Photographer Profile - Nancy LeVine: "Dogs are very much in the present"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday August 2, 2016

Nancy LeVine  does not call herself a dog photographer, though she has published two books about dogs.

The latest, Senior Dogs Across America, is just out, and it has generated a good deal of interest in the media and at blogs, while rising to the top of Amazon’s animal category. In interviews, LeVine makes it clear that her goal was never to create a book featuring cute pictures of dogs.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with cute-dog books,” she told one reporter recently.

LeVine is, however, a self-admitted dog person, through and through. Her 2002 book A Dog’s Book of Truths was a study of her own two dogs, Lulu and Maxie, and their relationship to the world of humans. She spent a decade working on it.

“The thing about dogs is that they bring out the best in people,” she says. “I think the love of a dog is the purest form of love. It is not a complicated loving relationship — it can be really clean and open and vulnerable and so deep. When you wake up with a dog every morning, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, what mood is my dog in today?’ There’s a constant that is always there  — something that is reliable and that expresses the best in people in their loving nature.”

Though they are now gone, it was Lulu and Maxie that inspired LeVine’s new book. Over their years together, LeVine came to appreciate the serenity with which the two dogs aged. “It was a natural thing,” she says. “Dogs are very much in the present. They aren’t panicking about their bodies growing older, comparing how they look now to how they looked a year ago or worrying about what’s coming, so they can age so much more gracefully than people do.”

Her observations led LeVine to set out on what would become a 12-year journey through America — from  Idaho, Wyoming and New Jersey to Wisconsin, Florida, Massachusetts, and elsewhere — photographing dogs that, as TV veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker writes in the new book’s foreword, “have lived long lives and are vividly living them still.”

Finding the dogs was a matter of telephone calls and referrals from friend to friend, and it meant entering the homes and lives of families. LeVine says she had a twofold goal when she started out — not just to photograph dogs, but also to see America: When describing the ambitions behind the project, she cites Robert Frank’s The Americans. Dogs, she thought, could be a window through which to view the country and the nature of its people.

LeVine says she wanted to create a photo project that worked on multiple levels, and in that sense she has. Her book about older dogs is also necessarily about humans — our abiding affection for canines, our sense of loss at watching them age, and our recognition that they have a wonderful ability we lack: The gift of living in the moment, which, says LeVine, “is something we strive for.”

On the other hand, it is the human capacity to reflect on the past and future that makes her pictures so remarkably touching.

Canine Connection

“When you photograph dogs,” LeVine says. “You are inherently looking for a connection.”

LeVine, who is based in both Seattle and New York, came to dogs by way of fashion. She grew up on St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, becoming interested in photography when her father gave her a camera at age five. She went on to study photography at Ithaca College in New York and later got an MA from New York University. “I loved fashion and I loved photography, so I tried my hand at fashion photography and built a career doing that,” she says. Her work often appeared in L’Officiel de la Couture magazine in Paris, where she went to shoot two or three times a year.

And when she went, she took her dog Babe — part Samoyed and part shepherd — along with her. “She was my photography dog,” says LeVine.

As she began to photograph dogs, her approach remained consistent with what she had always done. “If you look at my fashion work, there was a sense of realism and truth in it,” she says. “I wanted it to be believable, even though fashion is about make-believe. I wanted the viewer to believe that this model in these clothes would actually be standing at this place doing whatever she was doing. It was the same with dogs — I wanted the pictures grounded in reality.”

For that reason, almost all the images in Senior Dogs are environmental portraits. “I didn’t shoot a lot of close ups,” LeVine says. “I wanted to see the dog in its own world — that was essential for me. I think that with that approach you get a fuller, deeper story.” She also shot in available light, with either a 50mm or 85mm prime lens. When the project began, she was shooting black-and-white film. By the time it was finished, she was shooting digitally and in color.

The dogs in her photographs, such as Murphy, a 10-year-old from Milford, Connecticut, looking cordial with one paw on a store counter, are fully realized individuals. There is also Cecilia, a 12-year-old from Baltimore, attentively watching from a door stoop, and Champ, a 9-year-old from South Dakota, sublimely guarding sheep, and Red, a 12-year-old from New Haven, Connecticut, applying himself to a rawhide bone and in absolute harmony with the universe.

The connection LeVine looked for with her subjects went beyond personal affection. “It could be a connection to the dog, or the location, or the way the dog imbued the location,” she says. Some dogs clicked and other didn’t.  

“There are certain dogs who speak to you,” she says. “They have a quality within their being, in their eyes and their soul, that reaches out. And there are others where it just feels flat no matter what you do, and it’s hard to get beyond good. So in the process of shooting, editing and sequencing the book, I was always looking for that special, meaningful quality.”

Dog People

What do we see when we look at a picture of a dog?

It’s an interesting question, given the explosion in pet photography and the number of photography books about dogs in recent years. The reason for this may be simple enough: The connection between dogs and humans has been forged over eons; our link to them is evolutionary and profound. In photographs that connection can be palpable.

LeVine thinks she knows why her book has been drawing so much attention.

“I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth, but I think there are a couple of levels to it,” she says. “The obvious one for dog lovers is the dogs themselves. The book resonates for anyone who’s had a dog that has aged and passed on.”

The other reason, she says, is what the book says about people. Her pictures tell us that we’re not so different from each other in our of love of dogs, which is a nice thought these days.

LeVine says that wherever she went in our divided country, she found a commonality in the love people have for dogs. “It didn’t matter if it was a red state or a blue state. Everywhere, people had this deep, deep love for their family member, their dog,” she says. “I traveled across America with love because of dogs.”

That’s a dog person for you.