Isa Leshko’s “Elderly Animals”: Art, Age, Animals, and Us–Teresa Mangum
“A certain man had a donkey, which had carried the corn-sacks to the mill indefatigably for many a long year. But his strength was going, and he was growing more and more unfit for work. Then his master began to consider how he might best save his keep. But the donkey, seeing that no good wind was blowing, ran away and set out on the road to Bremen. There, he thought, I can surely be a town musician.”
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
“Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten” / “The Bremertown Musicians” (1819). Translator, Margaret Hunt, 1887.
The plight of old animals has long lurked in the shadows of our imagination. For nearly two centuries, children have fallen asleep to the Grimm Brothers’ grim folk tale, “The Bremen Town Musicians.” In the story, a donkey who is no longer able to earn his keep invites other elderly animals – a hound too weak to hunt, a cat who longs for a warm hearth rather than mice, and a cock about to become stock – to run away with him and become musicians. What drives all the animals from their homes is the fear of being put to death by humans simply because they are old.
Fast forward to the present, when aging animals have become web celebs, at least in the United States.
One of the first and most persistent memes suggests how the lives of nonhuman and human animals are deeply entwined in the visual communities we now inhabit. The runaway success of Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” blog paved the way for him and his partner Erin O’Sullivan to launch “Susie’s Senior Dogs” in 2012.  The blog adopts the voice of then-11-year-old Susie, a small, scruffy, bemused mutt. Her elderly owner had accosted Stanton one day, as he took one of his “humans” photos, asking if the photographer would care for his companion since he no longer could. Like Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, and a host of other animal narrators who became narrators in novels or the canvasses of animal portraiture in the nineteenth century, Susie says it all – without saying a word.
Susie is in good company. Around the country, sanctuaries and shelters have taken up the cause of old animals. In many of the more imaginative cases, interspecies aging is at the heart of adoption efforts on behalf of senior animals. The goal of the Pets for the Elderly Foundation in Cleveland – according to their tagline, “Joining friends together for life” – nicely blurs the boundaries that normally separate youth and age as well as human and nonhuman species.  Seniors for Seniors in Los Angeles matter-of-factly addresses the issue of age.  Their goal is to place senior cats and dogs, which they define as seven years of age or more, with senior humans, that is people 60 and older. The growing compassion for aging animals seems not just widespread, but increasingly hip. Just before Jon Stewart retired from the Daily Show, rumors began circulating that he and his wife Tracey McShane were purchasing a New Jersey farm that they planned to turn into a farm animal sanctuary. McShane’s wry comment that all of their animals are rescues “except for the children,” is repeatedly quoted in the media. As various Huffington Post readers commented, “as if you could love Jon Stewart more.”
That was not the case five years ago when photographer Isa Leshko began photographing rescued animals. Old rescued animals. Leshko was drawn to these aging animals after a year of caring for her parents and witnessing her grandmother and mother’s progressive dementia. Having decided not to photograph her own family during this tough period, Leshko was surprised to find herself drawn to aging and dying animals – first in a friend’s pasture and later in shelters and sanctuaries where animals were allowed not only to live, but also to die.
… at a given signal, they began to perform their music together. The donkey brayed, the hound barked, the cat mewed, and the cock crowed. Then they burst through the window into the room, shattering the glass.
Though pop culture commentators focus on Leshko’s personal history, her images invite viewers into an illusion of synesthesia that few works of art achieve. To see these images is to feel and hear the animals. And Leshko is listening. In her artist’s statement, she explains, “In order to achieve a sense of intimacy in these portraits, I spend several hours with the animals I photograph, and I visit them multiple times when possible. Depending on the animal, I may spend an hour or so simply lying on the ground next to the creature before I take a single image.” Her medium reinforces the sense of simultaneous sensations. In a 2009 interview with Aline Smithson of LENS/CRATCH, Leshko discusses her use of a camera that is no longer manufactured, a Hasselblad 503CW. The Swedish medium-format camera requires hand winding, constant reloading, processing, and actual film. In effect, the creative experience is anachronistic, like the long-lived animals themselves.
Leshko’s images ask us to ponder a problem that absorbs many scholars in “age studies.” How does a society decide – as we colloquially say in a neat reversal of anthropomorphism – that it’s time to put someone out to pasture?
Most domestic animals are not intended to age. Instead, we eat them. As Leshko notes in her artist’s statement, factory farm animals are engineered to age rapidly: “chickens are slaughtered when they are around 42 days old so a rescued factory farm chicken is considered geriatric at only a year old even though heritage chickens can live up to 8 years old.”
In a June 6, 2011 interview with Alice Yoo in My Modern Met, Leshko discusses what sounds less like a shifting view than a deepening awareness of the layered complexity in both her subjects and her evocative portraits. She sounds a bit surprised by her own attraction to farm animals – horses, goats, sheep, chickens, geese: “I think it’s provocative to show a farm animal that has actually lived its natural life span given that most of these animals experience brutality and death early in their lives.” In a sense, in the photographs we see living animal ghosts. Even pets are routinely “put to sleep” to ease their suffering – or ours. As someone who has made those choices, I say that without judgment.
Perhaps the reason I associate Leshko’s series with the Bremen musicians is that in both, animals survive despite the odds against them. Indeed, the farther Leshko’s animal subjects are from the protected zone of pet culture, the more their very existence challenges viewers. In “Rooster, Age Unknown,” the animal subject fixes the camera with a very un-birdlike gaze. The feathers circling the eye and the weathered comb contrast with the inanimate fixity of the weathered wood in the background. In children’s books and stock images, chickens often burrow into a nest. Here the body sinks into a bed of fallen feathers on bare ground. The picture is an essay in embodied waiting and watching.
In interviews, Leshko notes that she has come to appreciate the individuality in her animal subjects’ response to age, illness, and death. By juxtaposing “Kelly, Irish Wolfhound, Age 11” with “Blue, Australian Kelpie, Age 19,” we can see that distinctiveness highlighted by the composition of the photos. In each, a dog faces the camera, but every other particular differs. The white, tactile coat of the younger wolfhound is luminous against the busy monochromatic ground. He looks upward at the camera; we look down at him from a conventional human perspective. Leshko captures an expectant quality very unlike the hungry look of a young pet anticipating food or play. I find the photograph of the Australian Kelpie to be one of the most moving in the series. Here, as elsewhere, Leshko lets the animal’s body speak. This background is vanishing into opaque light. The dark coat is brindled, graying just as we do, as the legs splay. Stillness registers here as that change we often describe in terms of loss and blame when we say old bodies are “failing.” Yet Leshko finds beauty and dignity in the uniqueness of each animal and teaches us to see it too.
I owe my detour through the Brementown musicians to the image entitled “Finn Sheep, Both Age 12.” It is here that I come face to face with my own anthropomorphic longings. The photograph is composed of a beautiful layering of oppositions. We see the blurred sheep’s silvered back in the foreground and a doubling of listening ears and eyes of both the sheep turned away from and the sheep turned toward the camera. Shadow and light streak the sheep facing us, and all of these layers cast into relief by the deep darkness of the background. Framed by the warmth you can almost feel in the foregrounded coat and the mysterious depths to the rear is a picture of touch that I want to believe is comforting. Entwined, the sheep embody the quiet intimacy and connection that many of us learn as a new pleasure in later life, that pleasure is only intensified for humans as age schools us in fragility and impermanence.
In a quiet, elegant five-minute video on Leshko’s website, “Elderly Animals: Photographs by Isa Leshko,” filmmakers Mark and Angela Walley document Leshko’s method. My surprise when the point of view shifted away from a horse or dog to the relationship between human photographer and nonhuman animal startled me into an appreciation of how successfully Leshko’s photographs find ways to make animals subjects rather than merely objects. When I try and explain to myself what I see in the photos and the film, I find myself slipping into paradox. The photographs visualize late life as animated stillness or live repose. The animals are very much in the moment. As hard as it is to resist interpreting expressions as sadness, exhaustion, despair, calm, it is even harder to stay with each image, letting the animal be and letting it be the center of our attention rather than a projection or catalyst of our own fears and experiences of loss.
Keeping that loss at bay is part of the work of art. Even as Leshko’s photographs ask us to live with death, the Bremen Town fairy tale closes by lulling us with the promise of a peaceful animal late life. One of our human gifts is to grow wiser by holding both possibilities in our minds and hearts. And what better way to pause than in that little death called sleep.
As soon as the four minstrels had done, they put out the light, and each sought for himself a sleeping-place according to his nature and what suited him. The donkey laid himself down upon some straw in the yard, the hound behind the door, the cat upon the hearth near the warm ashes, and the cock perched himself upon a beam of the roof. And being tired from their long walk they soon went to sleep.
Photographs from Isa Leshko’s “Elderly Animals” series can be seen on her studio page. http://isaleshko.com. She is represented by the Corden/Potts Gallery in San Francisco and the Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
 PAWS. “Cats & Dogs.” http://www.paws.org/cats-and-dogs/adopt/seniors-for-seniors/ (2015).
 Arin Greenwood, “Jon Stewart Reportedly Bought a Farm in New Jersey for Homeless Animals.” HuffPost Good News. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/01/jon-stewart-farm-new-jersey_n_7191716.html (05/01/2015).
 Isa Leshko. “Elderly Animals Artist Statement.” Isa Leshko Photography. http://isaleshko.com/elderly-animals/artist-statement/ (2015).
 Alice Yoo. “Beautiful Elderly Animals.” My Modern Met. http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/beautiful-elderly-animals (June 6, 2011).
 See, for example, the interview with Alice Yoo.
 Mark and Angela Walley. “Elderly Animals: Photographs by Isa Leshko.” http://isaleshko.com/elderly-animals/artist-statement/#film (2011).
Grim, Jakob and Wilhelm Carl. “Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten” / “The Bremertown Musicians” (1819). In Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884. 2 vols. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/authors/grimms/27brementown.html Accessed Aug. 9, 2015.
Saunders, [Margaret] Marshall. Beautiful Joe: An Autobiography. Philadelphia: The Griffith and Rowland Press, 1893. Accessed Aug. 9, 2015. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/saunders/joe/joe.html
Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse. (1877). Project Guttenberg. Accessed Aug. 9, 2015. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/271/271-h/271-h.htm
Isa Leshko is an artist whose work focuses on themes relating to aging, mortality, and animal rights. Her prints are in numerous private and public collections including the Boston Public Library, Fidelity Investments, the Harry Ransom Center, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her images have been published in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, The Guardian, Harper’s Magazine, and The New York Times. She was awarded the Houston Center for Photography Fellowship and the Silver Eye Center for Photography Keystone Award. Her work has been exhibited widely, including solo exhibitions at the Galveston Arts Center, the Griffin Museum of Photography, the Houston Center for Photography and the Silver Eye Center for Photography. http://isaleshko.com.
Teresa Mangum is a professor of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa. She has written about both aging and animals in art and literature, including the essay “Dog Years, Human Fears” in Representing Animals, edited by Nigel Rothfels (2002). She also co-edits a book series, the Humanities and Public Life for the University of Iowa Press.