“I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven’t got the guts to bite people themselves.”
For most of the 20th century New York’s status as the world’s greatest city couldn’t be challenged. It was one of the biggest, the richest and it had the tallest buildings. None of that is true anymore but if you want to measure its decline you don’t have to read the statistics. Go down to street level and look at the thousands of people walking their dogs, then look at the animals. Most of them are tiny, preposterous creatures; dachshunds, chihuahuas, shih tzus and other pedigrees cosseted in tartan jackets and kept close to their owners on diamond studded leashes. People who claim to really know dogs, professional dog handlers and the like, say that the smartest dogs are the mongrels. Purebreds are like the European royal families before the First World War; pampered and glamorous but riddled with genetic weaknesses that made them fundamentally unsuitable rulers. This predilection for toy dogs represents a neutering of the city. It is no longer street smart and self confident but small and yappy and expects everything on demand according to some long lost privilege.
In Australia – and no doubt in New Mexico and Texas – people generally expect some reciprocation in their relationships with dogs. The animal might not look that good but it can protect the owner and it ought to know not to run in front of a car. Even so, there are stories of devotion to dogs that leave non-dog lovers scratching their heads. Dog rescuers make it their mission to take abandoned and brutalized dogs into their care. Most people ambivalent about dogs would still find that admirable, after all ambivalence doesn’t mean we are not bothered by stories of cruelty. One dog rescuer was obliged to move out of the city, firstly because she was accumulating dogs but also because a lot of them were psychologically damaged and liable to turn vicious. When one was bitten by a snake she had to drive it to a vet some 60kms away for treatment. The drive alone would have been tense. A dugite or a tiger snake bite can kill a dog within an hour. The dog was saved but the real point to the story was the bill - $6000. Naturally she paid it. Would you?
Dogs don’t occupy a special place in photography, not in the way horses do via Muybridge and chronophotography. Towards the end of the 19th century there was a fashion for portraits of prize dogs, gentlemen sat for portraits with a favourite hound at their feet and taxidermists advertised the quality of their work with cabinet cards but as a rule the best images of dogs are amateur snapshots. That is probably because most of them are spontaneous. The dog is doing something, the owner has a camera handy and a Kodak moment is captured. The equation is that since amateur photography is an important part of the medium’s history and because pets, like newborn babies, are an important to amateur photography, we should see the images as valuable records of a private world. The presence of a dog can reveal more details about the inner life of the owner but really, like old cars, masks and handguns, they make snapshots intrinsically more interesting.
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