Picturing Dogs, Seeing Ourselves
Vintage American Photographs
Picturing Dogs, Seeing Ourselves
Vintage American Photographs
“This is a lovely collection of vernacular 19th- and 20th-century images of dogs and their owners.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Animal studies scholars have long argued that our representation of animals in print and in the visual arts has a profound connection to our lived cultural identity. Other books have documented the depiction of dogs in art and photography, but few have reached beyond the subject’s obvious appeal. Picturing Dogs, Seeing Ourselves draws on animal, visual, and literary studies to present an original and richly contextualized visual history of the relationship between Americans and their dogs. Though the personal stories behind these everyday photographs may be lost to us, their cultural significance is not.
“This is a lovely collection of vernacular 19th- and 20th-century images of dogs and their owners.”
“Ann-Janine Morey's book is a treasure trove of photographs created by ordinary people. Together these document what Morey calls the ‘romance’ of dogs and humans—a story of love, domination, primitivism, and ‘Edenic longings’—embodied in the presence of the dog among humans.”
Ann-Janine Morey is Associate Vice Provost for Cross Disciplinary Studies at James Madison University.
Preface: Some Words About the Pictures
Introduction: Romancing the Dog
1 The Visual Rhetoric of Everyday People
2 The Dog on the Table: From The Great Gatsby to the Great White Middle Class
3 The Gaze Outside the Frame
4 Family Portraits
5 Hunting Pictures and Dog Stories
6 Women Cross the Line
Conclusion: The Dog in the Picture
Romancing the Dog
I come from a family of picture takers and storytellers, and after a while it is difficult to tell the words from the pictures. The pictures begin with my Grandpa Morey, who wasn’t much for words but who had a mechanical and technological intelligence that was quick to recognize the potential of the camera. Like many people of their time, my grandparents were minimally educated but schooled for a lifetime of hard work, stemming from their rural upbringing. Both of my grandparents Morey were employed by the Agricultural and Industrial School in Industry, New York (near Rochester), a facility run by the New York State Department of Corrections that housed juvenile delinquents who served time in this benign “cottage system” for six months to a year. Alice Elizabeth (White) Morey was the housemother who cooked and cleaned for a dormitory of miscreants. Ibra Franklin Morey, a shop teacher at the facility, lived virtually in the shadow of Eastman Kodak, and had even worked as a machinist at Kodak before moving to Industry. Grandpa Ibra passed on his visual intelligence to his only son, my father, who has taken and developed pictures all his life. Dad works only in black and white, on the grounds that it is the true revelatory mode for photography.
Both of my parents are storytellers, however, so both have conspired to create memorable images whose genesis is neither picture nor text, but both. My mother is the daughter of a Free Methodist minister who traveled the coast from Florida to Georgia during the Depression, hauling his family from one poverty-stricken post to another. There are virtually no photographs of her childhood, which might explain the wealth of words at her disposal. Her stories are El Greco grotesques, embellished by her gimlet eye for detail, records of a South and a religious framework that have largely disappeared. A scientist by training, her acute observations extend from the human to the animal world, and because she loves animals, she naturally constructed memorable stories about the family pets along the way to preserving the larger moments of family history.
My dad has a gift for verbal snapshots, and he has created memorable images of my Canadian great-grandmother and the hardscrabble farm that was a summer home for him. In an unpublished memoir, he describes the scene in figure 3 as indicative of his grandmother’s ingenuity in finding things for him to do:
One of those jobs was that of “breaking” calves to a halter. At milking time I fed the calves, holding a bucket of separated milk under their noses while they drank, at which time they would frequently buck the pail and slop quantities of milk over me. Grandmother’s solution was to have me teach the calf to lead and to that end she had me tie a rope around the calf’s neck and the other end around the neck of our faithful dog Sailor. Of course this made for a totally unmanageable situation and I found I was neither strong nor heavy enough to counter the wildly bucking calf and the bewildered dog. Nevertheless I was quite serious about training the calf to walk on the end of a rope, for what good purpose it never occurred to me to ask.
Dad’s stories preserve a sense of a childhood at once rare (not many middle-class boys grow up with juvenile delinquents for playmates) and filled with longing for a childhood no longer possible, if it ever existed at all. Except that it does, now, because the pictures and the stories have made it so, and it took both words and images to make this happen.
As a child, I pored over the family photograph albums created by my young parents, who, like most parents, documented less and less as time went on. The pictures that fascinated me most were the ones of my beautiful young parents and their dogs. Probably the largest photo in our family album is of Lord Jim, a black and red dachshund out of CH Favorite von Marienlust from the Heying-Teckel kennels. He was purchased on Valentine’s Day 1947 and renamed Cupid, or Cupie. My parents were proud of his lineage, for Cupie’s sire was a world champion. Several years later, Cupie was joined by a peasant companion, a dowdy red female dachshund named Mitzi, whose biography included the romance of rescue from abuse. Although our extended family has owned several dachshunds, clever, good-looking Cupie was the ur-dog, setting a narrative and visual standard for canine achievement that no other dog could approximate. Cupie did have a short-lived predecessor, however, who adds a significant visual to the family romance with dogs.
In figure 5, my parents are standing at the backdoor of Huron, one of the cottages on the grounds of Industry. It is September 1946, they are posing for my Grandpa Ibra, and they have been married just a few days. My mother is slim and proud in her elegant dressing gown and slippers, my dad resplendent in a satin-trimmed bathrobe and unscuffed slippers. The foliage behind them—cannas and morning glories—suggests a garden, and the embrace of mature trees as part of the frame indicates an unseen lawn. In the palm of my mother’s hand, sitting upright and begging for a treat, is their miniature dachshund, Buddy von Hixel. My mother and father are smiling at each other and the dog, and their hands are joined through the dog.
I never saw them this way; no child ever does. We catch up with our parents in the grueling middle, and sometimes the lost brightness is irrevocable. In that sense, this picture is like a glimpse of a lovely garden that has since been forfeited. To add to the poignancy of the moment, Buddy died months later of distemper. My parents were so distressed by his death that they replaced him literally and symbolically with the next canine Cupid, the Valentine’s Day Lord Jim. From the beginning and through all the vicissitudes of a long marriage, dogs remained a faithful, comforting constant. This photograph summarizes one of the themes that attend the presence of dogs in our lives, an Edward Hicks vision of a peaceable kingdom of mutual and loving communication across species, across time.
In the 1893 canine autobiography Beautiful Joe, the eponymous dog narrator tells a story about Eden he has heard from his human companions: “Well, when Adam was turned out of paradise, all the animals shunned him, and he sat weeping bitterly with his head between his hands, when he felt the soft tongue of some creature gently touching him. He took his hands from his face, and there was a dog that had separated himself from all the other animals, and was trying to comfort him. He became the chosen friend and companion of Adam, and afterward of all men.” More contemporaneously, there is a quotation on nearly every website devoted to dog love that says, “Dogs are our link to Paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace.” These sentiments underscore the uniqueness of the canine-human relationship, and hint at why photographs of humans and their dogs could be about more than simply recording our attachment to our pets. There is something ineffable about the quality of communication between ourselves and dogs that draws us back.
“It is a lovely thing, the animal / The animal instinct in me.” These lyrics from a 1999 CD by The Cranberries appeared at a cultural moment when scholars and artists alike were engaging in a growing conversation about how “human” is related to “animal.” This academic and applied social movement—animal studies—continues to gather strength a decade later, and shares with these lyrics the affirmation of “animal,” “instinct,” and “animal instinct” as not only a force demanding new reckoning but a “lovely thing,” through which we may find our way to a healthier understanding of “human.”
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. W. J. T. Mitchell underlines this idea, noting that “as figures in scenes of visual exchange, animals have a special, almost magical relation to humanity.” As we’ll see, this kind of mystical language about the animal-human relationship closes the circle no matter what the starting point, whether the discussant is an academician, novelist, memoirist, or musician. The enigmatic relationship between animals and humans is part of a long-standing philosophical tradition dating back to Plato and Aristotle and proceeding through the usual greats of Western philosophy—Descartes, Kant, and Foucault, for example—as a range of commentators have documented. In an article prosecuting the dishonesty of metaphysics, B. A. G. Fuller discusses “the messes animals make in metaphysics.” In most philosophy, it is impossible to find a place for other kinds of conscious beings, and yet we routinely award dogs a kind of consciousness that automatically confers on them moral agency and purpose. And if they have some kind of moral purpose as conscious and communicative beings, then how will we address their lives, not to mention their suffering, in a philosophical universe composed of rational agency, free will, and divine decrees? The only way to keep the “system in order and man master of it is to shoo [the animals] out of the house altogether and stop one’s ears against their scratching at the door.”
Writing in 1949, Fuller long preceded the animal studies movement that has so complicated and enriched our contemplation of animals in the past decade or so. His questions remain unanswered, although animal studies proponents are making a concerted effort to open that door, permanently. So challenging is this territory that Cary Wolfe compares giving an overview of the field to herding cats. “My recourse to that analogy is meant to suggest that ‘the animal’ when you think about it, is everywhere (including in the metaphors, similes, proverbs, and narratives we have relied on for centuries—millennia, even).” Additionally, once the animal is foregrounded, we are confronted with a “daunting interdisciplinarity” that makes the relationship between literary studies and history look like an orderly affair by comparison.
Animal studies is moving beyond representative collections of animal images that document the presence of animals in art and photographs, although those treatments are a valuable platform. Art historians regularly have taken note of dogs in Western painting. While these presentations offer some commentary about the shifting functions of dogs in human life or the potential symbolic meanings of the dog, their primary purpose is to trace the presence of the animal over the centuries, thereby illustrating the close, but largely unexamined, relationship between humans and animals. Most of these treatments tell us more about the artist or the artist’s subjects than about the animal. However, multiple sources that document the presence of animals, and especially dogs, in cultural representations finally have compelled scholars and historians to train their gaze upon how all animals become troubling mirrors to humanity. With that awareness intrudes a counterreflection, an intense consideration of the ethical dimensions of this relationship. 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, we humans have created visual and textual images that at once trivialize our own lives but also the lives of animals, taking for granted that their lives may be manipulated for symbolic purposes that seemingly have no consequence for them or for us. But is this true? May we do this with impunity?
One response through animal studies is to reexamine our representations of animals, looking for what the animal might mean to us but with a concern for what our representation might mean for the animal. This approach tries to take seriously the proposition that our representations have meaning and import in ways beyond the “merely” visual or the “merely” literary. Susan McHugh asks that we take literary animals seriously, arguing that, “now that scientists are identifying the interdependence of life forms even below the cellular level, the pervasive companionship of human subjects with members of other species appears ever more elemental to narrative subjectivity.” Steve Baker, in Picturing the Beast, says that the representation of animals in popular visuals is an important pathway to understanding how we see them, and how we use them in our own cultural constructions. Erica Fudge calls for an animal studies that will promote an “interspecies competence,” by which she means “a new way of thinking about and living with animals,” such that the meaning of “human” and “nonhuman” must shift radically. Finally, scholars are asking about the difference between “animal” and “animality,” in reviewing cultural representations of animals and humans. Whether they are referencing painting, literature, film, or photography, what all these scholars have in common is their shared urgency about how much our intellectualized perspectives on “animal,” and thus on “humanity,” must change. “Animal” is, in Wolfe’s words, “in the heart of this thing we call human,” whether we approach it from a humanistic point of view or a postmodern point of view. We must engage in animal studies, for it is a crucial pathway for rediscovering ourselves as human animals who live in what Donna Haraway, in The Companion Species Manifesto, calls “natureculture.” Moreover, many of these discussions share a common trope, that of the liminal territory between the animal and the human.
In reviewing the philosophical tradition about animals, Akira Lippit offers a dense semiotic discussion leading to the conclusion that animals are neither here nor there, but in this liminal state they trouble our conscious reflections by their indeterminate status. Just as we toggle between our contemplation of the brain and our musings on the meaning of the mind, animals become the emblem of that journey. We imbue them with, or they possess, more meanings than are apparent in the mere facts of physical existence. In Lippit’s words, “animals are exemplary vehicles with which to mediate between the corporeality of the brain and the ideality of the mind.” We may perceive and understand more about animals than we are able to put into words, another conundrum for human beings who are so thoroughly determined in Western philosophy, if not overdetermined, by our ability to live by words. Animals may also perceive and understand more about us than they are able to put into words, although for different reasons. Again, humans meet other species in this liminal space where words largely dissolve but communication persists, perhaps because animals are more important for constituting human reality than we have realized or acknowledged. Lippit concludes that the presence of the animal is always poised to “disrupt humanity’s notions of consciousness, being and world. . . . Contact with animals turns human beings into others, effecting a metamorphosis. Animality is, in this sense, a kind of seduction, a magnetic force or gaze that brings humanity to the threshold of its subjectivity.”
Thus we return to the mystical language of a visual force created and sustained by our relationship with animals. Temple Grandin has famously and successfully argued that persons on the autism spectrum have many things in common with animals. In particular, they share a common sensory field. Her groundbreaking work doesn’t denigrate “regular” people, but it does gently suggest that autism might be our doorway to a better way of understanding animals, and to understanding ourselves as animals with more capacity than we have realized. And Grandin wouldn’t mind if we reversed that statement and said that a better understanding of how animals perceive and respond to their world might open latent parts of our brains that we have closed off, including our understanding of autism as part of a spectrum of human creativity. “The animal brain is the default position for people,” she suggests, and in her hands the animal instinct is indeed a lovely thing.
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