“I am I because my little dog knows me.” The words are Gertrude Stein’s; the dog in this picture knew my parents and lived with them before I was born, and they celebrated its existence in a pair of studio portraits. The other shows the dog looking straight at the lens with its paws on the back of a bentwood chair. I prefer the more formal one, with the lady’s wrist watch raffishly slung around the dog’s neck.
This chihuahua, whose name I don’t know, was displayed at competitive dog shows, where standing still on command is a routine test. Posing for a camera is the same act, and means the same thing: that the dog has learned to obey. This photo is about control, and pride of ownership. Its unwritten caption is the command that only the dog can hear.
I had never seen any formal dog portraiture before finding this picture in a box of my mother’s photos. I like the combination of alertness (note the cocked ear), repose (the upright front legs), and readiness to spring into motion (the actively placed rear legs). I like the glossiness of the coat and the aura created by the photographer’s lights, as if the animal were bathing the scene in its own radiance.
Everyone with a dog and a digital camera has taken dozens of snaps of their pet rolling on the grass or gnawing a ball. The candid shot has become the norm in pet photography, even among professionals who advertise on the Internet. The implication is that the animal’s personality is seen in what it does.
In my parents’ portrait of their chihuahua, personality lies rather in what the dog is: well-shaped, well-groomed, obedient and pampered—one meaning of the lady’s wrist watch, which took on another significance for me after my mother’s death, when I pulled this picture from a box where it had lain unseen for half a century. The watch now marks something even more unrecoverable than time, while the dog goes on listening for a command that will not be heard again.