Animal Studies: Seeing Ourselves in the Faces of Dogs

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Martin Usborne
"Bones." To see more images from The Silence of Dogs in Cars, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

One thing that makes living with dogs both rewarding and poignant is their emotional honesty. Dogs reveal their joy, excitement, yearning and curiosity in their faces with an openness that more self-consciously guarded humans can envy. When photographer Martin Usborne looks into the moist eyes of a dog, he sees a reflection of our own animal natures, and his own vulnerability. “Seeing the lonely face of dogs is like looking inside myself and seeing the lonely face there,” he says.

The images in The Silence of Dogs in Cars, Usborne’s new book to be published this fall by Kehrer Verlag, show dogs alone in cars at night. He set up the cinematic and carefully composed images using dogs he met while walking Moose, his miniature schnauzer, or through friends and social networks. But dogs are not the real subjects of the book, he says. In fact, the series is largely autobiographical.

Usborne can remember an episode in his childhood when he was left in the family car in the parking lot of a supermarket, and he’s explored the abandonment and powerlessness he felt in those minutes in his therapy and in his off-and-on struggles with depression.

It was around that time in his childhood that he became fascinated with animals, particularly dogs, “who also seemed vulnerable and somehow mute,” he says. For Usborne, a London-based editorial and fine-art photographer who has exhibited at Frank Pictures Gallery in Santa Monica, California, the Association of Photographers Gallery in London and elsewhere, photographing dogs in cars was a way to explore isolation and other difficult feelings. “It’s a sort of metaphor for how we silence animals in our lives: they could be birds in cages or animals in a zoo.”

His images evoke a variety of emotions in viewers, including delight and amusement. “I’m quite happy if people find it funny,” says Usborne. When he began work on the project, he recalls, “I thought it would be unremittingly sad, like opening a box of crayons that were all dark colors. But it was quite colorful.” Sometimes he would pick a dog and a car and set up a shot in an intentionally comical way. “I wanted to express lots of emotion,” he explains “Some [photos] are angry, some are sad, some are more reflective.”

The project began five years ago as an image in Usborne’s mind of a dog peering out of a car window. “I always measure how good an idea is by how long it stays in your head. It wouldn’t go away so I knew it had currency.” At first, he went looking for dogs in cars, but lurking around parking lots proved unproductive. Instead, he decided to cast dogs with expressive faces, and to pick cars to match.

Usborne lights his photographs using simple, hand-held LED lights. The lights are not powerful, but using a Canon 5D Mark II allowed Usborne to shoot high ISOs. Each photo, he says, takes a few hours to complete.

He discovered that people are more willing to lend their dogs for a photo shoot than their cars. He would leave his card on the windshields of cars he liked, and also contacted an auto club which let him borrow its collection.

Some of the images have been published in The Independent, and on the BBC and TIME magazine Web sites. Last year, Usborne decided to publish the work as a book. He chose 20 images and made a book dummy using Blurb, the self-publishing platform, and brought the layout to the Rencontres d’Arles festival. The meetings he had set up yielded little, but one day while standing in a queue (“I had decided to hold the dummy under my arm,” he says) he “bumped into someone who knew someone.” That led to a meeting with Barbara Karpf of Kehrer Verlag, who offered him a contract a short time later.

To cover the book’s production costs, Usborne launched a Kickstarter project this spring. After he posted a video and text explaining the genesis of the project and the need to raise funds for printing, Usborne’s assistant worked almost full-time managing the campaign and sending information to “influencers,” including publications and blogs. “A lot of support came through Facebook and viral networks,” Usborne says. “It was heartwarming to see how much support it got. I got personal notes” from people sharing their reactions to the project and his subjects. He also saw an increased interest in his print sales. He had set a goal of raising $15,000; he exceeded that by over 100 percent. The extra money will allow him to add to the book’s production value, with an embossed cover and higher quality paper.

As Usborne talks about how his dog portraits have allowed him to explore difficult emotions, it’s easy to imagine the work has been a kind of therapy as well as a creative exploration. “The thing about depression is that it represents emotions we want to lock away, but delving into that dark space can be quite creative,” he says.

Usborne is currently at work on more books. He has one in the works about a long-time resident of Hoxton, the East London neighborhood. He has just launched Hoxton Mini Press, his own publishing imprint, with plans to release a limited-edition book every one to two years. Currently he’s in the midst of a yearlong project to help animals and work with animal support charities. He’s begun a blog about the project, which he hopes will someday be the basis for a book.

All these additional projects should help him keep from being pigeonholed as “the dog photographer.” He says of his dog portraits, “There is a bit of thinking that you can’t be serious if you work with animals, but I don’t care that much because I realized if you want to do something good, you have to do it from the heart. If you genuinely do it from a good place, people get it. I think people get that it’s not just a book about dogs.”

Related Article:

Martin Usborne Photo Gallery

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