CD: I came across your work a couple of years ago and was blown away by the wonderful emotional connection with dogs in your photographs. What was the genesis of the “Porch Dogs” project?
Nell Dickerson: This is a Southern fact and it comes from extensive research and observation: Dogs sit on porches.
As I traveled the South to photograph for my first book, “GONE: A Photographic Plea for Preservation.” (BelleBooks, 2011), I noticed that new architecture did not have porches. Most historic buildings had porches and almost every porch had at least one dog on it.
For “GONE,” I photographed antebellum buildings that survived the Civil War, only to fall into ruin from social and economic neglect. “Porch Dogs” (John F; Blair, Publisher, 2013) is an homage to the southern tradition of Porch Sitting. Although we abandoned our porches to air conditioning, our dogs remain vigilant as Sentinels of the South. I hope my photographs will preserve the porch for the dog.
For “Porch Dogs,” I continued the themes I explored in “GONE,”: Preserve your own culture, honor your history, and respect the past.
CD: I could have sworn these were shot on medium format and on film. I now know otherwise. Tell me a bit about your process and how you have recreated the look and feel of your older cameras.
Nell Dickerson: I realize that your target market is commercial, and I appreciate your inviting me to participate. I apologize in advance for throwing a wrench into your machine, but I am a fine art photographer and I am not comfortable talking about “gear” or “process.”
[Editors note: FuseVisual celebrates photojournalism, fine art, commercial, photo editors, designers, cartoonists and illustrators.]
Photography is magic. The masses considered the first photographers to be charlatans or magicians. Once Kodak made the process available to “Everyman” with the Brownie, photography became available for all to employ. The artists pulled away from the pack and made photographs that, to this day, are both iconic an eternal.
The digital camera is no different from the Brownie. “Everyman” can take pictures, and it seems that everybody does. Just because you have a camera, it does not mean that you have Vision.
For “Porch Dogs” I shot with whatever I had on hand. (I used maybe six different cameras?) There are a couple of scans from film, but most are digital. The “magic” comes from my vision, both before and after I take the shot. My post-production workflow is subtle, complex, and tedious. I may spend a week or a month to achieve the perfect print.
CD: How did you find the dogs that you photographed? Was it word of mouth, dogs you knew, connections across the South?
Nell Dickerson: I know where the bones are buried. From my research for “GONE,” I knew the communities with historic buildings. People who co-habitate with historic buildings are special. Since they tend to be intuitive, intelligent, and sensitive folks, they will most likely have a dog.
Most of the time, I knew the owner or had an introduction from a mutual friend. But there were a few drive-by’s where I saw a fabulous dog and porch. I’d come to a screeching halt and walk up to the house. I’d leave my camera in the car and carried my six-pound Yorkshire terrier. How could anybody feel threatened by her? If I didn’t meet a shotgun, I showed the owner some Porch Dog images on my iPad. Humans always came around, since I validated their dedication to historic preservation and admired their terrific dogs. Dog people trust a person who has a cute, well-behaved dog under her arm.
CD: How far across the south did you travel? Are there areas you missed that you would like to visit and photograph?
Nell Dickerson: I put many thousands of miles on my car. I photographed in every southern state except for Virginia. I’m sure there’s a major project waiting for me there.
CD: You have balanced a career in photography as well as in the art direction and film production. How has being a part of the film world influenced your photography and how you create your images?
Nell Dickerson: There are tons of photography portrait books of dogs, cats, people, monkeys, horse, etc., all shot in the studio with a blank background. I prefer to photograph with context. I take environmental portraits where the viewer interprets a story about the subject.
CD: What advice would you give a young and/or aspiring photographer about to embark on a career in photography?
Nell Dickerson: Learn to see. Tell a story, not only with the single image, but with the series. Develop a portfolio from the series. You must also be able to write and talk (live and to actual human beings) about your work.