Arts: Paws for thought

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The Independent Culture
ELIOTT ERWITT, photographer, film-maker and Magnum elder statesmen, has been taking pictures of dogs for a half a century. He adds them to his collection (roughly 100 of which are on display at the Barbican), as he travels the world, which he does obsessively because, he says, it's easier for him to fly to Europe from his native New York than to go downtown: "To go downtown you have to change buses."

Erwitt didn't have in mind a grand project to describe the world of the dog, at least not initially. He's always been an acute observer of the human environment, its contingencies and its drama, and a stylist whose work balances Henri Cartier-Bresson's classicism and Lee Friedlander's fractured urban streetscapes.

Dogs starred in his images when an exotic setting made them look good (as otherness can make anything look good) or the composition appeared to demand them: to act as an arresting central image, suggest a witty symmetry or, by their gaze, to suggest a route for the eye to wander through the image.

But Erwitt wants to go deeper: with hindsight, he justifies his choices as a search for pictures of dogs that "transcend their easy obvious charm and ... have allegorical connotations to us humans and to our human condition".

The thesis runs something like this. Dogs. They're a bit like us, aren't they? They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some of them are inquisitive, while some are shy. Some are loyal, others wilfully independent. It's true that our relationship with dogs is a primal one: anthropologists have even suggested that it wasn't we who domesticated wolves, lured them to our hearths as hunters, guards and companions, but they that domesticated us. So we can allow them their aloofness in the midst of the chaos that Erwitt captures with so much humour and precision.

But images that rely for their impact on conveying dogs as child-like, wise, cheeky or whatever don't make for good art. A show poodle that looks like Zsa Zsa Gabor does. The best of Erwitt's photographs are free of contrived mythical resonance: they're good photos that happen to be of dogs. Of dogs being dogs, rather than metaphors. Take New York, 1972: a man appears to be consoling a peroxide-haired, fur-coated lover in the park. It's only after a second glance that we realise that his arm is round his dog: wit and composition in harmony. Or take the iconic (and much copied) pair of photographs of which New York, 1946 is illustrated here: the absurd sight of a miniature breed (it can't really be a dog, can it?) in a knitted all-in-one, ankle-high to its owner, eyes bulging. Or a surreal three-part tableau in which a woman lays a wreath by a grave, while a dog steals the show with its walk-on/walk-off part.

Forget the whimsy. It's the funny ones that stand the test.

Mark Wilson

Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) until 15 August