Few recent photographs speak as directly or eloquently about the relationship between civilization and nature as this relatively unknown black-and-white image from American photographer John Divola’s series, “Dogs chasing my car in the desert.”
A black canine races forward across the foreground in a shadowy blur, streaks created by grass or other objects creating near-horizontal lines along the animal’s powerful body, creating a sense of speed, and perhaps, inevitability. The dog’s front and rear legs are extended, his ears cocked slightly back. A wide-opened, ash-white desert stretches off into the distance, ending at a mountainous horizon.
Divola worked on the series in 1996, training his lens on a phenomenon that nearly everyone in the Western World has witnessed by now — dogs on the defensive, boastfully chasing multi-ton machines down highways and backroads, a no-win expression of territorialism. We all know the story. Most dogs fall back after a short chase, tiring out, realizing they can’t keep up with the metal beast that has strayed into the wilderness, or believing they have won some David-and-Goliath battle against a strange, threatening, but ultimately turn-and-run foe. Other dogs get hit and die — an inevitable tragedy given the unstoppable will of nature and civilization’s obsession with conquering the earth.
The actual taking of a great photograph is seldom a difficult business.
“The process was simple; when I saw a dog coming toward the car I would pre-focus the camera and set the exposure. With one hand on the steering wheel, I would hold the camera out the window and expose anywhere from a few frames to a complete roll of film,” Divola wrote in a 2004 statement on the project.
But despite technical ease, the finished photograph is not a simple one, as Divola concedes.
“It could be viewed as a visceral and kinetic dance,” the 2004 statement continues. “Here we have two vectors and velocities, that of a dog and that of a car and, seeing that a camera will never capture reality and that a dog will never catch a car, evidence of devotion to a hopeless enterprise.”
The apparent simplicity of the photograph, with little more than a dusty, desert backdrop, a fast dog, and some blurry shrubs shot by a driver on grainy film, conceals its conceptual depth, and its superb, and plain, compositional execution, which invites numerous but non-contradictory interpretations. While the metaphor the photograph contains is crystal clear, the message is not obvious at first glance, given the compositional weight of the black dog on a near-white background. Nonetheless, Divola takes a direct approach to his subject in this photograph and others in the series. It’s a tack contemporary photographers would be wise to follow given the competition they face from racier, faster, more colorful media. For contemporary photography to get any attention in our times, it must be received like a kidney punch, which is what Divola manages, revealing a profound drama with the smallest number of possible players and few props.
“The potential energy enclosed in the form of his near-silhouette body leaves little doubt the animal believes — and justifiably so — that he is the master of all that lives, breathes or dares to move in his semi-domesticated, semi-civilized kingdom.”
Of course, Divola is not the first photographer to tackle civilization versus nature. American photographer Robert Adams did much the same thing, photographing landscapes impacted by human activity. Amy Stein recently constructed and photographed faked scenes of animals invading suburban yards, overturning trash cans and threatening children. Edward Burtynsky’s large format landscapes of junkyards full of tires and cell phones, giant dam construction projects and other scenes of industrial drama all seek to communicate something about the great conflict involving humanity encroaching upon nature.
With the exception of Adams, a living legend, few photographers have done what Divola has with this photograph, literally cutting to the chase, and cutting everything but the chase.
In this photograph, the dog itself appears large and menacing. The potential energy enclosed in the form of his near-silhouette body leaves little doubt the animal believes — and justifiably so — that he is the master of all that lives, breathes or dares to move in his semi-domesticated, semi-civilized kingdom. Yet the point of view Divola offers us of the beast — charging headlong into a battle it cannot understand — comes from slightly above, hinting at the animals true, inferior position in the war between the wild and the wilfully civilized.
The car and the driver, both necessary parts of the drama, are invisible to the viewer. Or more accurately, they are us. Our point of view is that of the person at the wheel, protected from tooth and claw within a steel automobile body powered by a multi-cylinder internal combustion engine. Whether we laugh at the foolish animal, or rear back from the groundless fear it inspires, is our choice. It makes no difference. Divola has given us the first paragraph and thus, suggested a much larger story. There is a minimalism here that complies with Russian playwrite Anton Chekhov’s advice to his peers: don’t put a musket above the fireplace in the first act unless it’s going to be fired before the curtain falls.
Formally, this photograph evokes a far earlier artist also drawn to the symbolic implications of the competition between man and beast. In 1825, while exiled in Bourdeaux, France, Spanish painter Francisco Goya made a series of prints of bulls and bullfighters that sought to capture the same, raw struggle. It is appropriate that the dog in Divola’s photograph, so potent and masculine (though we don’t know the gender of the animal), recalls any of Goya’s famed Bulls of Bourdeaux lithographs — prints of larger, shadowy, intimidating animals, frozen in time by the artist as they are forced into an unwinnable battle.
See John Sevigny’s series “Nomads” on Guernica, where one hundred years after Lewis W. Hine started work on his Ellis Island portraits, Sevigny seeks to document Latin American immigrants, hoping to give faces to the catch-all masses lambasted by Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, and others who equate immigration with crime.
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.
Copyright 2009 John Sevigny