Ordinarily, an exhibition of dog photographs would not be cause for celebration. Too often dogs are anthropomorphized, dressed in silly costumes and made to perform ridiculous stunts, just so their owners or other misguided souls can record their humiliation for posterity.
Dogs often do act like humans; they are, after all, supposed to be man’s (and woman’s) best friend. This isn’t sufficient excuse to treat them as if they were human, but people do so anyway, which is why the planet is awash in cutesy-wootsey doggie snaps.
The French-born American photographer Elliott Erwitt, who will turn 80 in two months, has been making pictures of dogs since the mid-1940s, even before he became a professional. He has even published a book, Dog Dogs, which not coincidentally is the title of his exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.
Although Erwitt has been a member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency since 1953, his isn’t a name the general public should be expected to recognize. He has traveled the world on assignment for various magazines, and since 1970, has made feature films and documentaries.
In the course of his wanderings, Erwitt photographed dogs as he came upon them, usually outdoors – on the street, in parks or at the beach – but sometimes in other public situations, such as a restaurant in Brussels and a dog show in New York.
All of the more than 60 black-and-white prints made between 1946 and 2000 are candid, or appear to be. Nowhere did I detect the slightest hint that Erwitt had staged any of the scenes, even when the dogs appeared to be performing. The punch in his photos comes from unusual camera angles and amusing but random juxtapositions – a smiling woman and her snarling dog, a puffed-up poodle next to its comparably bouffanted handler at a dog show.
There are lots of smiles in this show, and moments when we recognize behavior that we might have experienced with our own dogs. There is genuine camaraderie, sly but innocent humor, and abundant evidence that dogs regularly express distinctive personalities. Most of Erwitt’s dogs, regardless of where and when they were photographed, are lovable, but not in a way that makes one embarrassed to be enjoying these photos.
“Dog Dogs” is admittedly a meringue of an exhibition, a warm-weather divertissement tooled for broad appeal. Yet it also drives home an important point, that it’s possible to make photographs of a gravely cliched subject, and over a period of decades, without descending into sentimentality or cuteness. Erwitt presents dogs doing what they do every day as a normal slice of life, not as vaudeville. Bravo for him.
Art: Gone to the Dogs
“Elliott Erwitt: Dog Dogs” continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, thrugh Aug. 31. “Color” continues through July 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, and noon to 5 Sundays. Admission is $6.50 general, $6 for visitors 60 and older, and $4 for students with current ID. Information: 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.