I had a childhood pal. His name was Monty and he was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who barked at a tartan sunglasses case and only rolled over for grapes. He died a few days after my 21st birthday, and only a month or so after I’d moved out of home. When I first read about Susan Sabo’s instant-film photo project I Dreamt of Dogs, I was struck with guilt for having left him in his final days and felt a yearning to pat his floppy ears one more time; Sabo’s perfectly imperfect instant-film snaps evoke the fondest memories of the perfectly imperfect moments we share with our best friends.
I Dreamt of Dogs overlays poetry, short stories and essays on photos Sabo took with an SX-70 using film from The Impossible Project; both the writing and the dog models came from contributors found through her photography business’s Facebook page. Sabo aims to launch the project’s book with an accompanying exhibition of large-format prints, and, on top of it all, 80% of proceeds from sales of the book and prints will go (anonymously) to handpicked, small-and-needy animal rescues. I asked her a few questions about the project and her dog-dreams that inspired it.
Tell me a little bit about the beginnings of I Dreamt of Dogs.
Dogs are such a huge, huge part of my life, personally and professionally, so it just made total sense that I would put my energy into a dog project. When I injured my back last year I suddenly had to stop shooting weddings, and this left me much more time for personal projects. I was inspired to start by the instant film shots of my own dogs, Jack and T—the name of the project and its shape all came to me at once.
How did the project and the photography sessions unfold?
Unlike dreams and dreamy images, the project confines were very finite and specific. I had one roll of seamless paper and I used one set of hot lights from Lowe’s. There was no posing, really. I had the dogs sit on a mark, and just let them be. If they sat, great. If they jumped, or needed their owner to sit when them, that was fine too. There was really nothing the dogs could do that was ‘wrong’. It was all about capturing their energy at that moment in time. I shot 20 dogs altogether, including my own two, over a few weeks.
Why did you choose to use The Impossible Project film and your SX-70?
Instant film is so much like a dream; the results can vary widely, and with dogs, who tend to fidget and jump, the images are often blurred to the point where you can barely tell it’s a dog. I love that. It’s exactly like some of my dog dreams. This is absolutely the only medium in which I could do this project; like dogs, it is very much in the moment. There’s only one in the entire universe! They’re unique, they’re flawed, but they’re beautiful. No two are alike and that in itself makes them precious.
Why did you incorporate writing into this project? Did you write any pieces yourself?
I love to write, but I’m writing only one piece for this project. I was an author (under a different name, Susan M. Brooks) for years and years, so it’s very much a part of my life. But I wanted to add writing to the images because, ever since I was a child, I would write my dreams down. They’re often elaborate stories, and sometimes they’re horrible nightmares.
I can’t imagine the writing without the photos, or vice versa. They absolutely must be experienced together. I don’t care what format the writing is in (it’s still coming in), as long as it is an authentic piece of that author’s experience with dogs, good or bad. What I’m hoping to capture is a very innocent, maybe naive, image of the role of dogs in our lives. When the writing is done, I’ll pair pieces with the photos I think match them best.
Did you have a dog growing up?
My first dog was Hank, a Wire-Haired Terrier, whom we got when I was about 7 or 8. I doted on him constantly; let him sleep in my bed under the covers and even made him ‘nap’ with my pet rabbit. I adored him, but as I grew up and older I spent less time with him. After I left my parents’ house when I was 18, they gave Hank to someone else who lost him. It grieves me terribly to this day that my childhood buddy was just left behind by all of his. I wish so much I could do that over again. It’s so painful to think of.
Do you think you’ll ever stop capturing our best friends on film? I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you didn’t.
Never. I have quite a few issues to work out through my photography! I mentioned my childhood dog’s fate. Maybe that’s why this project has become so personal. Maybe I’m looking to work out my issues.
We are thrilled to introduce Dog-Friendly, a collection of city guides for dog-loving people, created together with our long-time contributor, photographer Winnie Au, and fellow enthusiasts, indie publisher Hoxton Mini Press. Available for purchase here.
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