'Dog Dogs' photographs by Elliott Erwitt was at the Gallery of Photography in June 1999 / Phaidon Press £6.99
Review by Nessa O'Mahony
Dog Dogs, the latest exhibition by US photographer Elliott Erwitt, showed in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin's Temple Bar in June. The exhibition included 108 portraits of dogs in a variety of locations and, indeed, eras - the photographs were taken by Erwitt over a six decade period, from the early 1940s to modern day. Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928 but moved to Los Angles in the 1940s, studying film at the New School for Social Research before starting work as a photographer. He joined the Magnum photo agency in 1953 (at the request of co-founder Robert Capa), and has worked for many of the world's leading photographic magazines. He has exhibited throughout the world, with solo shows in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and the Kunsthaus in Zurich.
The Gallery of Photography exhibition raised a number of interesting questions. Certainly, when surrounded on all sides by cute shots of canines, the initial temptation was to succumb to the 'Ah, how sweet' reaction and move on. And indeed, the high visibility of commercial sponsorship at the exhibition (not surprisingly from a well-known dogfood company) seemed to confirm the impression that this show had more to do with commercialism and comic anthropomorphism than with art.
But was there more to the exhibition than met the eye? For this reviewer, the answer was yes. The more one examined the photographs, the more one sensed a narrative unity linking the images. These weren't just 'doggy shots', these photographs captured a constant and familiar dialectic of human experience - the relationship between the individual and his dog. Time and time again we were given images of people interacting with their animals, with expressions that ran the full gamut of human and canine emotion. By choosing to dwell at pavement level, Erwitt has managed to tell us a good deal about the world we live in.
Each photo was titled by location and the year it was taken. An early portrait, taken in New York in 1946, is a master study of scale. In the foreground is a Chihuahua, protected from the cold of a New York winter by a neat fitting woollen jumper. Alongside are his mistresses' feet and ankles (there's no room for any more of her) and behind is a New York streetscape, dwarfing both dog and owner. Yet the dog remains the star of the photo, staring steadily into the lens, clearly confident of its place in its world.
Another photograph, taken in Colorado in 1954, features a group of five men leaning desultorily against a drugstore window, faces shaded from the sun by stetsons, a study of lassitude. To the foreground sits a sheepdog, placid and slightly over-weight. He is the essence of stillness - it is clear he is happy to loaf there for as long as his master does. Yet the viewer takes in the whole landscape - the men, the dog, the stillness of the afternoon - and is captured by the extraordinary sense of atmosphere evoked.
And it's not all cuteness. A photo taken in Birmingham, in the British midlands in 1991, is a close-up of a mastiff mid-way between a snarl and bark. The dog's teeth, white and frightening, loom out in sharp contrast to the predominant blackness of the photo. There's considerable wit to be seen as well. In a picture taken in Saintes Marie De La Mer in the South of France in 1977, a daschund and her owner sunbathe, each presenting their midriffs to the sun while covering their faces from its harsh rays. In another, titled Truth or Consequence, New Mexico, 1998 three dogs look out from the back of a pick-up truck. The dog closest to the camera is in mid-yawn and casts a shadow over a bumper sticker that warns 'Avoid hangovers - stay drunk'.
The reaction to the exhibition in Dublin was extremely enthusiastic, if the comments in the Gallery of Photography's Attendance Book were anything to go by. One Finnish visitor wrote: 'It took me up from the depths though now I miss my dog instead of my boyfriend, who just left'. And they said that diamonds were a girl's best friend.