by Leonard Gill
With the advent of air-conditioning and due to most builders, "porch sitting, one of the most significant pastimes of Southern culture, has since gone the way of hand-churned ice cream and the quilting bee," Memphian Nell Dickerson writes, and she mourns the loss. But tell that to the canines sitting pretty in Porch Dogs (John F. Blair, Publisher), Dickerson's collection of more than 60 handsome color photos.
House dogs, yard dogs, shop dogs, swing and bench dogs, water-loving dock dogs, top dogs (who sit for their portrait from second-floor perches), and under dogs (cooling beneath the porch): These are Dickerson's categories. No need, though, to bother Biscuit, Cleopatra, Teeny Baby, Liza Jane, and Gotcha with name-calling. They're in hound heaven on the porches that still stand throughout the South — whether, in Dickerson's photographs, we're in Memphis, Mississippi, New Orleans, Alabama, or Charleston. And true to Dickerson's abiding concern for documenting what remains of the past — see her previous book, Gone: A Photographic Plea for Preservation (from 2011) — this makes Porch Dogs a dual-purpose project. From grand doorways to humble storefronts, these are splendid examples of the South's architectural heritage stretching back to the late 18th century.
What follows: a few words from Dickerson herself on the making of Porch Dogs.
Nell Dickerson: This is a Southern fact and it comes from extensive research and observation: Dogs sit on porches. For Porch Dogs, I continued the themes I explored in Gone: Preserve your own culture, honor your history, and respect the past.
Dogs are the sentinels of the Southern tradition of porch sitting. The Civil War may have crippled the South, but air-conditioning finished her off. We used to mark every social milestone on our porches. Now, if we have a porch, we ignore it. Our dogs do not.
How did you go about finding locations to photograph ... locations that included not only a porch but a dog to go with it?
I know where the bones are buried. From my research for Gone, I knew where to find communities with historic buildings. People who co-habitate with historic buildings are special. Since they tend to be intuitive, intelligent, and sensitive folks, they will most likely have a dog. (Of course, I am prejudiced.)
What came first as subject: the house or the dog?
Neither or both. That is the magic of a good photograph, or “the decisive moment,” as photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined it. The images are the synchronicity of dog and porch.
Any trouble getting permission from dog owners?
Most of the time, I knew the owner or had an introduction from a mutual friend. But there were a few drive-by’s where I saw a fabulous dog and porch. I'd come to a screeching halt and walk up to the house. I'd leave my camera in the car and carried my six-pound Yorkshire terrier. How could anybody feel threatened by her?
Last, not least, any tricks to getting the dogs to pose?
I've known and I've met a lot of dogs. They enjoy sitting for a portrait. Attention is attention. The trick was to photograph the dog in his or her natural habitat. The images in the book are called "environmental portraits." I took the best photos when the dog went about his or her business and ignored me. I speak fluent “dog,” so we always got along.
If the dog’s human participated, I had the owner crouch behind me in line with the camera lens. Out of curiosity, the dog tracked its human if a treat or a toy or my Yorkie was in the human’s hand.
I also have a secret call that I shriek as I click the shutter. It's at the perfect pitch and decibel level to make a dog prick up his or her ears. It also makes the dog question what sort of ridiculous human I am, and then think: Best to get this over with and go back to porch sitting. •