30 October 2012

Well, hello!

And apologies for the scandalous lack of posts in recent months - a mix of day-job trauma and general uselessness has prevented me posting on not only a glut of excellent photography shows in London, but also a fantastic trip to Tokyo (where I discovered the completely wonderful, if slightly airport-lounge-reminiscent Metropolitan Museum of Photography) and some fantastic photography books that have come my way.

I intend to make amends, starting with this post - it's an article/ review I wrote for 'Hotshoe' magazine earlier this year on the subject of dog photography.. More, less dog-related, news to follow very soon!

Your first instinct on seeing Martin Usborne’s series The Silence of Dogs In Cars might be to laugh. In my case, this is in no small part due to the cognitive echo of William Wegman’s immortal segments on the childrens programme Sesame Street, in which Wegman’s Weimaraner companion, Man Ray, would be enrolled to demonstrate some domestic task such as making bread or (doubtless, when the photographer was feeling “basic”) simply choosing the object that was “not like the other ones”.
This personal (and slightly fatuous) qualm aside, there is the more taxing problem for Usborne that the incongruity of seeing dogs, or indeed any animal, in “human” positions, contexts and scales is now firmly the province of internet-based, viral humour and has a comedic effect for most viewers. Add to this the problem that the dog’s face in repose tends towards the melancholy… and there is a risk that the photographer’s more serious stated aims will be overwhelmed completely by the sense that these shots are just a bit silly.

Usborne acknowledges the comedic potential of this work and says he has no problem with this response – indeed he has contributed droll commentary on this work to the Guardian and The Independent websites, remarking on the hours spent “matching the expression of the dog to the type and colour of the car”. However, he does have wider themes in mind. The premise of the project is briefly this: Usborne has carefully staged and photographed scenes of dogs trapped inside cars of various ages and makes, each of them positioned and framed slightly differently – many appear to stand in artificially-lit urban environments, other cars are shot in cluttered garages or off-road, in rural settings. This is not, as a brief description might lead you to believe, a documentary project, but rather something “more dreamlike and cinematic’” that sits (albeit strangely) amidst the work of other photographic metteurs-en-scene such as Gregory Crewdson and Philip Lorca di Corcia. Usborne professes a lifelong interest in dogs, their “mute” vulnerability. This he connects with his own fears of being alone and voiceless, and claims that, in his photographs, the dogs are a metaphor for the “raw and dare I say it – animal – parts of ourselves” that we conceal.

It is certainly easy to intuit these concerns in Usborne’s images, many of which communicate the sense of being still – stopped, stalled – through their clear, graphic compositions and intense saturation, and which subtly convey the “muted”, fearful atmosphere Usborne describes. His attention to reflective surfaces, glass and steel, and to the dynamic framing of car windows within his own photographic “window” heighten an almost auditory sense of isolation – the particular atmosphere that a closed car has. This attention to what it “feels” like to be a living thing inside a closed, mechanical body triggers a metaphorical reading of the images, in which the dogs become our “raw” animal interior life, contrasted with the body- or skull-like shell of each car – a reading aided by the fact that no humans or other creatures appear in these images to distract us from their central conceit.

One odd thing about Dogs in Cars, within the lineage of “dog photography”, is this kind of simple, direct attention to the animal subject. Elliot Erwitt’s perennially popular dog photos, for example,  incorporate architecture, props and human anatomy alongside their canine subjects (it has been remarked before that dogs were of particular use to Erwitt on advertising jobs, being perfectly placed to draw attention to shoes). Indeed, these are hardly shots of dogs at all in one sense – the animals act as props or foils to their human counterparts, alluding to their lifestyles and personalities. The same can be said of Wegman’s photography and of the dogs collected in Barnaby Conrad’s book Les Chiens de Paris – it is the mirroring or comparison of human-dog behaviour that is often the point of interest or humour in this kind of photography.

Usborne has dealt with these ideas in a recent documentary project, titled CRUFTS: Extraordinary dogs, ordinary people (2012), in which he explicitly addresses a culture where animals are used as a canvas for the quirks of taste and outlandish impulses of their, otherwise ordinary, owners – one fantastic image shows a woman whose presence is obscured by that of the spindly, cock-eared whippets crowded round her feet. Ironically, as Usborne’s title suggests, the dogs in these photos are often more convincing and engaging than their owners, the real subject of the photographs being human “obsession with classification, management  and controlling”, as expressed in breeding and grooming pedigree dogs. This is the theme – that of power and control - that carries over into Dogs in Cars, occasionally heavy-handedly, as when the stately “Prince” is photographed behind the word “slave” printed on a truck window.

The photographer can be disappointing when he repeats his central visual tropes too emphatically, the baleful eyes and large looming shadows of these moody, mysterious images too ponderously spelling out their emotive “themes” of constraint and abandonment . Conversely, he is at his best when he finds tension in his theme – the jolt that comes from a (rare) blurred shot of one dog baring teeth behind glass, or the wry humour of seeing a huge animal seemingly pressed up against the windscreen in a car that seems too small to contain it.

The series is varied and will undoubtedly find a varied audience – those who appreciate Usborne’s eye for colour and form, as well as those who simply appreciate dogs. Dogs in Cars has certainly found interest in the media, and among a wider public – German publishing house Kehrer Verlag will print the photographs as a fine-art photobook in a limited run of 1500 copies this Autumn, funded in part by Usborne’s campaign on website Kickstarter. The project overshot its fund-raising target of $15000 dramatically, with a total of £31,392 raised at the time of writing and, one presumes, at least a handful of sponsors who paid the $2700 dollars requisite to receive a signed photobook, postcards and full-sized gallery print in return. Whether this translates into a wider success really depends on where your tastes lie in relation to this kind of anthropomorphizing imagery – put simply, are you a dog person?

This review was originally published in Hotshoe magazine, August-September 2012, and can also be viewed in their iPad app! All (terrible) photographs of the layouts are mine and do not reflect the excellent quality of the publication..