The racehorse stands alone against a stark, black backdrop, moving as a horse does, wearing horse garb — blinkers or a fly mask. The soft light illuminates its muscles and mane, but some observers might find something missing in Elena Dorfman's photographs.
"I'm just not a photographer who's going to go shoot a horse in a field," says Dorfman, whose studio portraits of horses are now on exhibit at the Ann Tower Gallery downtown. "But the horse itself is extraordinarily interesting to me.
"People don't normally see racehorses in studios. It's just a different take on what it is, and it's ultimately just a different exploration."
Drawing inspiration from Etienne Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering stop-motion photographs of galloping horses, Dorfman's Pleasure Park series started with her desire to create a video installation that re-created a horse race. She also wanted to create portraits of jockeys in her blackened studio, but she soon found herself drawn to the animals.
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"I happened to see a horse in the field with a fly mask on, and it was visually interesting to me, so I asked if I could bring the horse into the studio," Dorfman says.
With each image depicting a single horse wearing a mask that looks like a blindfold but is transparent, the photos, shot mainly in Northern California, convey a sense of isolation and solitude. But people who know horses could probably guess that was not the scene in the studio, where the animals were escorted into a space filled with pricey photo equipment.
"I learned very quickly I needed to have a lot of people around me," Dorfman says. "What the pictures look like in the exhibition space and what the scene was like in the studio could not have been more different.
"Luckily, there was no response to the light — these are animals that are used to having a lot of stimulation. Although they are innately high-strung, and they moved incessantly, it was never a problem. I had really, really good people working with me who knew the horses very well and knew how to be kind to them and handle them while we were shooting."
The result is a series of images that Dorfman says intentionally pulls the horses out of the environment of the farm or the track and puts the focus on the horse. They lead viewers to contemplate how they regard the animal, she says.
"I was making something I had not seen before," Dorfman says, "which is incredibly exciting as an artist."
Dorfman says she is aware that some people have not liked the images of horses out of their natural environment. But she was floored by the reaction she received when the show was on display at 21c Museum/Hotel in Louisville.
"I was called or written by complete strangers almost every day saying, 'I was incredibly moved by these pictures,'" Dorfman says. "I've done many bodies of work before, and I have never had strangers call me. Never."
Some of the callers were from the Thoroughbred racing world. Others were just viewers who were moved to call.
Dorfman is interested in seeing what the reaction will be in Lexington, and not just because it's the horse capital of the world.
"I don't know what to expect, especially with the World Equestrian Games," Dorfman says. "I am curious to see how it will play, and how the heart of horse country feels about them. But it's not just regional. It is a time when the international horse community will be coming in, and that is the most exciting thing to me."