I was picking up some books from the warehouse of RRB Photobooks last week when Rudi the owner brought out a copy of Showdogs: A Photographic Breed by Kate Lacey.
"You should do something on the worst buys ever. This is my worst buy ever. I bought 200 of these thinking I could shift them quickly over Christmas. I priced it at £8, but did I shift any? Not one."
And so he gave me a copy which I took home and started flicking through. And then I flicked some more. It's a book of dogs made by Kate Lacey. It is marketed as a dog lover's book and so doesn't have the kind of god-help-me photobook statement we are familiar with. It's a different kind of god-help-me statement. It's quite straightforward really. Showdogs is a book of America Kennel Club Breeds shot with pop-up backdrops and little doggy expressions. It's a reference book for dog fans.
I quite like most dogs so I went back and forth with the book, checking out the breeds and then I put it on the table. My wife (Katherine) and daughter (Isabel) came through and picked it up. Now I had Laura El-Tantawy's excellent new book In the Shadow of the Pyramids (get a copy if you can find one) on the table as well. They didn't pick that up. And they don't pick up any of the other 'great' books I put down on the table. They don't find them that interesting which we can put down to either:
a) they are not educated in photobookery (which is rather condescending)
b) they are right and photobooks really are not that interesting (which is rather insulting)
c) both of the above
But the dogs they spent time with. So this was their review.
K: "Most of the dogs are either ugly or look sad."
I: "How can you say that. Ah, look at that one. It's got the wind blowing through its hair. It has so much swag. It's so cute."
K: "There nothing cute in this book, that's for sure."
I: What about the really furry dogs. They're so cute."
K: "Toy dogs! What the hell are those?"
I: "They're little dogs. You have to admit that one's cute."
K: "She thinks it's cute, but I think it's hideous. They look so sad. The problem with these show dogs is they're trained to have the wrong kind of obedience..."
I'll stop it there because it went on like this in a back and forth for about twenty minutes. My daughter thought the baby alien that burst out of John Hurt's stomach was cute, so you'll understand how little discrimination was going on there. Everything was cute. Or the flip side, from my wife's side, everything was hideous.
I know Showdogs is an illustrative coffee table book in miniature, and it doesn't agonise about dogs or place them in some pretentious framework, but it was the most family fun I've had with a photobook since Fauna or Fruits. And it's got those candy coloured backdrops that used to be favoured by a certain breed of new formalist photographers a few years back.
So I wonder if the whole series wasn't reshot with the dogs looking kind of deadpan, and the wind machine turned off, and with the narrative broken up with random bone sculptures and pictures of cans of dog food (actually this is sounding really fucking good. Do it someone!) with a new statement saying how 'these images challenge the bla bla bla of canine bla bla bla-iness' and was published by someone ironic and cool, then wouldn't it just do great and be on our book of the year list.
Well, probably not, but what I'm saying is the shift between the work that we like and the work we denounce as cheesy or commercial (and this is cheesy and commercial) is not as great as we think. What would it take to move this from being a commercial book to being a 'photobook' book. Not that much I'm guessing. And it wouldn't necessarily make it any better. We could just pretend it's better.
Possibly we can get a bit precious about it all, and not enjoy things just for the sake of enjoying them - while still recognising that there is some work that is just unadulterated crap.
But Showdogs isn't. I don't think. It is what it is; a book of dogs, and I quite like it for that.
Buy the book here.
Or don't buy the book here.
I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...