It was sitting in a glass cabinet, alongside several pieces of cast-off jewellery, near the till at the old Dunedin Hospice shop. My sister spotted it and thought it was just perfect: a small black-and-white photograph of a man and a dog. It had obviously been removed from someone's photograph album; black backing paper was still stuck to the photo. In the frame, the man leans back, thumbs tucked into braces, woollen trousers and jacket, his look a mix of amusement and affection. To his left, sitting on what looks like the stump of a vast tree, is a dog. His dog, you'd like to think. Handsome and proud.
My sister couldn't bear to leave them there, so paid 10c to free them from the cabinet, and sent the photo to me because she knew I'd appreciate it. I have it on my windowsill, where a glance guarantees small joy at what it represents. Photos can do that. Especially photos with dogs.
Who they were and how they ended up in a Dunedin op shop will likely always be a mystery. And I don't mind that. I don't really need to know the names or context. The fact that for that split second they were so obviously happy in each other's company is charm enough.
The famous American photographer Elliott Erwitt once explained the attraction of his most celebrated subjects: "I take a lot of pictures of dogs, because I like dogs, because they don't object to being photographed, and because they don't ask for prints."
Erwitt's dog photos filled five books and countless metres on gallery walls, but most dog photos reach far more modest audiences. They generally dwell in family photo albums filed on high shelves, rarely opened, or they hide in electronic darkness on some forgotten hard drive, diluted by a thousand other photos of limited quality and consequence.
From the mid-19th century, a string of photographic studios operated throughout New Zealand, offering portraits with subjects seated against backdrops that ranged from rustic to exotic. Photographers employed bulky cameras with glass-plate negatives set atop heavy wooden stands, used only natural light and estimated exposure, given this was well before light meters. Exposures might have been seconds long – a nervous eternity when needing to avoid a blink or the slightest of movements. In the field, marginally more portable cameras and tripods were used, but approximating focus and exposure proved even more fraught.
After 1920, when roll-film became widely available, and truly democratised photography, many studios went into decline, relinquishing their role as crucial centres for recording and documenting the well-dressed and well-to-do, the well-heeled, and, occasionally, their well-heeling companions.
Exactly why a few in these early New Zealand portraits chose to include dogs can only be surmised. For some it would have been a marker of wealth and status. For others, it perhaps hinted at empathy and a compassionate touch. But I'd guess that, for the majority, dogs were brought into photographs simply because they were part of the family, as loved and important as dogs have always been for so many.
Sometimes dogs were props, sometimes they were mascots, sometimes they were the stars of the photos. But generally, they just shared the frame, and the note to history these photos have become. If you removed the dog from the photo, its attraction would shrink immeasurably. All you'd be left with are men in pressed suits and women in splendid hats, looking stiff and stilted, aware this is a special occasion but unsure quite how to respond.
Dogs aren't troubled by such things. They stay natural – the only state they know – and, in doing so, soften any photo they're in. Throughout the nearly two centuries we've been photographing dogs, human affectations and fashions have changed, but dogs have remained as they always have. They're pure like that, devoid of finery or artifice.
It's hard not to fall, and fall hard, for so many of these photos, where the dogs sit dutifully, ears lifted, tails stilled for a second. Fetching collies, qui vive terriers, willowy whippets, docile spaniels. Terror. Floss. Jack. Jumbo. Paddy. And an array of gorgeous unknowns ... All dogs that people liked, who cared not a jot about the photographer intruding on their privacy - and who certainly didn't want prints.
An edited extract from Dogs in Early New Zealand Photographs, introduction by Mike White, published by Te Papa Press ($35).