Elderly Animals: A Study in Frailty, Grace and Dignity

Photographer Isa Leshko captures the poignant manifestations of age in members of the animal kingdom

By Donna Sapolin
Originally Posted On August 26, 2013


Donna Sapolin is the vice president, editorial director and general manager of Next Avenue. Follow Donna on Twitter @stylestorymedia.

Photos by Isa Leshko
One of my favorite places to visit is Santa Fe, N.M., where several of my close friends and family members reside. When I go, I typically fly into Albuquerque and spend a bit of time there before heading north. Since I’m thinking of taking a trip soon, I’ve begun looking into some things to do in the area.
I spotted an intriguing exhibition in the project room of the Richard Levy Gallery. Called Elderly Animals, the show displays images of aged animals — some reared on factory farms before being relocated to sanctuaries, others raised as pets. They’re part of a series by Philadelphia-based fine art photographer Isa Leshko.
She undertook the project after spending a year helping her sister care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. “The experience had a profound impact on me and forced me to confront my own mortality,” Leshko explains in a statement on her website. Her maternal grandmother also had Alzheimer’s, so the artist is understandably concerned about her own risks.
Her portraits capture a deep sense of intimacy, which she achieved by visiting the animals multiple times prior to shooting them and spending several hours with them. To help the animals acclimate to her presence Leshko says she may spend an hour or more lying on the ground next to it before taking a photo.
“Photographing geriatric animals enables me to immerse myself in my fear of growing old,” she says. “I have come to realize that these images are self-portraits. Or, at the very least, they are manifestations of my fears and hopes about what I will be like when I am old.”
Leshko’s photographs made me acutely aware of the “lifestyle” factors that impact an animal’s aging process. “Modern factory farm animals have been genetically engineered to mature faster and grow considerably larger than heirloom breeds,” the artist says. “For example, 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."
Some of Leshko’s images depict dire frailty and a waning life energy. Others express a stunning youthfulness that belies her subject’s age. In all cases, we are exposed to continuing grace and dignity.
You can "meet" the artist and the subjects of her project in this short video by Walley Films. See her work in person through July 26 at the Richard Levy Gallery in Santa Fe, and at the Richard Levy Gallery Booth at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair in Houston, Oct. 10-13. Leshko is also represented by the Corden|Potts Gallery in San Francisco where her full portfolio is available for view.