SHARI HATT: DOGS
by Alison Cuddy, 2001
Faced with her artist statement, “10 reasons why people should take pictures of dogs,” which appends Shari Hatt’s photographic series Dogs (1999), a friend of the artist replied: “We must take pictures of dogs because they cannot take pictures of themselves.” Photographically challenged dogs the world over must be thanking Hatt for having taken this imperative seriously. Dogs retrieves its subjects from a shameless history of representation ranging from the low (the paintings of poker-playing, cigar smoking canines that epitomize suburban basement décor) to the irony of the low (the Weimaraner dynasty of William Wegman). Playing (with) the anthropomorphic card, images such as these frame dogs within the cultural and fantastical landscape of the human, and though they do not require the disclaimer “no animals were harmed in the making of this picture,” they nonetheless make one wonder why we have to torture dogs in order to see ourselves.
In stark contrast, Hatt takes pictures of dogs as if she were one herself, and her results bear witness to the infinite and inescapable uniqueness of dogs, a realization underscored in the series’ deliberately simple title. This is not to suggest that Hatt has attempted to portray all of dog-dom. Her subjects are strictly working dogs, not in the St. Bernard or Border Collie working dog sense, but in the coulda-been-Lassie sense. These are the dogs that work it, the ones who show up faithfully to every Kibbles’n’Bits audition, who mug flagrantly to win the role of loveable sidekick in the latest Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle (why does every love story require a dog to witness its wayward course?). These are the dogs that undergo the obsessive training rabid owners hope will gain them a Best in Show, as mercilessly lampooned in the recent film by Christopher Guest.
At the same time, what the series documents is that most unremarkable kind of dog – the family pet. That the dogs carry both the sheen of the starlet and a whiff of the backyard is due to Hatt’s formal considerations. Posed in front of the same luscious emerald-green backdrop, each of the fifty dogs faces the viewer head-on, with looks ranging from the come-hither glance of a Dalmation (Untitled: Jake) to the appeasing – even nervous – smile on a miniature pinscher (Untitled: Bob). Through the repetition of setting and pose, the portraits could be seen as a camp update on the high glamour of an old-time Hollywood head shot – a shaggier sort of Cindy Sherman – were it not for the fact that these dogs have mostly bypassed grooming on their way to glamour (although many viewers have remarked on the uncanny resemblance between Mariah Carey and the cocker spaniel in the show). Instead, Hatt dog’s look as if they were photographed au natural, with little indication of their provenance (other than an occasional glimmer of collar, or the tiny turtleneck the miniature pinscher sports).
Photographed without their owners, in a setting that mixes the glamorous with the banal and signals both the contrived and the natural, these images of dogs have the curious effect of suggesting the amount of work involved in being just a pet. While Best in Show uses a competition of purebreds as a pretext for poking fun at those who conflate dog ownership with an identity, Hatt invites us into the mysteries of a dog’s own life. Filling almost the entire space of the 16-by-16 inch format, the dogs’ faces have heaviness, a kind of world-weariness. We confront the steady stare of fifty dogs, and this point-blank encounter does conjure the weirder aspects of our current obsession with pets – the reports of vets prescribing “dog” pharmaceuticals like Prozac to treat canine blues, the spate of self-help books that explain Dogs Behaving Badly or The Dog Who Loved Too Much. Extreme as these trends or the world of competitive dog breeding may seem, are they really that removed from the pet-work dogs already do? Dogs play cute for the in-laws, undergo esoteric training regimes, and even substitute as children for upwardly mobile non-breeders (or think of what Wegman must do to get his dogs to pose like that!). Hatt’s photos thus illustrate a more complicated relationship between pets and their owners than does the broad comedy of Best in Show, because they register something distinctly not human – the dogginess of dogs – and make us realize the difficulty of seeing dogs rid of all signs of human tampering.
In this sense Dogs, despite its straightforward, even techno-phobic presentation, is also a meditation on the way photography works its subjects, and the collaborations it involves between the object of a photo and its maker. This thinking permeates Hatt’s work, and places it within contemporary portraiture inflected by post-modernism, which argues that what we think of as outside the frame of a shot – technique, cultural biases, the aura of quasi-objectivity that adheres to photography – is actually visible and thus questionable within a portrait. Her series are both performative, through their concern with how cultural roles such as gender are assigned and perpetuated (52 Men in My Bedroom, Breast Wishes); and participatory, through their inclusion of disparate communities (The Jubilation of Eve, Dogs, the in-progress series on the Liberace Museum of Las Vegas). Hatt’s particular strategies, such as her abstraction and fragmentation of bodies (shooting only the breasts and torsos of women, printing full-body shots of men playing card-size), cite some of the scientific antecedents of modern portraiture, such as Alphonse Bertillon’s mugshots, or Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of the body in motion. Similarly, her contrast between format (repeating the same backdrop and pose in each shot of a series) and content (the substantial and various body counts – 50 dogs, 84 breasts, 52 men), links the photographer to the collector, who share a fondness for displaying their finds in hermetically sealed environments.
Though the acquisitive gaze of the collector may be enacted in Hatt’s photos, and though she carefully stages her images within a studio environment, her aesthetic also has an illusory point-and-shoot air that can be understood within the terms of documentary portraiture (Rineke Dijkstra, Mary Ellen Marks). In describing her images of the Liberace Museum, for example, Hatt makes clear her interest in documenting the people who maintain the collection, not just the artifacts on display (this identification with/interest in fandom also marks her All Elvis Honky, Honky Burnin’ Love Museum). The theatricality and performativity of her portraiture is thus tempered by a desire to reflect what goes on behind the scenes. Like Rineke Dijkstra, who describes her own images as efforts “to understand that everyone is alone…in the sense that no one can completely understand someone else,” Hatt creates images that try to “awaken definite sympathies” for the person or dog – or idea – she has photographed. With Dogs it is Hatt’s empathic, not anthropomorphic gesture that practically begs you to read into the dog’s expressions. They convey that certain something about every face – whether human or animal, whether sitting in anonymity across the train during the commute home, or lying next to you in complete intimacy on the cusp of sleep – that provokes a kind of questioning wonder: “What are you thinking?” “What does that person do?” “What could that dog want?!”; that can never fully resolve into a firm answer or identification. In the face of these silent pictures of dogs, then, we must think like a dog, because they cannot speak of themselves to us otherwise.
Alison Cuddy is a freelance writer based in Chicago.