By: Alexandra Reali /
In the beginning of this research analysis, I came up with a collage of images which explored, in a visual sense, the topic of my interest within the greater context of representations of dogs through visual history, both alone and with humans, and the representation of dogs in early photography. The purpose of assembling these particular topics was to investigate the representation of canines by humans and the reasons for and behind it. Initially, I had the goal in mind to focus exclusively on canine photography from this period; as my research further developed, I was drawn to the link between humans’ representation of dogs and the subjugation of the canine species in relation to the human one.
The research developed from the collage as a starting point.
I would like to begin by introducing this collage as a literal assemblage of ideas which initiated research on this topic.
“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.”
Visual record shows that canines and humans have been together for a very long time. In Paleolithic era cave paintings, we can see that dogs have been by man’s side, usually for matters of hunting and gathering, for approximately 15,000 years.
My point of entry into this subject matter relied on the following equation question:
How did the visual representation of canines morph over time?
From medieval etching . . . To representation in paintings…
To photographs depicting dogs . . .
To Celebrity dogs with social media accounts?
How does this transition from dog-in-a-cave-painting to Dog! On! Instagram! relate to these inquiries?:
* What does the representation of a dog in a photograph mean in the greater context of interspecies relation?
* What is revealed by the “representation of the canine body in relation to shared human cultural identity and experience?”
Are dogs visually represented with us because they are our accessories?
In Art and Animals, Giovanni Aloi references “coming to life surrounded by animals…[they are[ accessories for the human condition “ (Aloi xvi).
In the case of dogs, I wondered if we represent them with us in works of art because they are not our closest companions after all, but our accessories, providing loyal sustained subservience?
For Aloi, animals are represented in art as an Other: art containing animals is “a relational mode” (xvi.)
For animal studies professor and author Donna Haraway, the dog is the penultimate example of Freud’s explanation for “the fantasy of human exceptionalism” (Haraway 11). She outlines Freud’s theory of 3 primary wounds which essentially created Man as Narcissist.
The second wound Haraway mentions, as hypothesized by Freud, is the most relevant to interspecies relations.
“ The second wound is Darwinian, which put Homo Sapiens firmly in the world of other critters, all trying to make an earthly living, and so evolving in relation to one another without the sureties of directional signposts that culminate in Man” (Haraway 11).
Do we represent dogs to emphasize human exceptionalism?
I looked at early photography to see the earliest photos of dogs.
And I added Matthew Brower’s ideas about animal and wildlife photography, of animals as props in images, in order to further my research.
In his essay, “Take Only Photographs, Animal Photography’s Construction of Nature Love,” Matthew Brower writes about wildlife photography, specifically in nature.
Yet I think his idea may be applied to a myriad of photographic representations of the animal form, in this case, staged photographs of canines.
“The Victorian [animal] photograph is…about the mood evoked by the picturesque more than it is about any particular element within it. The..[animal] is a prop added to create, or increase, the picturesque quality of the image.” (Brower).
It is with all of these things in mind that I investigated the work of fine art photographers William Wegman and Elliott Erwitt in order to assess the ideas of Aloi, Haraway, and Brower.
I especially found it useful to apply Aloi’s idea about dogs as accessories and Brower’s idea of animals as props to Erwitt’s work.
For the work of William Wegman, things were slightly different.
Wegman’s dog portraits are, for me, a prototypical example of Aloi’s accessories, Haraway’s fantasy, and Brower’s prop. By anthropomorphizing his own dogs Wegman’s work embodies the unique domesticated relationship humans have with their canines.
Sesame Street: Dogs Bake Homemade Bread
If we picture dogs are we seeing ourselves?
Social and visual critic Ann-Janine Morey leaves no stone unturned in Picturing Dogs, Picturing Ourselves, her excellent book which investigates photographic representations of canines and the implications on shared human culture and identity.
Morey’s hypothesis is outstanding, most compelling to me were several arguments she presents about humans relationship with the dog as being more about ”instinct” than pure coincidence. John Berger’s “gaze” between human and animal is a form of anthropomorphosis, we objectify the animal by gazing on it.
What is the Impulse to Photograph Dogs?
To me, the following quote captures the answer to this question.
”Speaking of humans and all animals, John Berger argues in “About Looking” that the gaze exchanged from the animal to human world and back again crystallizes the profound atavistic connections between humans and animals, a connection that surfaces in both metaphor and visual art” (Foley 262).
This is something, in my opinion, that we encounter most definitively
within the medium of photography.
Visual Studies Professor W.J.T Fisher studies what he calls the “Iconology” of images. He postulates that images hold reflective power, a “metapicture.”
Listen to Professor Fisher explain the concept in the first minute or so of this video:
Might we consider canines as one form of iconology?
“All animals become troubling mirrors to humanity…” (Morey 290.)
Why do we photograph dogs ?
To assert our superior position in the gaze between animal and human (Morey 303).
“The animal nature of humanity intersects the human nature of animals as we jockey for some purchase on ideas about consciousness, ethical behavior, and spiritual selfhood, which may not be the exclusive province of the superior human. Indeed, in anthropomorphizing animals [on camera] we humans have created visual and textual images that at once trivialize our own lives and the lives of animals, taking for granted that their lives can be manipulated for symbolic purposes that seemingly have no consequence for them or for us” (Morey 290).
Humans’ relationships with dogs have been present in art, media, and philosophical thought, among other forms of human output, for thousands of years. This is relationship based on companionship and, according to Animal Studies critique, the assumption that dogs are inherently inferior to humans, or “accessories for the human condition.” Do we represent them so that we can present them as an Other?
The photographic representation of canines brings up some interesting questions about humans’ collective representation vis-à-vis the dog. Photography is an exceptional medium for exemplifying the gaze between animal and human world that John Berger describes. We objectify the dog in photography to mitigate the gaze, we anthropomorphize animals as props and subjects without human language (Morey). In conclusion, however, I think we represent dogs with us because, for at least 15,000 years, they have been one of the only creatures, ever so loyal, willing to sit with us long enough to be visually recorded.
- Aloi, Giovanni. Art and… Animals. I.B. Tauris. 2011.
- Brower, Matthew. “Take Only Photographs Animal Photography’s Construction of Love.” Invisible Culture. Rochester University. No 9. 2005. https://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/Issue_9/brower.html. Accessed 20 March 2017
- Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press.
- Mitchell, J.W.T. “What do Pictures Want?” Images Journal for Visual Studies. Nov 2006. http://www.visual-studies.com/interviews/mitchell.html
- Morey, Ann-Janine. Picturing Dogs, Seeing Ourselves. Penn State University Press. 2013.