The relationship between man and dog is unlike man’s relationship with any other animal on the planet. When it comes to animal photography, you can find many books, online lessons, or YouTube videos showing you and teaching you how to photograph animals… so that they look like animals. This article is not going to be the typical wildlife photography manual where you sneak up on a dog in a nature documentary style or take a shot with an 800mm lens hidden in the mud.
Today I would like to talk about one of my favorite photographers, Elliott Erwitt, and his approach to dog photography.
If you are familiar with the photographs of Elliott Erwitt, you know they usually share some aesthetic qualities as well as superb composition. After seeing so many of his photographs I can usually recognize his style even if I find one of his photos that I’ve never seen before.
I take a lot of pictures of dogs because I like dogs and because they don’t object to being photographed and they also don’t ask for prints. —Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt is a French-born American photographer and filmmaker. Erwitt started photography in high school taking pictures at proms and working in the darkroom. For him, photography was primarily a way of working independently for himself. As he says the only other steady job was the one from the army. After he got out of the army, he joined Magnum Photos, the cooperative with some of the biggest names in the industry.
What I admire about Elliott Erwitt is that he is one of the few professional photographers who is actually more famous for his personal work.
I am a professional photographer with a significant hobby which is photography. —Elliott Erwitt
So how does Elliott Erwitt photograph dogs? Let’s take a closer look. Elliott Erwitt took his first dog picture in 1946, but that wasn’t the first time a dog was a subject for art. We can track the relationship between dog and man all the way back to almost 15,000 years ago.
Drawn in caves, loved and used during prehistoric times, and in ancient Egypt, well… coming a close second. Dogs have always served art as subjects and symbols. The role of the dog in society has changed many times from working companions, war soldiers, to fully-fledged family members.
In the 19th century, we can see dogs starting to appear as portrait subjects. Slowly but surely dogs took their place at man’s side and have never left it since. As photography became more accessible and affordable to the general public millions of people started to take photos and, of course, dogs also served as subjects. When I look at Erwitt’s approach to photographing dogs I can identify certain qualities that his photos share and which makes them unique.
It starts with a focus on the subject. When he photographs dogs Erwitt makes dogs his primary subjects. He looks at the dogs before he looks at anything else. If the dog is interesting. If the situation the dog is in is interesting, he takes the shot. But these dogs do not serve just as complementary subjects to humans, it is actually quite the opposite. The secondary subject is the human.
And yeah, there is also one, rather special thing, he does to attract a dog’s attention.
I bark at dogs and get odd reactions sometimes, in this case, every time I barked the dog jumped. —Elliott Erwitt
The thing with Erwitt’s dogs is that when you look at his photographs the dogs are photographed in positions where they kind of resemble humans. Which I think is the key. To show human-like qualities with a non-human subject often resolves into those humorous situations which may or may not be intentional.
I don’t get up in the morning and decide I am going to be funny the thing I photograph for my own pleasure have a certain signature some of them are ironic, some of them are amusing but again it’s nothing that I plan it’s just a way things appear to me. —Elliott Erwitt
There is a certain mystique about these legendary photographers and street photography in general like you should do this and never do that, never stage a picture, never crop a picture. Which I feel I should debunk a little. I think that in the end, it is about the artist’s vision. When, for example, you look at one of Erwitt’s famous dog photographs, the Dogs Dog picture, you might be quite surprised that this was how the original picture actually looked.
I think Erwitt is a great example of a photographer just being a photographer, photographing around making photographs… if that makes any sense.
You can see that when he was asked about personal identity, philosophy, or larger statements of his photography in a TV interview.
“What about dogs just simple themes are you making a large statement when you photograph dogs — particular in juxtapositions to humans both in terms of size, scale?” asked Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel on Visions and Images.
Elliott Erwitt replied: “I really don’t know, I think I guess it’s not a very satisfactory answer but I really don’t think about the big picture or what I’m doing — I just take pictures and hope that something comes out of it. I don’t go into taking the snapshots with any large idea.”
Apart from his brilliant use of composition techniques such as echoing shapes, coincidences, or juxtapositions. Erwitt’s photographs show dogs not only behaving or misbehaving like real dogs but also with the human-like elements.
Anyway, the thing with casual photographs is that the opportunity to make them appears irregularly.
When Elliott Erwitt saw this scene for the first time, he immediately knew this would be a great photograph. However, he found himself without his camera to capture it. Fortunately, he was able to borrow a camera from his friend Hiroji Kubota, another Magnum member, and take the shot. And when I say a shot, I mean 24 frames of the scene.
Methodically shooting around until he found the perfect composition. The one that you see here is actually the last one on the roll.
So carrying a camera around definitely helps. Other than that you just need to practice. So go out and take pictures. Photograph what you love and get better with every frame you take. After all, it is just like Elliot Erwitt says.
Photography is not rocket science. Essentially you buy the camera and follow the instructions on the box. I think the most important thing you can do in a photograph or in photography is to evoke emotion, to make people either laugh or cry or both emotions at the same time if you can achieve that I think you’ve done well. —Elliott Erwitt
A collection of Erwitt’s dog photos were published in a photo book titled Elliott Erwitt’s Dogs.
About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.
Image credits: Featured thumbnail portrait of Erwitt by Alessio Jacona and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0