Welcome to my new, bi-weekly photo “dog blog” celebrating canines and cameras. Here I plan to write about dogs, photography, and life. Specifically, I hope over time that this column accomplishes three things:
- Shares ideas about way to photograph your pet
- Documents the growth of our new Labrador retriever puppy from the first week at home onward, as well as showcasing other dogs
- Reflects on how photography of our “best friends” can teach us about life, particularly examining how dogs influence our lives and, recursively, how we affect theirs.
This first installment is full of joy and replete with sadness. While my family and I are elated with the arrival of our new ‘fox red’ yellow Labrador retriever, Rowan, we are also grieving the recent loss of our nearly fourteen year-old friend, Maple, our first yellow Lab.
SWEET ‘MAPLE SUGAR’
Shortly before my wife and I were married—while I was in grad school, when she was working as a state park naturalist, and prior to the birth of any of our three daughters—we drove to south-central Ohio and picked out an adorable, energetic, and super-friendly puppy, which we named ‘Maple Sugar.’ She looked just like the color of Maple candy, those super-sweet crystals formed after boiling maple syrup.
Over the subsequent thirteen-plus years, we played together, hiked together, and grew together. My photographic files are filled with images of Maple sitting on her specially-made window perch, tearing open Christmas presents, jumping onto giant round hay bales, dock diving into water, chasing other dogs, and, of course, patiently posing with our three daughters.
In subsequent columns I will focus on the growth of our new dog while periodically sharing past images of Maple, but here I want to focus on one particular image of Maple that typifies her integral relationship with our two-, then three-, then four-, then five-person family. It’s a picture imbued with deep, personal meaning for me, a photo that, as I prepare this piece brings a well-spring of tears. I miss her greatly. Dogs do that to us and for us: they eagerly invite us to connect with them; then we engage as life-long friends.
Back to the picture…. Our 1970’s ranch house is laid out with one long hallway running from the living room all the way back to the bedrooms. Many-a-night I lay on the couch looking down this hallway as one or more members of our family shuffled back and forth among the bedrooms and bathroom. Lights would turn on and off on in various side rooms but, typically, remained off in the hallway itself. These side lights illuminated Maple in the most splendid way.
More often than not, one light in one room remained steadily on. Its rays bounced among ceiling and walls, exiting the doorway and effectively creating a large panel of soft light, a north facing window of sorts. From my vantage point in the living room, I had a clear view of Maple the Sentry, keeping track of and staying in contact with the whole family. Alert and poised, she sensed our mundane activities: a child in the bathroom brushing her teeth; my wife busily dancing around between rooms putting the last of a load of laundry away; my parents leaving from an evening visit; and, of course, me reading on the couch.
A little over a year ago, I decided to memorialize her wonderful, watchful pose through photography. At that moment I sensed the passing of time. With sadness I recognized Maple would not be with us forever and that I would always want to remember this oft-repeated moment, this favorite family time—the nightly rituals, the quiet sounds, and the sensitive pose of our dear dog, especially her attentive ears, occassionally twitching nose, and soft eyes.
As unobtrusively as possible, I stole myself downstairs to my studio, picked up my full-frame camera, dialed up the ISO, and mounted my 70-200mm f/2.8 with the optical stabilization turned on. I knelt at the bottom of the two steps below the long, hardwood floor and began taking pictures. No tripod this time and using only available light, I worked fast. I didn’t want the ringing of the phone, the accidental trip of a toddler, or the “Everybody in bed!” call of my wife to break the scene. I fired off a couple dozen shots in rapid succession, achieving my goal: a photograph that softly, calmly, and intelligently conveys our sweet lady Maple.
For a dog that had a vocabulary of over 150 words (Yes, my wife and I wrote them all down!), that could leap six feet in the air on command, that never growled at our children but rather rolled over and let them crawl all over her, who went to playgrounds with us and amazed kids and parents with her ability to climb and then descend playground slides, and who accompanied us on thousands of miles of hikes, I offer this true portrait. Always full of energy and never failing to be fully with us. That was Maple.
Life is frequently full of joy and always too short. While thirteen-plus years of healthy life is remarkable for a Lab, it still seems not long enough. On August 28, 2014, Maple succumbed to the sudden onset of spleen cancer. She passed quietly, without complaint, in the night, after we all said tearful goodbyes. She is buried on our family farm, the Earth around her watered with our tears, which continue flowing today.
It took a month of grieving before our family was ready to find a new dog. We love Labrador retrievers, a feeling that only increased during our time with Maple, so we decided to stay within the breed. But we wanted to avoid the danger of getting a look-alike, replacement dog for Maple. So, we decided to find a ‘fox red’ yellow Lab.
Fox reds are actually the original color of yellow Labs, but, over time, people have tended to prefer lighter and lighter colored yellows, so breeders selectively lightened their coats. Maple’s beautiful white-yellow coat was an elegant example. In the 1980s, a breeder in England decided to resurrect the original reddish yellow, a near Irish setter hue, which had almost disappeared for good. A breeder in the US shortly thereafter imported offspring from the British kennel.
Despite several decades of breeding, fox reds are still not that common. Fortunately, one of the very best breeders in the country, Keepsake Labradors, is only about a three-hour drive from where we live. So, two weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, we drove to West Virginia to see several litters of fox reds.
The breeder, Judy McCormick, who started out assisting the first US breeder of fox reds, runs an amazing and spectacularly caring kennel. Labradors of all colors—black, chocolate, and yellow, the vast majority being various shades of fox red—ran all over the pastoral location. Puppies yipped inside the house in whelping boxes, and dogs barked gladly as they ran freely outdoors. Older dogs, some long ago pulled out of breeding, socialize with younger studs and bitches.
Judy’s kennel is a place of energy and compassion. As we talked with her, we saw how much she cares about her dogs and how carefully she controls her breeding: you don’t breed fox reds exclusively with fox reds or you endanger the gene pool. Judy breeds for healthy dogs with family-friendly temperaments.
After several hours visiting the 100+ dog community—and our ears taking in more dog barking than any of us had ever heard before!—we selected a beautiful female only 8 weeks old, just old enough to be able to go home with a new family.
As we left with the puppy, Judy embraced our 4H dog training-daughter Sarah in an emotional moment, which I recorded with a candid shot. Camera in-hand, I was ready to fire when they came together. The resulting image captures unrehearsed emotion. As she has thousands of time in her life, Judy-the-caring-breeder faces the parting of a beloved pup. At the same time, Sarah is overjoyed at welcoming a new dog—huddled and a bit uncertain below—into her life.
This parting image captures a triangle of subjects. It symbolically depicts the double passing of the torch. First, on the most basic level, Judy hands off the delicate life of her fox red puppy to Sarah, metonymic of our family. Secondly, on a deeper level, the photography is spiritually symbolic: Sarah, as part of our family, accepts this life-gift, which, embodies the friendship of dogs in general, the energy of Labradors as a breed, and, for the five of us, the lasting spirit of Maple.
David used the following Sigma lenses: