The telling portraits of dog personalities, the nobility of horses, the glory of flowers, the stark engineering of bones – you could say it all started with Ernie.
It wasn't that Deborah Samuel knew what her photographs would depict when she realized in the late nineties that she didn't want to continue her award-winning commercial work, shooting fashion editorials and portraits of music legends. She had worked in Los Angeles and New York for all the big glossy magazines. "I had to move out of a world where everything was perfect," says the 56-year-old artist. "I had to figure out who I was."
She says this in a small gallery at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, seated on a small chair, its strict, boxy shape containing her looseness – her draped, cotton clothing, the dark chaos of her hair, feet in sandals, sentences issued as casually as pleasantries. Born in Vancouver, she now lives in Galisteo, a small, historic town outside Santa Fe, N.M., with her husband, cinematographer Rey Villalobos, and she has the look and the air of someone who has blown in from a place that's all about solace, spirituality and nature.
We're surrounded by images of her latest project, Elegy – a series of animal bones photographed against black – which is part of the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto. The idea began with the Gulf oil spill in 2010, when she saw images on television of pelicans floundering in the oil slick. She wanted to photograph the stricken birds to stir public consciousness about society's failure to protect other living things. But the government prohibited access to the site. And then she thought of another way to use birds to suggest the life they once embodied. "I thought, 'If I can't get to the birds, I will bring the birds to me.'"
She went on the Internet to source animal skeletons, which is how she ended up with the remains of a cobra, an armadillo, a great horned frog, birds and lizards. Some skeletons came from the ROM after she approached the museum last year. She even bought an avian embryo on eBay. "I was sure I was going to get a knock on the door from police on that one," she says.
But let's not get ahead of, well, Ernie. He was a yellow Labrador who died at 16, around the time she was beginning to feel disenchanted with her commercial work. "I realized I'd never done a formal portrait of him," she explains. "I was devastated. I had only snapshots of him. And I didn't want that to happen again." So began her dog portrait series, the first of her art projects and an obsession that lasted 10 years, resulting in two photographic books. "I wanted to photograph all the dogs in the world," she says wistfully.
She is clearly drawn to animals, their wisdom and beauty and the way they tell us something about human life. "I switched from people to animals because I had a different feeling for them, and I felt it was time to give them a voice," she tells me, offering the admission in a matter-of-fact tone. As if it's a daily ritual, and without embarrassment, she hangs her inner creative process out on a line, like laundry, for all to see.
From talking about dogs, our conversation moved to horses, which she has also photographed extensively. That's when she said this: "I met a horse in Ireland … and I instantly fell in love."
I stopped and looked at her. She shrugged. "He was the love of my life," she declares simply.
More than her husband? "In a different way. It's hard to explain the bond."
She had grown up around horses – her father trained and bred racehorses and her mother was an equestrian jumper – but she hadn't ridden in more than 20 years. She bought him, and named him Mao. "I think there were aspects of his personality that I really got. When I say he seemed human to me, he wasn't human, he was a horse, but I could sense a difference in him because of our bond."
Her beloved horse died the same year as the Gulf spill. "I had been through an awful lot at that point," she says. "The whole life-death divide was really on my mind."
The idea of photographing skeletons intrigued her. "They're the remainder of a life lived before it erodes, too. But they retain a sense of who the living thing was. It suggests a certain animation of life." And that, in turn, is what photography does: "It captures memories. It holds them," she says.
She explains the rationalization for her work as an afterthought. It's as if she feels first, and then allows herself to think later. Many of the decisions in her life – what she will photograph, where she will live – have been made intuitively. On a whim, she and her husband went to Santa Fe on a visit. They loved the desert; the expanse of land; the fact that "the rainstorms and the thunderstorms become louder and more meaningful." Five days later, they bought a house.
Living that way – in the seat of her emotions – means the road is not always smooth, she confides. "I don't know if I've ever lost faith in my art, but I've certainly questioned myself. I think that's part of the struggle. It's like an actor who has stage fright."
We are standing now, having circled the small room to look at each photograph. I ask if she has a sense of what she will photograph next. "All I can say is that this has been heavy enough. I'm going into something that's lighter, with a lot of blue sky." There's a mixture of delight and anticipation in her expression and the way she looks up, free momentarily of her inner thoughts. She's at the whim of her artistic impulse, eager to go where it will take her.
Elegy: Deborah Samuel runs at the ROM in Toronto until July 2.