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If you haven't been to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach in awhile (mea culpa), brace yourself. The museum, which underwent a 77,500-square-foot expansion and renovation almost a decade ago, is expanding yet again -- by 35,000 more square feet, increasing exhibition space by 75 percent.
That's an exciting development, one that will further enhance the Norton's reputation as a first-class museum. But the construction also entails logistical challenges. In other words, you probably should call before your visit for directions where to park and how to get to the entrance. For that matter, you also might need help navigating the museum's main exhibition, which occupies three galleries. The first two are adjacent to each other, but they're separated from the third by two unrelated galleries.
The show, however, is well worth any additional effort. It's called "A Thousand Hounds: A Walk with the Dogs Through the History of Photography," and like its title, the exhibition is a combination of the whimsical and the serious, spanning the long history of the medium from its misty beginnings.
As someone who's primarily a cat person, I approached the show with a bit of skepticism, fearing that curators Ray Merritt and Miles Barth might have whipped themselves into an analytical frenzy, endlessly deconstructing and theorizing about dogs in photography. Not to worry. Merritt and Barth strike just the right balance, respecting man's best friends while implicitly acknowledging their often comical aspects. (The men are from the Cygnet Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors art-related projects to increase both art appreciation and animal welfare awareness.)
The exhibition is organized more or less chronologically, although a few works in the main lobby serve as teasers. Dog Totem (2001) is one of the show's two sculptures, a Jenny Lynn piece that consists of five stacked cubes with various black-and-white views of dogs and dog-related items, including a paw print, an X-ray, a stone sculpture, a skeleton, and a drawing of the constellation Canis Major, featuring the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, commonly known as the Dog Star. The sculpture is a good indication of the variety to come.
Two other lobby pieces stand out: Francesco Scavullo's Dracula (2002), a portrait of a simultaneously dignified and ridiculous black poodle, its fur traditionally trimmed, standing at full attention; and Deborah Samuel's Kirby (2000), which takes us so close to the dog's nose and panting tongue (accented by a drop of saliva at the tip) that the image approaches abstraction.
The lobby also includes a quotation from Mexico's legendary Manuel Alvarez Bravo that explains the show's title: "If all I were to do in my life was to photograph a thousand hounds, I would die a happy man." Other such quotes are interspersed throughout the show, stenciled onto the walls; they're illuminating without being heavy-handed.
The foyer leading to the first two galleries features an 1887 portrait of half a dozen British dogs, along with more quotes. They range from the wry (Alphonse Tousserel's "In the beginning God created man, but seeing him so feeble, He gave him the dog.") to the bleakly philosophical (Maurice Maeterlinck's "We are alone, absolutely alone, on this chance planet; and amid all the forms of life that surround us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us.").
Finally, the foyer features two cases displaying images of dogs (often paired with people) from the earliest days of photography: primitive daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes from the mid- to late 1800s and early 1900s, some lovingly mounted in ornate frames. There's a poignance to many of these photographs that comes from their age -- they're souvenirs from a distant, alien past, traces of beings, both human and canine, that have long ceased to exist.
The mood lifts considerably in the first two galleries, which between them showcase nearly 100 photographs, most in black and white. They're meticulously categorized by various forms of the medium -- collotype, silver gelatin print, chromogenic color print, etc. -- but, for simplicity's sake, I'll avoid such specificity.
Early on, there's a sample of one of Eadweard Muybridge's revolutionary multiple-shot studies of creatures in motion, in this case Dog Aroused by a Torpedo Mastiff-Smith (1885). Nearby is the strikingly surreal Give a Dog a Ride (1931), by an anonymous photographer, in which a man nonchalantly rides a bicycle with a medium-size dog draped over his head.
There are lots of straightforward portraits of dogs in their seemingly infinite variety (and varieties of behavior), and there are photos in which dogs are incidental to humans. Alfred Eisenstaedt uses a dog to round out his An American Block (1943), a shot of three Ohio boys sitting on a small-town curb reading comics. The title critter in Brassai's The Little White Dog, Montmartre (1932) is really just a tiny punctuation mark to a maze of rich textures.
Several shots include dogs as celebrity accessories, as in Henri Cartier-Bresson's William Faulkner (1947), in the first gallery, and the second gallery's James Dean, Fairmount, Indiana(1955), by Dennis Stock; Brookhaven, Long Island (1957), an Eve Arnold picture of Marilyn Monroe; and Slim Aarons' tabloid-ready Joan Collins Relaxes with Her Pink Poodle.The third gallery has Ellen Graham's Andy Warhol, The Factory, with Stuffed Dog Belonging to Cecil B. DeMille (1974).
A virtual who's who of great photographers is represented throughout the show, confirming that dogs have exerted a hold of some sort on almost every great photographer. In the first two galleries we get Weegee, Paul Strand, William Henry Fox Talbot, Edward Steichen, August Sander, Man Ray, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, André Kertész, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, and Larry Clark. And, of course, there's the famous William Wegman and his soulful-looking Weimaraners, including Untitled (How They Are Towards Newspapers) (1973), a witty self-portrait of the photographer reading one section of a newspaper while another section lies crumpled and shredded on the floor beside a dog.
Wegman also turns up in the third gallery, which emphasizes more recent works by such photographers as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, Duane Michals, Joel-Peter Witkin, Mary Ellen Mark, Helmut Newton, and Annie Leibovitz. (Newton contributes a casual 1988 shot, Timothy Leary, Barbara Leary and Beau, while Leibovitz offers the 1998 portrait William Wegman Holding Fay Ray.)
But some of the most powerful shots in the show were taken by photographers who remain anonymous. In Guard Dog (1940), a bulldog wearing a helmet sits under a "BEWARE THE DOG" sign alongside a stack of sandbags; the image is comical but also a reminder of the dog's loyalty in wartime. A World War I photo from around 1917 shows a dog leaping over a soldier in a foxhole. And, in a 1915 picture, we see a Russian army battalion crowded onto a hillside, its faithful mascot resting at the feet of one of the soldiers.
The main body of the exhibition builds up to several documentary-style photos in the second gallery that demonstrate how dogs are ever-present in our lives, even in times of great turmoil. A large, anonymous print called German Army Retreat from Leningrad(1944) features a dog in front center, facing us, as the soldiers recede into the blurry, snowy landscape.
Charles Moore's Birmingham, Alabama(1963) shows cops with attack dogs going after a black man during a protest. Fazal Sheikh's Afghanistan (1996) captures the desolation of that country long before the U.S. invasion by populating an otherwise empty space with a dog and a single man far in the background. David Burnett's Vietnam (1994) places a dog among the gravestones of soldiers.
Closer to us in time and space, the exhibition also presents a small selection of shots of dogs participating in the rescue efforts after the September 11 attacks (and one of a dog dwarfed by the World Trade Center towers before they fell). These emotionally charged images, as well as the ones in the rest of the show, reaffirm another of the posted quotes, this one from the late animal-rights activist Roger Caras: "Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole."