Dog Days in a Distant America

In Tracking Time, photographer Camilo José Vergara‘s 40-year project that documents the evolution of poor and segregated communities in America, the imagery is most often focused on buildings. In a short film put together by the Getty Museum, Vergara explained his approach by saying he “realized that the buildings had the imprint not just of the people who live in the neighborhood, but also of time….I somehow argue that they can be compared to national parks, to New England villages, to the Missions in California in that they define what this country’s all about.”

That doesn’t mean Vergara avoided photographing people altogether, but that they were ancillary to his cause. The photograph included above, however, is a wonderful example of how people still made their way into his work. And in particular it captures one of the everyday oddities that children often ran across as part of neighborhood life. Dogs in heat became a public show for this raucous group of boys on the day that Vergara ran across them in the early 1970s — their hysteria in the moment telegraphed in laughter and wide smiles. Just as Vergara says that buildings show the imprint of time, so too do people.

Sure, watching dogs have sex is crude. But what teenage boy doesn’t revel in crude entertainment, even if only for a short period of time in their life. When I saw these boys and the evident happiness in their discovery, it made me wonder if a scene like this could be captured today given how fragmented and often isolated community life has become. And moreover, how emotionally disconnected we’ve become as a result of being more electronically connected (e.g., smartphones as a substitute for loneliness).

The friction between digital and analog life is a concern that dominates my thinking lately, that while the world changes for the better as a result of technology — e.g., medical advances, scientific discoveries, etc. — we also lose the shared moments and personal interactions that the digital world distracts us from. For example, a modern version of Vergara’s photograph might very well show the same group of neighborhood boys. But instead of living in the moment, each of the boys’ outstretched arms would probably be clutching a smartphone to capture a shareable image of the dogs in heat, their fornication punctuated with a hashtag.

(Photograph: Camilo José Vergara. Caption: Old New York, 1970-1973.)