Published: April 16, 2002
WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. – Photography has offered a means of documentation and expression for more than 160 years now. Focusing on a seemingly obscure subject, curators Raymond Merritt and Miles Barth have unearthed a delightful and varied array of images in which the dog’s presence serves as a central trope in the history of the medium.
“A Thousand Hounds: A Walk with the Dogs Through the History of Photography” is based in part on The Cygnet Foundation’s book of the same title, which, when it was released by Taschen in 2000, was announced as “a completely original history of photography told through images of canines.”
The exhibition on view at the Norton Museum of Art, April 27 to September, celebrates the endearing and enduring partnership between man and dog in well over 150 photographs and two photographic sculptures, which date from 1840 to the current day and have been created by both masters of the medium and lesser-known practitioners.
Among the noted artists included from the Nineteenth Century are Thomas Eakins, Roger Fenton, Gustav Le Gray, and Edward Muybridge, and from the Twentieth Century, Diane Arbus, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, Paul Strand, and Weegee.
Also prominently featured are works by contemporary artists, including William Wegman, Elliott Erwitt, and Keith Carter, all renowned for their images of dogs, as well as by Roger Ballen, Larry Clark, Gregory Crewdson, Robert Frank, Ralph Gibson, Sally Mann, Vik Muniz, and Sandy Skoglund.
The exhibition is serious and scholarly in its considered presentation of the dog’s place in momentous historical and cultural events of the past century and a half, ranging from polar expeditions to the Great Depression to the World Wars. It is also light-hearted and engaging in its celebration of photographers’ longstanding artistic interest in the canine as model, muse, and metaphor.
“A Thousand Hounds: A Walk with the Dogs Through the History of Photography” includes depictions of dogs with children, women, old men, celebrities, and members of their own species. Presented in two parts, its historical organization illuminates technological innovations, as well as cultural, sociological and aesthetic developments related to the medium, while contemporary work is organized thematically, with individual sections devoted to the notions of pathos, whimsy, elegance, companionship, and inspiration.
The earliest images in the exhibition introduce the viewer to the first popular application of the new medium. When photography burst onto the scene in the mid-Nineteenth Century, the lengthy sittings required for daguerreotypes and paper negatives made pets unlikely sitters for the portraits that were immediately commissioned by the upper and middle classes.
The daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards presented here exemplify attempts by anonymous photographers to memorialize all variety of man’s best friend.
Moving into the Twentieth Century, the exhibition covers two major movements in the history of photography, pictorialism and modernism. Dating from around 1907, George Seeley’s platinum print is typical of pictorialist photographers’ penchant for Impressionistic atmosphere and unique, crafted images with the semblance of drawings or watercolors. By contrast, Bill Brandt’s photograph from 1945 captures a dog as a glowing silhouette in the harsh glare of car’s headlights.
A section devoted to the subject of war demonstrates how dogs have accompanied soldiers on the front from the earliest photographic depictions of battle. Photographs by Gustave Le Gray and the Mathew Brady Studio document the presence of dogs during the Crimean War and the American Civil War. Numerous other photographs show how these valued companions have transported equipment and supplies, carried messages, searched for the wounded, and galvanized troop morale and civilian support in every war since.
From the 1950s into the 1970s, photographers such as Mario Giacomelli, Robert Doisneau, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank developed a personal vision that has become synonymous with a unique photographic voice. The images presented in this exhibition reveal how each of these voices has been compelled to capture the antics of the dog.
In the 1980s and 1990s, photographers James Balog, Keith Carter, Michal Rover and Peter Hujar created individualistic portraits of dogs as pets or rare breeds with distinct emotions and personalities, none less memorable than William Wegman’s Weimaraners. By comparison, the inclusion of dogs in real-life or constructed narratives by Tina Barney, Nic Nicosia and Sandy Skoglund reveals the enigmatic qualities that our canine friends bring to our lives, while Robert Mapplethorpe and Scavullo remind us of the inherent elegance of the simplest of poses.
“A Thousand Hounds: A Walk with the Dogs Through the History of Photography” is organized by The Cygnet Foundation. This exhibition is curated by Raymond Merritt and Miles Barth.
The Norton Museum of Art is open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 1 to 5 pm. The museum is closed Monday from May through October. For information, 561-832-5196 or www.norton.org.
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