A horse runs the first frame of a new documentary produced by Halifax-based Arcadia Entertainment. Phil Sedore’s echoing electric guitar underscores the animal’s powerful, graceful movement. And then a voiceover begins: “I’ve been fascinated by the idea of beauty,” the voice says. “Beauty has a way of teaching us what mattersin life.”
It’s an evocative thought: that beauty has a value, a utility beyond itself, beyond its aesthetic value. It’s the stuff of philosophers who inquire after universal principles such as beauty. Yet that voice, the only one in Chasing Wild Horses---airing on Bravo, Sunday, April 6---doesn’t belong to a philosopher, but to a fashion photographer. Romanian born-and-raised Roberto Dutesco, who lives and works in New York City (previously in Montreal), becomes philosophical in front of the HDTV cameras as he looks through his own multiple lenses at the horses of Sable Island, a place of beauty for him that serves a higher purpose.
The lesson of Sable, according to the artist, is that when places are left to be themselves their beauty emerges. “It is important to leave some places alone,” he says on a cellphone, standing and smoking a cigar outside his own Dutesco Gallery in Manhattan, an island that shares roughly the same length and width of the island off Nova Scotia.
“Beauty exists, not just on Sable Island, but everywhere in general,” he adds.
Juxtaposed with views of the windswept island, scenes of Dutesco’s urban life in New York---walking past a greengrocer, or the opening in November 2007 of his latest and last photographic series of the Sable Island horses, who peer back at champagne-sipping gallery-goers---remind viewers there’s beauty in these contrasting images.
In both the doc and conversation the photographer uses the word “untouched.” But, of course, Sable Island isn’t untouched. There’s a small settlement of permanent staff and researchers, plus visiting investigators. Artists, including New Brunswick photographer Thaddeus Holownia, are also often drawn to the fabled spit of sand an hour-and-a-half flight from Halifax.
Dutesco has been three times, first in 1994, again in ’97 and ending with a series of three visits with the documentary crew spread over summer and fall 2007, which he acknowledges in the program to be his last trip. Naturalist/biologist Zoe Lucas, who’s lived on and studied Sable since 1971, got to know Dutesco during his trips. “While photographing the horses Roberto spent much of his time being still, watching and listening and feeling the landscape,” she writes by email. “He understood that being there without altering the horses’ behaviour is the best kind of relationship.”
On screen, Dutesco talks to the animals. Sometimes he tries to direct them, using only his voice (touch and any kind of human intervention is strictly forbidden).
He’s well aware of the contradictions of going to an island he wants to see preserved in its relatively untouched state, a seal broken once he and the crew stepped onto, and walked among, the dunes in search of the wild horses. “Certainly it’s crossed my mind,” Dutesco says.
Each time he showed his pictures at major shows in Montreal and New York---up to and including the exhibition opening in the film---he received a similar response. “I have to answer that question every day, ‘OK, how do you get there?’ When you tell people that they cannot go, you get quite an interesting reaction: It’s awe but also appreciation. People realize it’s quite extraordinary that we can go everywhere but on Sable Island.”
Sable Island is protected by provision of, strangely, the Canada Shipping Act. To go, you have to apply for permission from the Canadian Coast Guard.
“Even with a lot of money, you can’t go there,” says Jessica Brown, producer of Chasing Wild Horses. Working with Dutesco, Brown respected his “genuine nature” and seconded his belief: “We don’t always have to touch nature---it’s just respect for the natural world.”
Director Matt Trecartin spent long hours over three shoots with Dutesco. “He says, ‘I’ve brought the pictures back and now I’m leaving it alone.’ He’s not trying to set up tours or put a landing strip there.”