My dead dogs have come back to me thanks to photography. I recently found a roll of film I shot circa 1998 but did not develop. Buster and Ding Ding, two mutts, were the exclusive subjects of the 36 frames of black and white Kodak Tri-X. The images turned out perfectly when the negatives were returned by the lab, as if I had clicked the shutter just before and not so much earlier. The photos are that incongruous blend of the old and the new, elevating them altogether out of time.
Long after they had passed away, I have dreamt about these pets. They would show up on their own accord to saunter through my subconscious. They were so important in my life and my wife’s as well. They constituted our little family. They also continue to appear before me in the versions that pass on the street, the uncanny incarnation with slightly different fur, a bit thinner or taller. My wife and I point out these avatars when we glimpse them, playing in the park with their owners.
Seeing these ghosts on the negatives made me realize yet again that I am not who I believed I was. Perhaps influenced by popular culture, with its false ideals, I envisioned myself as not nostalgic. I would not succumb to sentimentality, akin to the most dim-witted of the replicants in Bladerunner, who had to return to an apartment under surveillance to retrieve his precious photos. I was more of a film noir tough guy, at least in that fantasy version of my mundane life. That meant my photography was not like my parents’. I was not compelled to pose children to document moments for posterity.
Yet I cannot describe the emotions summoned by these snapshots of Buster and Ding Ding. I do not feel like crying over much. To look at our animal companions who were with us for 15 and 16 years, respectively, brought out in me every cliche about the meaning of life. I would weep if I knew I could stop.
Photography has preserved these two souls for me. They are passive. Yet their gaze opens my memories. The pictures are prompts.
The very act of pointing the camera at them was integral to our early relationship. I was taking a photo class in the evening at a local art school with an excellent reputation, just for fun. It was what I did after work, the type of recreation that we need after a day of stress.
As a subject, I initially selected Ding Ding. She was a stray I had adopted. She was named after a beach, Ken Ding, in Taiwan, where I had visited, discovering her as a puppy, scavenging. I brought her to the vet. She had a doggie passport for the transpacific flight to her new home. She grew long legs, giving her an elegant shape like a miniature deer. She eventually had heart problems.
Then I added Buster to the pack. He had been abandoned, probably because he had a digestive ailment that made him difficult to house train. That was a serious decision, to settle down with two dogs. Soon thereafter the woman I was dating and I agreed we would become a more permanent couple, completing a household. Buster was a big boy, a blend of German shepherd, mastiff, boxer, and other aggressive breeds, weighing in at about the same as his human mother. He couldn’t walk at the end.
I am not sure where the shoebox of all the negatives in plastic sheets from that period is stored, after several moves. But I know that if I were to open the box, I would see strip after strip after strip of Buster and Ding Ding and my wife, and probably more of Buster and Ding Ding than my wife. They were more patient about posing, since they didn’t realize they were doing so. This particular roll somehow never made it to the one hour processing still readily available back then. It was just there in the closet on a shelf.
The photos are not special in any objective sense. The compositions are whatever I managed. The exposure and the focus are no better and no worse than could be expected of the technology of the era, which is to say they are fine. They were produced with a Sigma SLR, a choice I made to be frugal and maybe a bit quirky, when the independent lens manufacturer was already respected but not quite as prestigious as now. The lens was a 24-70mm kit zoom. The whole set up cost maybe $275.
These photos are personal. Thus to me they are profound. They are a bit of the past. To discover them after twenty years, a generation, is a joy unexpected and wondrous. It is not only that the dogs are deceased. It also is that my wife and I are not the same individuals we were then; we are not better, and I hope not worse, and I cannot quite explain the details of how we have changed. The world has all that much more history, and we are self-conscious at this moment that we are passing through history — it is an anxious era, coping with disruption. Photos reassure with stability.
The power of photography comes from what it can do inside us. I have accepted that my dogs are no longer here, in their moral innocence and emotional purity, That is the cycle of nature. I am grateful for these reminders of how they graced our lives.