A Short History of Dogs in Photography
02 April 2015 . By João Bento
Dogs have been living with us for thousands of years and continue to do so in current post-industrial societies. They are highly valued as working animals and increasingly play an important role as loyal companions.
The role and status of dogs in society has been well documented and analysed through photography since its invention. Although, the way we look at dogs with the camera hasn’t been always the same.
Photographic pioneer, Henry Fox Talbot was one of the first to create an image of a living animal. He captured what is believed to be the dog of English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Flush”, the muse of the poet, was photographed asleep.
Until the second half of the 19th century it was effectively impossible to record moving subjects. When faster exposure times became available, it was a popular thing within photographic studios to make portraits of dogs, either alone, or with their owners. Usually the dog was posed in an elevated position such as sitting on a chair or another piece of furniture, while the owner rested the hand upon the dog – most likely to prevent the dog from moving. Nevertheless, the images show a great deal of affection and admiration from the part of the owners about their dogs.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Jacques-Henri Lartigue (in France) and August Sander (in Germany) made several iconic photographs. They both operated outside the studio with large format cameras.
Lartigue became best known for his sports photography. He took advantage of the new capacity to freeze fast movement with the camera. The technology also allowed him to develop his techniques and capture, for example, the rich woman walking with two dogs in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne.
Sander was a different kind of photographer. He decided to create a rank ordered portrait collection of the German people. Among the 431 images that he made, many included dogs, like the portrait of the notary from Cologne, looking stiff and emotionless, accompanied with a menacing Doberman Pinscher.
Neither Lartigue nor Sander looked at dogs as primary subjects, however, their work is capable of demonstrating the rise of status in society and how well established they have become. By large, this kind of photography with dogs instead of about dogs, is the most common until today.
Meanwhile, the introduction of hand-held cameras and 35mm film allowed the development of photojournalism and documentary photography. In 1953, French photographer Elliott Erwitt joined the agency Magnum Photos. Erwitt established his reputation with black and white candid shots of ironic and absurd situations within everyday settings, these include countless photographs with dogs. These have a strong formalistic arrangement, with the dog being most often composed in relation to us humans. Some of his photographs were made close to the ground from a dog’s perspective, allowing a direct view into what it might be like being a dog living in our world. However, Erwitt’s images suggest a better understanding of the owners than of the dogs.
A new kind of photography leaning more toward art developed in the 70’s and 80’s. This period saw the studio re-emerging as a place for making work. Early in his career and initially working with video, William Wegman found himself sharing his space with his girlfriend’s dog, a Weimaraner called Man Ray, who’s annoying presence eventually found its way into his projects. Wegman likes to say, his images are not about dogs. He made large, anthropomorphic polaroids of Man Ray wearing human clothes and in other humourous scenes.
Also a New York based photographer at this time, Peter Hujar photographed a broad spectrum of subject matter. In the book ‘Animals and Nudes’ published after his death, the dogs that appear are portrayed with the same dignity as the nudes that accompany them, suggesting an equality. Hujar’s work must be credited for the respect with which he represented them.
Bringing us up to the end of the century to the 1990’s, Tony Mendoza depicted his girlfriend’s dog Leela at play in domestic settings. This body of work is one of the first to attempt to represent the dog as it is, in a systematic, intentional way, instead of using it as a prop, a symbol, metaphor, or just an occasional whimsical subject.
A new breed of photographers that focused on the dog has emerged in the 21st century. They have focused upon domestic animals emphasizing their unique characteristics and specific needs.
This text was also published on Animalia Vegetalia Mineralia, a journal written in Portuguese and English dedicated to ecomedia and ecocritical studies: animaliavegetaliamineralia.org