Art&Culture

Beyond perfection

Photographer Jo Longhurst’s work takes us beyond conventional notions of perfection, status and ownership.

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Beyond perfection

In this in-depth conversation with photographer Jo Longhurst, we talk about what perfection means, how being pulled in multiple directions allowed her to find new rewarding ground and the elusive leveled playing field.

You’ve spoken about your work focusing on ‘the construction of the human identity through the shaping of the figure of the dog’. Can you explain how has this idea has evolved in its expression over time and in different projects.
The Refusal was made over 6 – 7 years. Initially I was interested in the relationship between man and dog and what this might say about us as humans. I started out making clinical photographic studies to try to understand the historical conventions of dog breeding, and how a dog’s form and character evolved as its working relationship to us changed. As my project developed I got sidetracked into exploring more emotional aspects of the relationship between human and dog. Although encouraged to choose between these two very different directions, I felt the real work was happening somewhere in the gap between the two.

What inspired your interest in documenting ‘perfection’?
It’s hard to know. It crept up on me. As I got to know some of the breeders and their dogs, I became fascinated by their obsessive quest to breed a ‘perfect dog’. I wondered how such an elusive creature might be recognized. I quickly learned that Whippet perfection is described in detail in the Kennel Club of Great Britain’s ‘Breed Standard’, a benchmark against which all show dogs are judged. I’m now working with elite gymnasts. There’s definitely something about performing and being judged within strict criteria that interests me.

Why dogs? And why the Whippet of all breeds?  
At the time I was interested in human Eugenics and the burgeoning area of Genomics, wondering where these cutting edge scientific developments might lead us. Discussions around this highly emotive area are often highjacked by heated debate on issues such as right to life and the ethics of experimentation. I (mistakenly) thought by photographing dogs in Pedigree programmes – where Eugenic breeding practices have been overtly practiced and discussed for centuries – I could circumvent some of these contentious issues, which might distract the viewer from engaging with what really interested me.

I tend to work with subjects I have some emotional knowledge of. I had just acquired two Whippet puppies, and my visits to the Newmarket horse studs where they were bred had opened my eyes to the strange, but compelling world of the show dog.

We’ve seen studies of the relationship between dog and owner before and witnessed the ways in which dogs communicate something about their owner. They become a symbol of status, another way to project personal image. In extreme cases dog and owner even end up looking alike. But when you remove the owner from the subject of the photograph (specifically speaking to The Refusal Part I and Twelve dogs Twelve Bitches), the question revolves around a broader social idea…
I made a real effort to picture the dogs as individuals in their own right, not as accessories or symbols of something human. But it’s pretty hard to do – and I don’t know how successful I was in this respect. Our lives are so completely intertwined, and of course a photograph is a human cultural artefact. There is an inherent contradiction in attempting to simply photograph a dog ‘as a dog’: dogs don’t care about photographs. So the resulting works somehow reflect more about us, and the social structures we are ourselves forced to negotiate. The works you mention are made up of photographs of champion show dogs from the best kennels in England. Despite the proscriptive description in the Breed Standard, the variety and difference in features displayed by these prize specimens betrays the subjective nature of human relations.

The Refusal (Part 1) is my favourite work. It was taken at one of the very first photoshoots in 2001. The white bitch very deliberately stepped out of line, a defiant if futile move. This small act of resistance stuck in my mind and the image stayed with me. I finally produced it, larger than life and encased in a deep white specimen box frame. It was the final work I made for the project, and became the signature work of the show (The Refusal, Museum Folkwang, Essen, 2008).

Its hard to know how to feel about the subject in these works – its not often we observe the animal as part of such a scientific, emotionally disconnected aesthetic. And at the same time, in projects like I Know what Youre Thinking and Terence, Vincent, Saffi, Iris, Shaun & Monique, the Whippets inherent trepidatious expression humanises the dogs in a unique way.
I found the clinical photographs disturbing. This side profile, with no exchange of look between human and animal is how ‘breed’ is traditionally pictured. I emphasised the form of the dog with background lighting to bring out the features important to a judge at a dog show and carefully cropped and printed them to a standard akin with the care a breeder might take to present their dog in the show ring. They are definitely objects of desire – to be looked at but not engaged with. Breed, another clinical work, takes this a step further. The images are glossy, cold and clinical, mounted and displayed on aluminium discs to evoke medical experimentation, but the dogs themselves are shown in a more vulnerable manner.

The portraits you mention were made as a response to the clinical images, shot with the same show dogs. I didn’t want to humanize them – there are plenty of images out there already that do that, and which make me quite uncomfortable – but I did want to present them in a light where we might recognize what we share, bringing out the sentient quality of the individual dogs. The portraits are printed large, 30” x 40“, and hung with the Whippet eyeline at an equivalent human height so their unfathomable canine gaze meets yours as you enter the room.

In complete contrast to these works, Untitled I, II, II and Portrait of a Dog explores some of the most intimate moments between man and dog, where the human subject is relegated to his most vulnerable state. It seems that here, the playing field between man and dog is leveled somewhat, there is no sense of ownership, no dominance of one over the other?
I’m glad you read them like that. It’s the kind of response I had hoped to achieve, but these works in particular have had mixed reactions. Our relationships with our dogs are very intimate – and often more enduring than our human relationships. But many people have read some kind of debauched sexual relationship into the fact that the male figure is naked (see Kunstforum International review of The Refusal here). I was merely trying to picture both man and dog in their natural habitat (cultured domestication), drawing attention to our shared characteristics as well as our animal differences.

You’ve obviously worked with many show dogs and their owners. In witnessing relationships where the dog serves a specific purpose other than pure companionship – have you made any personal observations? When you have this kind of ‘show dog’ relationship with your animal, do you think it drowns out the emotional connection somewhat?  
No, if anything I think it enhances it. Certainly in England (the only experience I have had) the breeders I met all had a great relationship with their dogs. Dog showing is a hobby which requires patience, dedication, hard work, long hours, and above all a love and understanding of the dogs themselves. It would not be my choice of how to spend every weekend, but through participating in shows, the dogs are socialized with other dogs, and they appear to develop close bonds with the breeders who train and handle them in the show ring. There is a strange mix of love, control and discipline required of both dog and breeder.

Can you talk a bit about your intention in Sighthound? It seems to come from a substantially different angle – its the only work which explores the dogs in a more wild and natural state.  
These are my own pet dogs, photographed on the edge of Epping Forest where I used to run them every day. The Refusal is a project about looking and being looked at. In Sighthound I was interested in the dogs’ experience. Whippets have excellent vision, but a very different attitude to looking to us. They are not interested in image or aesthetics. They’re far more concerned with the here and now, in inhabiting the physical body. Sighthound is an installation work. The viewer has to crouch down to peer into pairs of backlit 3D viewers. In some images the dogs are barely visible and the viewer is required to adopt the dog’s posture and attitude (of hunting) in order to view the work.

Did you discover anything new about your dogs/you/your relationship when photographing them?
My two dogs were the inspiration for the project. They both fell short of Whippet perfection (Terence has only one testicle, Vincent has a roach back and is painfully thin – even for a Whippet) but provided me with an understanding of the passion the breeders display for their dogs. My dogs ended up in many of the final works: a photograph of Terence is slipped into Twelve Dogs, Twelve Bitches, my ringer amongst all the champion dogs. He’s the one not standing correctly… Vincent, appears in Vincent originally made for the Hiscox show Weeds. They also both appear in the circular works, At home and It’s all in my mind as well as the Untitled portraits with man and dog discussed above.

I learned that they love having their photograph taken and are far more patient and obedient in front of a camera and lights than they are normally. They engage totally and seem to intuitively understand the process, often posing unasked when the lens is cocked (see Portrait of a Dog). William Wegman once told me that he had the same experience when using the large format Polaroid. He said his dogs would become totally engrossed and just knew when to look to camera.


Photography by Jo Longhurst
Visit Jo Longhurst’s website here

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