By Elizabeth Ann James
Call It Unconditional Love . . .
"A Thousand Hounds: A Walk With the Dogs Through the History of Photography" at the Columbus Museum of Art
"A Thousand Hounds: A Walk With the Dogs Through the History of Photography" will be on exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, 480 East Broad Street, thru January 5, 2003.
At the October 10 media preview, curators Raymond Merritt and Miles Barth, co-authors of the popular book by the roughly the same title, were on hand to present a lecture and to lead a tour through this fascinating show. The book has already sold out once, but is available at the Museum Bookstore.
The evolution of the A Thousand Hounds book and the resulting exhibit provide a glimpse into high energy professions where art, photography, journalism, and marketing merge with human interest. In this instance, the human interest being an international, yet very American, love for dogs.
In their lecture, Merritt and Barth made it clear that the aim of the original project was not to publish a book of various breeds and prize-winners, nor a volume of calendar dogs! Indeed, the authors had no intention of making certain that each breed was represented. In fact, some of the dogs in the exhibit are sculptures or computerized images.
"One caller complained that the Saluki wasn't included," Merritt said. "But our intent was to show the image of the dog as represented at various places and times. We're really showing the history of photography with the dog as a prime actor." - And much about human culture and history from the 1840s to 2002, one might add.
"The phone calls and e-mails have been astounding," Barth remarked. "Everyone has an interesting tidbit about a dog or a photo, and almost every photo has a background story, written or unwritten, about how we obtained it."
The Napier Brothers
"Oh, I'd take these puppies away. They're just as cute as can be!" - Two women were describing the puppy dogs held by two swarthy young men in Shelby Lee Adams' Napier Brothers with Puppies, Beehive, Kentucky, 1993.
Less that 10 years old, this gelatin silver print somehow makes one think of Frank and Jesse James, except that the Napier brothers seem more earnest and vulnerable. The site may be a shed,
a porch, perhaps a basement. The wall the brothers stand before - they're visible from their waists up - is crudely plastered and supported by raw boards. The environment would seem to be one of material poverty, a hard-scrabble existence. The thin scruffy brothers, piercingly dark eyes, gaze directly into the camera.
Tallest brother stands with an arm around a shed post and manages to cradle a brown and white pup in the palm of one hand. The other palm also shelters the pup. Younger brother is not tattooed or bare chested like his older sibling. Younger brother (they're each somewhere between 20 and 40) wears a shabby plaid shirt with a shirt under that. He too cradles a pup in both hands.
The wiggly little guys are not likely coon hunting dogs because the ears don't seem long enough. The shadowy photo has captured many details that work together as a whole without being disruptive. Here, indeed, are "adorable" puppies, and their owners, as did Hank Williams, speak of a money-poor, but vital American spirit.
Mary Ellen Mark shot this gelatin silver in 1989. The flexible, pretty little kid is a one-girl circus! She is a contortionist, an acrobat. Her pale pretty face with its caste-marked forehead is framed not only by two pretty black braids, but by her own legs through which she peers calmly. Her white pup, a dot on its own forehead, leans against one of her ankles. She's wearing long white stockings. The black-and-white composition is perfectly "stacked around" the little girl in the spangled swimsuit. Simplicity reigns. It's an Indian Circus, but the child and her dog could be anywhere!
Circus Fat Lady
Circus Fat Lady and her Dog, Troubles, Maryland, 1964 was shot by the star-crossed, yet esteemed, Diane Arbus. It is a gelatin silver print, and in some ways, like all of these photos, is ageless.
The fat lady possesses a chubby yet benign face with a wistful but resigned cotton candy smile upon it. Her environs, a metal and leather chair against a concrete wall, are unpretentious.
Her spaghetti-strapped dress (it has children holding balloons on the border of the skirt), this remarkable garment flows over puffy legs and swollen feet jammed in stout shoes. This dark frock with stripes is a wonder. The stripes runs horizontally, of course.
The fat lady cradles, gracefully, with puffy arms and fingers, a terrier, the love of her life. The mini "black and tan" wears a studded collar and is licking her cheek.
The dog is not only the fat Lady's companion, but serves as a circus prop intended to exaggerate the Fat Lady's elephantine girth.
Arbus shot a series of "freaks" during the waning days of freak shows. She has managed to give this subject sad yet pleasant dignity.
German Army Retreat from Leningrad, 1944, photographer unknown, would be my choice for a high point in the show. The black-and-white photo, an Iris print from an original gelatin silver, is large, probably 40" x 66". In a gray-specked world of white, the devouring Russian winter, a dog, a small black-and-white collie mix, poses for the camera man, possibly an army photographer. Allthough the citizens of Leningrad (and Stalingrad) were starving, the dog seems well-fed.
Perhaps the photographer had to pretend to photograph the dog when he was actually recording the retreat. The composition is simple, yet as over-whelming with emotion as the snow. The curved line, the stooped backs of retreating soldiers, divides the snow-drenched photograph roughly in half.
Anyone who retains war memories, anyone who is sensitive to historical vibrations, will be moved. The aesthetic of the photograph becomes its own narrative. That moment frozen in time.
The Green House
The Green House is a cibachrome print, likely with digital assists. It's about Now, and may be considered as sarcastic or hopeful, or both. Whimsicality rules. Sandy Skoglund created the photograph in 1990. This shiny color-full scene is about as large as the Leningrad photograph described above.
The large dogs inhabiting The Green House are green and purple, or perhaps lavender. Big and bright, they represent every breed imaginable as they loll about on the green rug and the green furniture in The Green House. The man and woman in the Green House seem beyond tranquil. They have zoned out. They possess flesh-colored skin and brown hair, but they wear green clothes. The walls and the drapes are green. The furniture, the pillows, even the lampshades are made of bright green grass (or shredded packing paper). This suburban dwelling has definitely gone to the purple (or lavender) and green dogs!
Leading the "Hounds," to my notion, is Tony Mendoza's striking Untitled photograph, a large black-and-white gelatin silver print shot in 1993.
The strong tall white black-spotted dog is up to the belly in surf. Head raised and looking out in heroic and noble stance, the dog is ready to walk out of the left side of the photo. His hindquarters are out of sight and only the tip of a tail curves back into the picture.
An ocean stretches endlessly behind; to the right, and, near the dog, a gorgeous gray-and-silver spray is well explicated by the photographic master, Tony Mendoza. Is this lovable short-haired doggy a Dalmation? A Setter? A Heinz 37? Are we assuming too much if we think that dog and photographer are master and favored pet?
The Muse Award to this lyrical photograph, a possible tribute, by Columbus's Tony Mendoza. The photographer will be showcased at the Museum January 11 - May 4, 2003, in Tony Mendoza's World View: Photographs, Videos, Words.
Mendoza, born in Cuba, 1941, is a full professor at The Ohio State University. He is noted for, among other great subjects, photos of his cat, Ernie. (Sorry, dogs.)
"A Thousand Hounds" is indeed a panorama of culture, history, and canines. The earliest images in the show include daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and cartes-de-visite.
A stereoptican card shows rescue dogs in WWI. These heroic canines are shown retrieving helmets to the stretcher bearers who will then search for the wounded.
You will see William Henry Fox Talbot's Effigy of Sir Walter Scott's Favorite Dog, Maida, 1844! It's a salted paper print from a calotype negative.
You will see Eadweard J. Muybridge's 1885 collotype strip that depicts a Dog Aroused by a Torpedo Mastiff-Smith. Muybridge's study of animals in motion was influential to the development of the moving picture.
An artist asked me if I had seen Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, Flush. I hadn't, and went back to see a small misty brown image photographed by Nicholaas Henneman in 1840! Flush, curly and beloved, on his poet's couch from which she read to her adored husband, the poet Robert Browning. How do we love them, let me count the ways.
In the "Dog as Hero" gallery we see dogs performing acts of gallantry. Here are the dogs of war in all too many wars: Crimea, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Sarajevo, and two World Wars. The Civil War. And here is the World Trade Center, September 15, 2001, a dog in rescue gear, preparing to descend into the rubble.
For art and composition, see the beautifully complex Mexico, an exquisite graveyard scene photographed in 1980 at night by Brazilian artist Sebastiao Salgado. In this scene, an old sheep dog is the chief mourner.
Another winner is Scanno by Mario Giacomelli. This understated, almost high contrast, 1957 gelatin silver print of a black dog in a narrow European street is a classic.
The popular Keith Carter is represented with Catahoula, a beautiful photo of two blonde dogs who seem to be communicating with each other. Carter will speak at the Museum on the "Heaven of Animals," November 3 at 2 pm.
Here is Ellen Graham's Andy Warhol, The Factory, with Stuffed Dog Belonging to Cecil B. DeMille, 1974. So very Warhol, just when Andy is now a 37 cent U.S. stamp!
See James Dean with a sheep dog in James Dean, Fairmount, Indiana, 1955; and there is Joan Collins posing on a luxuriously pink bed with a luxuriously pink poodle.
The Tip of the Tale
As usual, before leaving the show, I rushed back for a second glimpse at a photo I'd looked at too quickly.
Dog Lover, New York City is a large colored (chromogenicolor) print shot by Donna Ferrato in 1985. The picture has minimal background, a graffitied punk rock wall. Against the while scrawls on black, two kind-of-young guys sit on chairs propped against the wall. A large white bulldog - well, a powerful short-haired dog, is licking one guys face.
One of the guys has a lot of tattoos. One of the guys doesn't. One of the guys has a lot of dark hair. The other guy has a shaved head. In 2002, it remains a lively Now photo.
Gregg Dodd, Short North resident and Public Information Officer for the Ohio Arts Council was looking at the same photo.
"Look," he said. "Two people, they never knew each other, probably never met before, here on the street they're talking, speaking to each other kindly, because this friendly dog has wandered by."
"Look around," I said. "The world needs more compassion. The animals are doing a better job than we are."
"Yes," Dodd added. "Unconditional love. That's what the dogs give us. Unconditional love. There, that's your title."
Sounded like a good idea. It's a wonderful exhibit and, believe me, there's more than one dog waiting there for you. p
"A Thousand Hounds" will be at the Columbus Art Museum thru January 5.
It is being presented in partnership with Ohio Wesleyan University, and Hound photographs will also show there in the new Richard M. Ross Art Museum thru December 20, 2002. Call 614-221-4848 or visit www.columbusmuseum.org
"A Thousand Hounds: A Walk With the Dogs Through the History of Photography," organized by the Cygnet Foundation, will be at the Columbus Museum of Art through January 5, 2003. Hours are 10 am - 5:30 pm Tuesday - Sunday, and till 8:30 pm on Thursday. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for sseniors and students, and free for kids 5 and under. Additional works will be on display at Ohio Wesleyan University's Richard M. Ross Art Museum till December 20, 2002.
November 2002 Cover Story