This was a very weird impulse-buy I picked up at the grocery check out the other day. First, I didn't even know Life Magazine still existed. Second, I have to admit: I was curious if someone had finally cracked the code and could offer a solid explanation of why dogs and humans are so intertwined. Spoiler alert- Life Magazine definitely did not crack any code. They did, however, throw together a $13 "special issue" on "dogs" that "explains" a bit about the "history" of the dog/human bond in quite simple (yet fairly accurate) terms. I just couldn't say no to the clean cover design, the iconic Life Magazine logo. And hey, it was better than buying a candy bar.
This special dog expose was packed with full page images, because everyone knows that people buy magazines for the photos. It walked the reader through a bit of the history of the dog/human bond - from ancient domestication, to Egyptians and Japanese cultures depicting canines in their art, to examples of the earliest photographs ever printed in the 1800s featuring dogs, to how the dog became America's family pet starting in the 1920s. Then it went into a bit about contemporary dogs in culture - from service dogs to pets etc. All in all it was fairly interesting, if not a bit mundane (if you're a dog nerd like me and devour any and all dog-science related books and articles, this issue didn't really bring up anything new).
You know what the take-away was for me, though? Not to be predictable, but it was the art.
Art tells the story of the dog/human bond, from ancient cave drawings to glamorous Renaissance paintings to early Daguerrotypes and black and white photos from the 1920s (when photography just started to hit the main stream). Every society throughout history has been understood through it's art - what a society looks at and values visually is the code to understanding their culture. And humans as a whole have valued our relationship with dogs for centuries. We just can't stop looking at them and making art about them. Therefore, it is obvious how crucial they are to the human experience.
However, the only good imagery in this magazine was the old stuff. The ancient paintings, of course, were wonderful. And the vintage dog photographs were beautiful. But you know what was not beautiful? The contemporary 'pet photos' the Time Life included in this issue. They were weak, bleak, and boring. Snapshots of pets jumping and over-done photos of dogs in the studio photographed with an exaggerated wide angle lens. Boring! Time Life could have easily found some real contemporary dog artists for their articles on modern pets, but instead they went with what was easy: stock photos of 'pets.' Yuck. (The photos I've shown here are the good vintage ones).
The discrepancy between the quality imagery (from the 1950s) and the vapid, snooze-fest imagery (from the 2000s) was remarkable. I spend a lot of time pondering how our society went from regaling dogs and the art of photography, to being inundated with terrible, cheesy, unprofessional 'pet pics.' 'Pet Pics' is a term I hate with a passion because it is the complete opposite of what I am trying to create with my work. Vintage dog portraits like the ones I've copied here continue to inspire me to dig deep and push myself. They illustrate a truthfulness and passion and complexity that is lacking in so much imagery today - but there are some artists that are doing good dog work out there. We just need to keep supporting them.