Masterpieces: Classic Photographs with Dogs

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The promotion of a spring auction for fine photography at the renowned New York company Swann’s Auction Galleries piqued my interest. Online auctions are a convenient way to view exhibitions without leaving your desk. These digital exhibitions aren’t as good as a personal experience, but they have to do it first. The collection contained work by many of the most recognizable names in photography – Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, and many more legendary photographers who captured some of the most indelible images in modern history. When I rummaged through their catalog of over 400 prints, I was on the lookout for pictures of dogs, and that bizarre criterion produced four pictures. Although the four photos came together by chance, I was impressed by how thematically the two couples played against each other. The chance encounters in the photo below are listed below.

Kiki (de Montparnasse) and his friends, 1932 by Brassaï

Little Boy with Dog, 1936 by Margaret Bourke-White

One American Block, Hamilton, Ohio; 1943 by Alfred Eisenstaedt

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Audrey Hepburn and her dog Famous, 1957 by Sid Avery

The history of photography is in tune with incredible social change. Viewing photographs is therefore a way of exploring the social relationships they document. The two photographs with women deal with gender stereotypes. The portrait of a young Audrey Hepburn with her dog Famous sitting in the bicycle basket is a holdover from the Hollywood imager at work. The photo was taken in 1957 by Sid Avery, known for capturing the private moments of Hollywood celebrities. Hepburn, on a bike ride with her dog for a movie backlot, may be on a break from filming the musical Funny Face. The film is a romantic comedy about a young woman who was discovered and cast as a model. Several scenes take place in bohemian Paris.

The photo of Kiki (de Montparnasse) and Ses Amis (1932), taken by the masterful Brassaï, shows a very different image of femininity. The title translates as “Kiki of Montparnasse and her friends”. Kiki was the name of a young French artist model and literary muse who was an integral part of the social scene in Montparnasse (a district of Paris that does justice to bohemian life) and helped define the liberated culture of Paris in the 1920s. She was a favorite model of dozens of artists including Jean Coteau, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and her longtime companion ManRay. The picture of Brassaï, famous for his photographs of Paris at night, shows Kiki lying on a couch with two friends and two dogs. The couch ceiling, the background curtains and the fabric of the women’s clothes are heavily patterned and create an intense optical energy despite the calm scene. The dogs look like home.

The other two photographs, Little Boy with Hound (1936) by Margaret Bourke-White and An American Block, Hamilton, Ohio (1943) by Alfred Eisenstaedt, focus on children. While Eisenstaedt’s composition captures three suburban white boys sitting by the roadside sharing the Sunday newspaper funnies, a dog (presumably one of the boys) is ready to head off in a different direction and look back at the trio. The boys’ surroundings – leafy lawns, a neat two-story house, and their clean appearance – are indicators of a middle-class suburban community. In contrast, Bourke-White’s picture, taken a decade earlier during the Depression in the Deep South, shows a young African American standing barefoot in ragged overalls in an interior door with a hunting dog by his side. Both look worried and cautious. The newspaper covers the inside walls of his extremely humble house. This boy’s family has an entirely different use for newspapers, using them as wallpaper and insulation.

Both Bourke-White and Eisenstaedt worked for Life magazine and recorded American life (Bourke-White as the magazine’s first female photojournalist). Sid Avery’s celebrity photographs also appeared regularly in life. Brassaï’s photographs also appeared in popular publications of the day, including Paris Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.

The dogs in these photos are not the main subjects, although each has a role to play in completing their respective scenes. They are proof that dogs, in their many facets and different social classes, are an integral part of historical life. The dogs are recorded on film as witnesses to everything that human life has to offer.

The upcoming photo auction at the Swann Auction Galleries (NYC) will be held on March 11th starting at 10:30 am ET. The photo catalog can be viewed online in Swann’s auction galleries.