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Henrik Duncker: The Difficulty of Photographing a Dog

In the era of Instagram we probably assume that dog pictures are usually cute and make us comment something like „Awwwww“. Henrik Duncker’s photographs might change your Instagram-saturated mind. Duncker is a Helsinki-based photographer. Starting in 1988, he studied photography at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (today’s Aalto University) and graduated with an MA degree in 1993. Since then, Duncker has been exhibiting his work internationally both in solo and group exhibitions. His works are in collections of KIASMA Helsinki, Moderna Museet of Stockholm, Norsk museum for fotografi - Preus fotomuseum in Horten, The Finnish Museum of Photography and Encontros da Imagem among others. Duncker’s work has been printed in magazines and newspapers such as The Independent, The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian, The New York Times, Libération, Wired, Details, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Stern, Carl’s Cars, Helsingin Sanomat etc. We asked him when and why he has started photographing dogs, and whether it’s easier to photograph dogs or humans. 

Henrik, why dogs and not cats?

The first picture of The Innocents series was a coincidence. I was sitting in the board meeting of our housing cooperative, and the chairman’s dog came to me and insisted I hold a stub of a chewing stick for him. I happened to have my camera with me, so I thought I might as well take pictures while my other hand was more or less inside the dog’s mouth. Later I got good feedback from the resulting picture, so I just decided to start a project about (or should I say: with) dogs. Probably because cats are more self-sufficient, they didn’t ever cross my mind for such a project. We humans tend to project our personalities and emotions more readily to dogs, and I attempted to tell something about us humans by taking pictures of dogs.

Are you a dog owner yourself? Is that why dogs fascinate you?

Nowadays yes, but at the time of making this project I had no pets. Most of us do like dogs, don’t we: the uncompromising friendship, the soothing eyes of a philosopher. The moments when a dog looks into your eyes and you sense there’s a connection between you two, and you think that the dog thinks of the same thing that you think of. Often a dog can indeed perceive complex situations generated by humans. Then again, behind those tender eyes it may be just signaling „So am I going to get my food portion now, eh?“ or „I’d need to release myself within the next quarter of an hour, preferably sooner.“ There’s something uniquely frank about those puzzling moments. Then afterwards you think „It seems I got the message right“ and you’re happy.

Do you have a trick when photographing dogs? Elliott Erwitt barks for example.
Haha, I never tried Elliot Erwitt’s trick! I don’t think I had any specific maneuver other than getting close enough for tight crops. Occasionally, I spoke to the dog in an encouraging tone. If the dog showed interest in me, I would make friends with it before taking pictures. In some cases the owner would urge, even force their dog to a pose they thought would be ideal. This obviously made me feel uncomfortable, but then again some of the more powerful pictures happened this way.

How do the owners of the dog react? 
Mostly they were glad about me wanting to take pictures. A great deal of the series is photographed at dog shows or dog races: especially at the shows everyone is motivated for the posing anyways. Perhaps their ideals for a perfect picture would not match with mine, but because this was done on film no-one asked to see the result in situ. On request I sent pictures to a couple of owners but I never got feedback.

How do the dogs react to the camera? Do they even notice that something is going on?
Some dogs were absolutely indifferent to me whereas others stuck their nose right up into the lens. Surprising enough, hardly any of them were troubled by the flash.

Please tell us more abour your project The Innocents
Every now and then I feel like making a more conceptual project, often with a fairly strict aesthetic template. The Innocents is such an example. I wanted to make facial portraits and to concentrate on expression, in fact assumed expression. In the pictures we see maybe a sad dog, a drowsy one, a lunatic – or some of them just appear clueless. This all is fiction of course, we are projecting our human characters and emotions on these innocents. The name for the project popped from a sentence in Roger Grenier’s great book The Difficulty of Being a Dog. In 2005 I showed this series in a Helsinki workshop-gallery and we run all-night slide projections through the display windows so that people could see the pictures from the street. Already 2003 the now defunct Details magazine run a good selection from the series together with a piece about dog-human relation. Also I made a dummy for a table game but unfortunately the plan didn’t materialize.

Is there a photographer that inspired your dog photography? Martin Parr or Elliott Erwitt come to our mind.
Elliott Erwitt’s dog pictures are great: uplifting and hilarious. Compared to my series, Erwitt’s pictures are more complex though, often showing dogs in relation to the surrounding situation. Yet there’s an aspect in them which probably has influenced me: he renders the dogs very expressive. For the same reason it’s apt to mention Garry Winogrand’s dark book „The Animals“ (1969). It’s not about dogs but frustrated zoo animals, about the human-animal relation. Most importantly, Martin Parr was my teacher for a period of two years in the early 90’s. For me his work was very inspiring. He is a generous character and his sharing of knowledge and connections played a big role also in terms of international exposure. The fairly strict method of The Innocents probably drew from Martin’s Japonais Endormis (1998) – and of course from Common Sense (1999) which hit me like a sledgehammer. But it’s not always easy to see where exactly the influence comes from, as creative processes may simmer for long in the back of mind. You know, it can be also music – which in this particular case could be Talking Heads.

Is it easier to take a good photo of a dog than of a human?
Dogs may be easier in that they have no expectations as far as the pictures go, which does not apply to us humans. I tend to have phases with less interest in photographing people. Yet, while photographing these dogs I often thought of them as stunt performers for us humans. I never had any problems with the dogs when photographing them. But a few years later, I went for an advertising shoot set in a private house and with a human model. By the time of our arrival at the location the house owner’s dogs were supposed to be out of the place but as it turned out this was not the case. I was the early bird, the first one to ring doorbell. I was asked to wait in the vestibule and the owner let her Rhodesian Ridgeback past the inner door to greet me – her big mistake. In a fraction of a second the big dog bit me right in the face. Luckily it was just a warning bite: the breed was developed for hunting down lions.

What do you shoot with?
For this particular project I used a Nikon F100 camera and a 60 mm close-up lens. In the mid 90’s Martin Parr showed me his 35 mm close-up equipment and that stayed in my thoughts as a possible technical route. During the latter half of the decade I gradually changed balance from large format field camera to medium format to 35 mm. From 1999 onwards a great deal of my work was done with Nikon SLR cameras and a macro lens. I used a ring flash for some time but wasn’t pleased with what I came up with. Instead, for the dogs I used a flash bouncer: they can render a very contrasty lightning in close-ups and draw a lot of detail from the dog’s coat. In fact the very first dog picture was done with a ring flash. At the time I used the contrastiest and most saturated films from Fuji and Kodak. Nowadays I shoot almost everything digitally but just the other day I was invited to take part in a film-based project for a photo festival.

Who should all of us follow on Instagram?
Let me say that I’m only a beginner with Instagram. I started with some photographers I already knew, then checked around if I like some of the accounts they follow and so on. I’ve noticed it can become sort of mechanic and fatiguing, also if you’re just following stuff that match your taste. So I guess then you need to try find a wormhole and get into the unknown. It can turn quite time-consuming. It’s always good to follow some of the curated accounts, such as This Ain’t Art School. Thank you very much for featuring my work!

Thank you for the conversation, Henrik!

Follow Henrik Duncker on Instagram.
Find more about Henrik Duncker via his Website.

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