Kevin’s studio immediately, and perhaps inexplicably, confers on these goats and sheep a dignity that somehow escapes an animal pictured in a field. The effect is to convey a sense of peaceful collaboration between man and beast . The goats and sheep, each with a name, are immortalized without any judgment and absolutely objectively, the photographer always taking care to place the camera level at their eyes. He eschews any implied superiority, as he does all sense of intrusion for having been forced to live side by side on the same tiny planet.
Kevin, how did you get the idea for this project, and when? Where did you get the idea from?
When I moved from city (Chicago) to country (Whidbey Island), I suddenly found myself with new neighbours: sheep. They would greet me at the fence, I think because that was where they were fed. As they called out to me, each had a distinct voice - soprano, tenor, baritone; pleading, sweet, grumpy. Their faces were also all different, and it occurred to me to make portraits of them as individuals. What if they came into the studio to have a picture made that they could take home and frame on the wall?
Has anyone ever regarded your work as less interesting than that of other photographers because your subjects are animals?
Oh, I’m sure they have. But they are polite and don’t tell me about that. On the contrary, many people LOVE animals and are drawn into the photographs, first for the subject. I think after that the photograph begins to work on them.
Are there any aspects of the project that derive from the fact that you’re dealing with animals instead of people that you didn’t think of beforehand? Or is taking pictures of men or animals basically the same?
The most interesting part is how similar they are. Over my career I have made thousands of portraits of humans, and the objective is the same. I take a brief encounter and try to create a two dimensional image that somehow conjures up a person. That’s what I’m doing with goats, too. I’m using the language of photography to make non-human persons. Because they are, you know. It’s just that we normally can’t get inside their heads. I like to imagine that we can. That was all true of the human portraits, as well: we only think we know that person in the photograph.
Looking at your photos promotes self-understanding in men and women and leads them to notice affinities with species not normally considered in that light. Cats and dogs are today’s anthropomorphic animals, almost by definition - of course it wasn’t always so, judging by Medieval miniatures! So why did you go against the flow, especially if you also take the market into consideration?
Yes, what makes these animals work in the pictures was that they are ordinary, but not as familiar to us as cats and dogs. I wanted to look at barnyard animals in a way that prompts an attempt to see them with reverence and respect. Every creature has its own sense of the world, whether we dare to call that consciousness or not. The fascination for me is to try the impossible act of considering what the world must be like from inside their heads. It could be a sheep or a bat or a worm or your boss.
Now Elena, let’s hear your opinion. You’re known as the author of Animals Strike Curious Poses. Essays (2007), among other books. What’s your take on the shared features that lead some people to see themselves in particular animal species? Have you got any examples in this regard?
I think we see ourselves in animals for many reasons, some of them forward-reaching, others looking to the past. We might, for example, see past versions of ourselves in other species: ways in which we were more alert, more instinctual, and more in touch with the planet. We might also see in animals ways to move forward, or a reduced series of traits that all similarly minded creatures strive to inhabit. Also, sometimes animals just look like people. I can see many of my friends and co-workers in the faces of Kevin’s photogenic and winsome subjects.
What were your thoughts, when you were asked to write the text to accompany an art book, a book containing photographs of goats and sheep? Were you already familiar with Kevin Horan’s work?
One of my very first thoughts was something like: “If you would have told me twenty years ago that my career would involve being commissioned to introduce a collection of high-art goat portraits, I would have told you to stop pulling my leg”. Seriously, who would ever dream of getting a call like the one I got from Kevin? I jumped at his offer because of the sheer uniqueness of the commission. I knew I’d never get the chance to consider animals - a subject I love thinking about - in this specific way ever again. More than that, however, I felt really honoured. It means something to try and write a book about animals that then yields other opportunities to write more about animals. I found it very encouraging, as well as an opportunity to continue some of the ideas of the book two years after its publication.
Do you look at the animal world with renewed interest and a fresh perspective after seeing these photos, or has nothing changed?
You can’t look at these photos and not feel changed. Every time I pass a goat when I’m driving or out on a hike (and I live in semi-rural Oregon, so this happens frequently), I think of Kevin’s work. When I see the goats, the first thing I do now is try to get face to face with them, to look into their eyes and see if they will return my gaze.
Elena, has writing about the animal world helped you acquire a deeper understanding of mankind? Has the experience prompted any particular thoughts or encouraged you to probe further into certain questions? Have you reached any conclusions?
Writing a book about the ways humans have looked at animals over the course of several millennia has its drawbacks. For starters, a lot of the stories about animals I knew from growing up turned out to be much darker, as animals that were presented to me as happy or at least magical (at the circus, for example), I now understand to be in much more compromised situations. The book made me reconsider animals on their own terms and question myself in terms of the way I value them. On a lighter note, I also gained so much new respect and awe for animals! This is especially the case for the animals I wrote about that many people consider quotidian or everyday: the starlings, pigeons, rats, and garden spiders of the world. Common and hearty, they’ve been with humans every step of the way, and their fascinating biology has interwoven with our stories in so many fascinating manners, from the first marketplaces all the way to the space race. So now, when I pass a field of starlings on my drive to work, I feel the urge to greet them!
What other projects are you planning? And above all, what are the subjects going to be?
Elena: I want to try to perform an impossible task and write about the failure that ensued. I’m too superstitious to give out specifics beyond that!
Kevin: I’m planning on doing the opposite: instead of making pictures that are very detailed, black-and-white and planned, I’ll be making pictures that are impressionistic, colour and all about serendipity.
Lastly, I can’t help asking you, what animal do you think you most resemble?
Elena: On my best days, I am a busy, frisky river otter. But most days, I’m one of those mandrill monkeys with the rainbow faces. They look both flamboyant and worried at the same time - that’s often me in a nutshell!
Kevin: I think I’d make a pretty good rat.