Charlotte Dumas - The Widest Prairies
new video, photographs and polaroids
The Widest Prairies
Back in Amsterdam, I sit on my couch while outside my window construction workers are building in the sun. A large blue crane turns every five minutes or so, placing building materials on the foundation of what will be Amsterdam’s largest mosque.
My mind floats back to the horses of Nevada. I visited them three times over the previous five months; February, early April and again in mid-June. I was able to observe them in different seasons - In the cold looking for food, during mating season while in heat, and with their growing foals in late spring, roaming the hot desert near the outskirts and foothills of Dayton, Stagecoach and Silver Springs.
Dayton, Nevada - it’s fame lies in being one of the first settlements during the gold rush in the West. It also featured as the backdrop of the film, The Misfits. In this movie Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach go after mustangs while Marilyn Monroe is along for the ride. It’s a pretty dramatic scene. The shots of horses running across the alkaline white surface, as they are being roped and caught from the vehicle that is chasing them are spectacular and haunting. The area is now known as The Misfits Flat.
I’ve long had the wish to photograph wild horses. I hadn’t yet been able to do it, because the subject is so laden with symbolism and I was cautious to approach it. After I completed the portraits of the burial horses of Arlington Cemetery, Anima, which I had shot at very close range in the confined dark spaces of their stables at night, it felt right to seek out the wider plains and challenge of finding these horses that are roaming free, unbound by fences.
They are, however, surrounded by human boundaries since their habitat overlaps and infringes upon those who live nearby them. This proximity has created new interactions between man and animal and has changed perceptions of the wild horses.
The wild horses in Nevada are important in the history of the American West. They once symbolized freedom and the possibility of expansion, values of great weight to the American psyche. Their existence is now jeopardized, as are these values, by changing political and economic conditions.
This became clear to me when visiting the area around Carson City where unemployment is high and many homes are foreclosed upon and abandoned. Still the human presence expands in the area. During the course of the five months I was visiting, highway 50 between Dayton and Silver Springs was being widened because of increasing traffic. A tunnel to lead the horses underneath the highway was under construction as fences were being put up alongside the road, since they often cross and on occasion get killed by passing traffic.
I searched and found the horses in the mountains and hills they traverse with help from locals who keep track of the herds and bands in the area, though usually I would run into the horses in the residential areas around Dayton and Stagecoach making their way through gardens and scrap yards, grazing and feeding on the trees between the mobile homes.
There is a moment when horses stop all their activities and just stand still, seemingly contemplating. There, they would let me approach them and I’d spend hours in their company, observing them, as they did me. People were nowhere in sight, as if the horses had taken over the area. I could find the same horses at a different time and location and they would be unapproachable, wild.
It took me a while to gather some courage to come near. With time’s passing I got to know them a little better, feeling happy to find the same horses again, taking a liking to some over others.
They prevail somehow, though circumstances are far from perfect. The draughts drive them out of the mountains in search for water and food.
Some people feed them, especially in winter, although forbidden by law if the horses are fed too close to the road.
There remains an old grey stallion covered in scars from previous battles, he has lost all his teeth and resides in the front yard of one of the homes.
New foals are being born in this changing landscape where the horses become more and more a pressing topic of discussion between wild horse advocates, the state, and other involved parties - each having different opinions on what should be done about the situations of the horses.
I was able to follow and observe the horses. They have roamed these lands for centuries while their landscape has changed. They remind me of the free spirited characters of the stray dogs of Palermo in Sicily - resilient. Obeying the dynamic and rules of the band they are part of. They migrate. They mate, search for water and food, they bicker and fight and stand together in comfort in the desert wind.
From time to time horses get caught, ‘rounded up’, because there are too many or because they are getting too close to civilization and people complain about their presence.
Some of these horses end up at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. There they are part of a program that teams them with up inmates of the low security section of the prison, training them both. The men learn how to ‘break’ these horses, how to train them from being wild to domesticated. They have to establish a mutual trust in order to succeed. Many of the men who sign up for the program and that make the selection have never ridden a horse before in their life. They train and care for the horses intensively for three months after which the horses are usually auctioned to families coming from California looking for a good riding horse or ranchers who’ll use them as working horses on their farms.
The mustangs, originally from Spanish descent have a charismatic presence. They seem to stand out with a genuine nature unaltered by people. They retained these qualities and conveyed their strong characters still when I saw them after three months of training at the facility.
It is becoming increasingly rare that animals live free from us. Unbound by our interference they are yet almost always affected by our presence. Through the constant changes of our societies and behaviors, wild animals and people are bound to meet each other on once separate and now ever more shared territories. Their habitat seemingly overlapping ours, as it was when we set foot in theirs, long ago.
Charlotte Dumas September 2013