Dog Bless America: Tails From the Road
by Jeff Selis
Published by Chronicle Books
95 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Monica Stark
First of all, it's salient to remember what kids always seemed so fond of pointing out back in grade school: "God" spelled backwards is "dog." As though, with the simple shift of a couple of consonants, our reality could be sharply altered. Though, admittedly, changing a Creator into a constant canine companion with a single stroke is no easily-sneezed-at-feat.
Jeff Selis must remember those childish manipulations of letters. Especially considering the title of his first book: Cat Spelled Backwards Doesn't Spell God, a book that glorifies the connection between dogs and people with a sharp, edgy style that nonetheless gives ample tribute to the relationship between mankind and his longest domesticated pal: the dog. It's appropriate, then, that Selis' second book be in the same spirit, though this time the author/photographer is on a mission: to trek the length and breadth of the United States and photograph "at least one dog" in each state.
I wanted to do this because I think dogs are such an important and necessary part of our culture, and they have so much to teach us. In honor of their contribution to our society, I would call it Dog Bless America. So, I put a proposal together and sent it off to Chronicle Books. To my surprise and delight, they bit.
Selis writes that, when he got the idea to do the book, he was at a low point in his life: his mother had recently died and he was burned out with work. "I knew I needed something fresh in my life -- something that would at least let me escape for a while." Escape he did: with his human pal Seamus riding shotgun and his dog, Otis, "panting gleefully" in the rearview mirror, the trio covered 17,000 miles and the humans in the group made some important discoveries:
We realized that life should be as simple and as pure as a dog's. More importantly, we realized that dogs have not been deprogrammed to stop pursuing what they love.
Quasi-canine philosophizing aside, Dog Bless America is a happy romp through the heartland of America and beyond; a dog's-eye view of a country as varied as the dogs that call it home. In Chicago, we meet "30," a firehouse Dalmatian who is a "hero to all the men he represents at Engine 30" and whom Selis photographed sitting proudly in front of his fire truck. Wags, a cocker spaniel from Paducah, Kentucky, was photographed on his porch and Lola, a terrier from Bath, Maine, was photographed with the ocean behind her. Lola is one of the few dogs included whose photo actually gives a clue about her location and yet... Something about the French bulldog, Jackpot Jr., fairly screams Cambridge and Kate, the aging Bloodhound from Dallas looks as though she couldn't be from any other place. With few visual clues, Selis manages to impart a sense of place even where one shouldn't exist.
Strikingly, all of the photographs in Dog Bless America were taken with a 1965 Polaroid Land Camera 180. The use of this particular camera for the project gives one pause for thought: throughout the book, photo grain is tight, colors are crisp -- though occasionally pleasingly garish -- and depth of field varies sharply, indicating more aperture control than I had thought possible with the Land Camera. From a photographic and artistic standpoint, the use of this camera puts Jeff Selis squarely at the head of the column of anti-photographer photographers beginning to make their marks in sort of a weird backlash at the anything-is-possible photographs of the digital era. It has been predicted that, as digital photography rises in popularity with the photo snapping public, odd and often almost lost forms of photography will find their way back. Not back to the mainstream, but back to those who would lift their snapping to the level of art. Though the topic is slightly loopy, Dog Bless America is art. Pleasingly disguised as culture, but art nonetheless. I'll take it any way I can get it. | May 2001
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.