Masterworks: Classic Photographs with Dogs

From Paris to Hollywood, Suburbia to the Rural South
By Cameron Woo, March 2021, Updated October 2021

The advertisement promoting a spring auction of fine photography at the renowned New York establishment Swann’s Auction Galleries piqued my interest. Online auctions are a convenient method to tour exhibitions without leaving your desk. These digital exhibitions are not as good as an in-person experience but it will have to do for now. The collection featured work by many of photography’s most accomplished names—Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, August Sander and many more legendary photographers who captured some of modern history’s most indelible images. As I browsed through their catalog of over 400 prints, I kept an eye out for images featuring dogs, and this quirky criteria served up four images. Even though the four photographs came together randomly, I was struck how thematically the two pairs played off one another. The chance encounters of the following photograph are detailed below.

The history of photography aligns with incredible social change, thus looking at photographs is one way to explore the social relationships they document. The two photographs that feature women address gender stereotypes. The portrait of a young Audrey Hepburn with her dog Famous sitting in her bicycle’s basket is a remnant of the Hollywood image machine at work. The photograph was taken in 1957 by Sid Avery, known for capturing the private moments of Hollywood celebrities. Hepburn, on a bicycle ride with her dog around a movie backlot is perhaps on a break from filming the musical Funny Face. The film is a romantic comedy about a young woman discovered and cast as a fashion model with several scenes taking place in bohemian Paris.

The photograph of Kiki (de Montparnasse) et Ses Amis (1932) taken by the masterful Brassaï shows a very different image of feminity. The title translates to “Kiki of Montparnasse and her friends.” Kiki was the name of a young French artist’s model and literary muse, who was a fixture in the Montparnasse (a quarter of Paris catering to bohemian life) social scene and helped define the liberated culture of 1920s Paris. She was a favorite model of dozens of artists, including Jean Coteau, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and her longtime companion ManRay. The image by Brassaï, famous for his photographs of Paris by night, shows Kiki lounging on a couch with two friends and two dogs. The couch cover, the background curtains and the fabric of the women’s clothes are all heavily patterned, creating an intense optical energy despite the scene of repose. The dogs look right at home.

The two other 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 curbside and sharing the Sunday newspaper funnies, a dog (presumably belonging to one of the boys) is poised to head off in another direction, looking back at the trio. The boys’ surroundings—leaf covered lawns, a tidy two-story house plus their clean cut appearance are indicators of a middle-class suburban community. In contrast, Bourke-White’s image, taken a decade previously during the Depression in the deep south, shows a young African American boy, barefoot and wearing tattered overalls standing in an interior doorway with a hound dog at his side. Both share a look of apprehension and caution. Newspaper covers the interior walls of what is to be assumed his extremely modest home. This boy’s family has a very different use for newspaper, applying it as wallpaper and insulation.

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

The dogs in these photographs are not the primary subjects, though each has a role to play in completing their respective scenes. They are evidence that dogs are an integral part of historical life in its many facets and varying social strata. The dogs are captured on film as witnesses to all that human life has to offer. 

The upcoming photography auction at Swann Auction Galleries (NYC) is March 11, beginning at 10:30 a.m. ET. One can view the catalog of photographs online at Swann’s Auction Galleries.

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Cameron Woo is co-founder of The Bark magazine, and was its Publisher for over two decades. He was also the magazine’s Art Director.