“If the civil war crippled the South then air conditioning finished it off.”
Nell Dickerson’s opening sentence to Porch Dogs might not have the studied subtlety of Margaret Mitchell’s opener to Gone with the Wind but its pithy wit announces a wry and original take on the history of the South. A casual browser might wonder whether the world needs another book of photographs of cute dogs, but in a strange way this book is not about dogs.
Ms. Dickerson has set out to chronicle a lost way of life in the southern United States, and the book is an elegy for warm summers spent entertaining on the porch.
“There was a time when every significant life event in the South occurred on the porch. People visited with each other, courted, conducted important business, ate summertime meals, cleaned guns and boots, shelled butter beans, watched fireflies, and listened to crickets while gazing at the star-filled sky.”
Ms. Dickerson’s brief introduction to her photographs recalls her visits to her grandparents’ house in the Mississippi Delta where she fell asleep on the upstairs porch listening to the cicadas and tree frogs.
She mourns the loss of this special place in the life of the South and her book records those porches that are now deserted except for their sentinel dogs.
The photographs record a variety of dogs, large and small, ugly and winsome but all united in their common purpose of being the gatekeeper to the houses they inhabit. Some shots evoke a bygone life, with pictures like the child and dog sitting in the pony cart. Others are more whimsical: a small white dog peeking his head above the side of a child's bath. The porches range from the palatial to the decrepit and evoke, through their distinctive architecture, a way of life that has disappeared.
There is the feel of an Edward Hopper painting about some of the photographs. Ms. Dickerson has captured the lonely guardians looking mournfully at the camera in front of abandoned buildings and it is almost as if the dogs are aware that they are the last of a dying breed.
Other photographs evoke more surreal art; for example, a dog in the window of an art gallery has an air of disconcerting artificiality to it. It is almost as if the dog on the leather couch is a life-sized sculpture.
Some of the photographs have an overly posed feel to them, and ironically some of the best photographs are those few where Ms. Dickerson has included human subjects. The opening shot of a man sitting on a porch beside an antique sleigh with a turnkey hanging over his knee is both timeless and utterly memorable.
The book has found an original and compelling subject, but the captions tend to puncture the atmosphere created by the photographs. The images speak for themselves with a variety of voices. The humor and the pathos lie in the pictures themselves. No other words are necessary.
Where Ms. Dickerson excels is in her deft manipulation of the props she finds on and around the porches. She captures comfortable well-worn cane chairs, antique guns, ornate watering cans, even underwear.
The combined effect is one of both humor and sadness. These photographs are rooted in a place that is so obviously the southern United States, and they speak of a past grandeur and the homely comfort of open air living on the porch.
We can just about imagine Scarlett running up onto the porch and sweeping one of these dogs into her arms before sinking into a generously cushioned chair to drink iced tea and gossip.