The subjects of Isa Leshko’s tender black-and-white portraits are goats, cows, sheep, horses, chickens, pigs – common farm animals. But in some respects, they’re exceptional, even exotic, in that they are elderly farm animals. Such creatures are rare, given that they are often disposed of once they outlive their usefulness or breeding capacity. Consider Leshko’s portrait of the tufted, weathered face of Babs, a 24-year-old donkey who had been used for rodeo roping practice, or the measured gaze of Melvin, an 11-year-old Angora goat who spent his early years tied to a tire in a yard, without shelter from the elements. Taken at eye level, her images reveal singular details of expression and disposition.
Leshko’s portraits bring to mind Peter Hujar’s photographs of animals, which similarly captured the particularity of a dog or horse (or goose or goat), a sense of that creature’s individual consciousness. Leshko’s photographs, too, are rich in respect and empathy while avoiding sentimentality. She was taking care of her elderly parents when she began this project, and she struggled not to anthropomorphize her subjects or, as she put it, to “project my own emotional baggage” into the portraits. At the time that she photographed a 12-year-old Blue Slate turkey named Gandalf, who was found near death during a rescue operation on the property of a hoarder, she was taking care of her mother, who had developed Alzheimer’s disease. As she writes in the introduction to her book Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries (University of Chicago Press), it was hard not to see aspects of her mother reflected in Gandalf’s expression – the turkey was blind, giving his eyes a blank look; and he cooled himself down by breathing with his beak open. Only when she was able to focus on the individual in front of her, and what she calls Gandalf’s “gentle and dignified nature,” was she satisfied with the portrait.
Though Leshko is an artist rather than a documentary photographer, there’s clearly an aspect of advocacy running through her work, and she’ll be making her case to audiences in New York and Chicago this fall. Her photographs will be on view at ClampArt in New York City October 3 to November 16 and at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA, from October 24 to December 6. Leshko’s photographs are about the animals, but also about the connection that she patiently establishes with each of them. Whatever viewers’ thoughts on animal rights, her pictures give us pause to consider why some are cherished pets and others are disposable.