Dog & Pup - Books and Public Exhibition
of Canine Photographs by Deborah Samuel
I am fortunate that, through my interest in both dogs and photography, I have over the last 25 years or so, amassed a respectable collection of canine photographic books writes Paul Keevil.
Many of these have been published as coffee-table books, such as the humourous works of US photographer Elliot Erwitt or flamboyant expressions of observation and technique such as le Chien, by Frenchman Yann Arthus-Bertrand. One is always full of admiration for the photographers, but I am always excited when something new comes along - something which is so different and so original in its execution that it stops you dead in your tracks.
Buckley is a 21 year old Samoyed, who features on the front cover of "Dog". Deborah Samuel photographed him in little pieces, concentrating on the small dark spots of nose, mouth and eyes. The photographer likens looking at Buckley as staring into a blizzard.
It doesn't happen very often, but it happened to me recently when I received copies of the two books containing black and white photographs by Canadian born Deborah Samuel.
Forget any preconceptions you may have about how dogs should be photographed. Forget all the previous photographs you may have seen of dogs and, most of all, forget any rules you may have heard about how dogs need to be photographed to look good.
Samuel is not your normal dog show photographer, you are unlikely to see any of her photographs advertising a top winning show animal or a desirable stud dog. What you will get from her shots are not just anatomical studies of beautiful animals, but photos which are challenging and rewarding to your intellect and powers of observation - in short - they make you think. You get a clue of just how different Samuel's photos are from the front covers of her two newly published books Dog and Pup. The cover of Dog is an extremely close up shot of just the nose and tongue (complete with a droplet) of a two year old Samoyed called Buckley. The print has a lot of tonal compression so that it shows mainly the pure white of the coat and the black of the nostrils. It is obvious that this is a dog, but you would be hard pressed at first glance to identify it as a Sam. The cover of the companion book Pup is perhaps even more whimsical, showing only the back half of an eight week old Jack Russell Oscar, in profile, off centre, with a spotlight effect to the plain background.
Walker is a four year old Bloodhound who had worked as a dog detective for the District Attorney's Office and for other law offices with the famed Bloodhound Yogi. The very close crop of the photo homes in on his fabulously wrinkled facial expression. You can almost stroke that nose!
Flipping through the pages the originality of the photographer continues, as in dog, a beautiful white Saluki has been photographed.
However, a very close crop of the head is on one page whilst a very close crop shot of the rump and curved tail is on the other. The dogs body has been removed from the viewer, but somehow it is obvious that this is a complete dog and your mind works overtime to piece it all together. In another photo just the top of the head of a Scottie is shown, whilst only an ear of a Weimaraner is shown for another. Just how much Samuel has broken convention is obvious from the photo of another dogs ear, this time belonging to Dieter, a four year old GSP. The ear this time is folded back and I almost instinctively wanted to touch the page to as if to flip the ear back to its correct position. What would appear to most dog people as something which should be corrected had been taken by the photographer and displayed for all to see to great advantage. Other rules broken include photographing black dogs against black backgrounds, including just a tiny part of the dog, such as a foot, either from above or underneath or an ultra close up of a single eye, a nose or a tail.
Makita a nine week old yellow Labrador puppy photographed asleep by Deborah Samuel in her new book "Pup". The rapid "flash falloff" on the ringflash used by Samuel is clearly demonstrated here
However, the photographers innovation is just not limited to her compositional approach, but also encompasses her actual photographic technique and camera craft. I haven't had a chance to speak to the photographer personally to discover her secret methods, but looking at the photos in the book, as most of them are square in format I assume that she uses a conventional 6x6 roll film studio camera such as a Hasselblad or Rolliflex.
The lighting she used appears to be almost exclusively a ringflash, that is a special type of flashgun, that instead of sitting on top of the camera, actually circles the front of the lens, like a round neon light tube. This is evident from the reflections in many of the dogs eyes which contain the tell tale circular highlights.
This type of lighting has been popular with fashion photographs for a few years and was pioneered in this country by the new wave photographers such as Rankin and magazines like GQ. This is the first time I have seem it used with dogs. The effect this type of electronic flash gives is of very flat even light, with an almost eerie pale shadow round the entire body of the subject. The disadvantage is that many of these ring flashes, because they were primarily designed for close up photography are relatively under powered when compared to conventional studio flash. However, even this problem has been turned to a advantage by Samuel as the rapid flash falloff renders the background underexposed, as in the appealing shot of Mikita, the nine week old yellow Labrador pup asleep.
Kirby is a two year old Chinese Crested dog. The special lighting characteristics of the ringflash can be seen in this photo by the overall light shadow cast by the dog on the pale background
Samuel has almost exclusively photographed pure bred dogs and Dog contains 111 pages and 49 breeds, whilst Pup runs to 80 pages and 30 breeds. Pup is also published in a smaller format, suggesting perhaps that one day the tiny puppies contained therein will grow into the full sized animals in the larger Dog book. I have to admit that I had never heard of Deborah Samuel before and was intrigued to learn that she worked for many years in Canada as a commercial photographer in the music and fashion industries and as an editorial photographer of publications such as Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spin, USA Today and Interview Magazine.
As a fine art photographer she has exhibited extensively in Canada and the US her work is currently in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, Winnipeg Art Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum. She now also lives in Santa Barbara, California, and began photographing dogs for this latest project several years ago, originally just with the desire to document the lives of her own dogs. However word soon spread around the area where Samuel walks her own dogs and first friends then total strangers asked her to work her own type of special magic on other dogs as well. These two books are the result of the personal project that just continued to grow and grow.
The books are available to coincide with a London exhibition of her work at The Special Photographers Gallery, 236 Westbourne Park Road, London W11. The exhibition is open from Monday until Saturday and runs from November 21st till January 11th. Should you have difficulty in obtaining copies of either of these two books then they can be obtained direct from the Gallery. For further details of the exhibition or the books, please ring 020 7221 3489 or fax 020-7792 9112, or visit the Gallery's web site on the Internet at: www.specialphotographers.com
Dog and Pup are published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Price £19:99 each
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