Though Dougie Wallace found the pictures for his latest book in several cities, Well Heeled (Dewi Lewis Publishing December 2017) takes us back to much the same territory that he patrolled in Harrodsburg (Dewi Lewis Publishing February 2017), and both books were shot in tandem. So again, the pages are filled with sparkling jewellery, stylish clothes, elegant shoes, shining groomed tresses, fashionable sunglasses (yes, truly), but now it’s the dogs. This time Wallace does not gild his images with the unctuous golden light of money; there is a brighter energy as he gives us a sense of strong though wordless personalities. He holds his flash camera low – level with his subjects, the dogs – and provokes their curiosity, anger, complicity, and maybe even embarrassment,
Often the dogs seem startled by the flash firing; some snarl and would clearly love to shout, ‘Chop off his head!’ and call for their lawyers, just as some of their owners have done. Wallace fills the frame with movement and vitality; the close view point, the animals’ reactions, sometimes a movement blur, and frequently odd perspective tilts as the camera snatches the moment – all these combine to create a sense of very active portraits. This is the great gift the camera-flash brings: freezing chance moments to find order in randomness.
These are energised and engaging images. Though his wide angle lens is often only a few inches from canine noses, Wallace also captures fragments of sky and streets, pavements and parks behind the shining manicured claws and bared teeth of the owners, as well as of their dogs. These glimpses of a world beyond are glimpses of lost freedoms poignant to the observer, and perhaps also for the canine “children,” constrained by leads and hair ribbons.
However, Well Heeled is not about dog glamour but about dog owners. Beneath the humorous shock, Wallace offers a serious criticism of the owners, whose accessorised pets reflect their own narcissistic preening. The dogs become part of their self-presentation, like bracelets or luxury phones. So, two small dogs in striped vests sit in the arms of an owner also wearing stripes; a dog’s gleaming eyes echo the eye of the lion printed on the owner’s leggings. And yes, Wallace shows enough nail enamel, tanned limbs, and glittering jewellery sported by humans as well as their pets that we cannot doubt the vanity.
Wallace shows dogs of all colours, sizes, varieties, staring at the reader through his incisive lens. Do we walk into a trap, with an anthropomorphic response? When we think we see cute friendliness, or indignation or other possible dog reactions, are we projecting our own reading? The fancy clothing and gaudy ornaments bridge the gap between animal and human in a way that belittles the natural animals by disguising their otherness; the selfhood of dogs vanishes in a fog of sentimentality. We know that Well Heeled not only offers a critique of the owners, but is there also an uncomfortable reproach to the viewer?
Well Heeled is a world away from the gentle humour of Elliott Erwitt’s Dog Dogs; though Wallace’s photographic agenda includes humour, his vision is far darker than Erwitt’s. In interviews, Wallace has disclaimed any political stance. Yet, in Well Heeled, he has a satirical edge, a surging Hogarthian energy. I think that, at heart, Wallace is a moralist, with a whiff of brimstone emanating from these pages, following the example of William Blake’s passionate anger:
“A robin red-breast in a cage/ Puts all of heaven in a rage.”
– Auguries of Innocence William Blake
Reviewed for Photomonitor by Patricia Baker-Cassidy
Images below © Dougie Wallace