Thursday, April 17, 2014

Man's Best Friend

Guest blogger Jenny Duckett is a Smith College student, class of 2014, majoring in Art History with a Museums Concentration. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

As I was pulling pieces for a photography class a few weeks ago, I happened upon a photograph of a small Chihuahua dog dressed in a sweater, which seemed so absurd that it made me laugh out loud. Upon further investigation, I realized that this was just one photograph within a series of photographs of dogs, cleverly entitled Son of Bitch. I was unfamiliar with the photographer, Elliott Erwitt, and decided that I should do some research on the artist and his photographs, and what I found was truly interesting.

 

Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). New York from Son of Bitch portfolio, c. 1946. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-4 

Beginning his career in the 1940s, Erwitt’s photography can be characterized by the absurd and unexpected, as well as the tender, heartfelt moments that occur in everyday life. His photographs capture fleeting moments which often possess the uncanny ability to make us erupt with laughter or sigh with melancholy. Over the course of his career Erwitt’s favorite subjects have ranged from the streets of Paris, to children at play, to inside America’s museums, to the subject of this blog post: Dogs. Erwitt has published four books on the subject, the earliest of which is Son of Bitch, published in 1974, the photographs of which the Cunningham Center owns.

 

Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). U.S.A. from Son of Bitch portfolio, c. 1964. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-2

Erwitt’s photographs of dogs often depict them in such a way that they don’t seem to be dogs at all. In fact, in his 1992 book To The Dogs, Erwitt suggests that his photographs are not photographs of dogs at all. “Look again,” he writes. “Essentially, these are pictures of people. But if I really took photos of people doing some of these things, I’d get into trouble...Dogs don’t mind being photographed in compromising situations.” Erwitt asserts that dogs have the unique position of living on two planes - existing within both the human and animal worlds. It is easy to look at these photographs and to see human characters. For example, the dog brazenly staring into the camera at the dog show while his owner primps and combs her fur, could easily be imagined to be Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell. Erwitt places the focus of the photograph on the dog, quite literally the star of the show, while her owner is unfocused and largely hidden by her fur, effectively elevating the dog to a near human status.

Returning to the photograph of the miniature Chihuahua in the sweater, which happens to be first photograph of a dog that Erwitt ever published, the photo is taken from the dog’s point of view on his own level. The woman is cut off at the shins, largely forgotten as her dog becomes the main attraction, similarly to how the show dog’s owner is hidden behind her. There’s an unselfconscious quality to both of these photographs, as the dogs stare directly at the camera. The Chihuahua seems to wear a big smile, joy and excitement emanating from within. In doing so, Erwitt calls attention to a world that thrives at our feet, but that we perhaps too often overlook.

              

Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). New York from Son of Bitch portfolio, 1973. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-7                                                                                

Erwitt also has very comical take on the portrait photograph. In both U.S.A.and Brighton, England there is a wonderful interplay between the formality of the sitters and the expressions of their dogs. In the family portrait the parents and children have made an obvious effort to look presentable, dressed in their Sunday best with their hands placed politely in their laps. Meanwhile, their larger-than-life German shepherd is sprawled out in front of the family, proudly displaying his belly and sporting an unmistakable smile, which adds just a pinch of absurdity to an otherwise all-too-normal family portrait.

Elliott Erwitt, American born France (1928 - ). Brighton, England from Son of Bitch portfolio, 1956. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lynn Hecht Schafran, class of 1962. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2001:21-13

Similarly, in the photograph Brighton, England, the prim and proper owner in her pearls and cashmere smiles sweetly, hugging her dog lovingly while he snarls meanly at the camera. These types of juxtapositions not only make us laugh, but prompt us to question what the stories behind these scenes are. Why is the dog snarling? Is the woman really unaware of his mean expression? More importantly, does this symbolize something deeper? Perhaps we will never know, but the wealth of possibilities presented in Erwitt’s photographs is enticing.

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