In his latest contribution to Photocritic International ‘On John Berger on Photography‘, A D Coleman provides the answer to something which had worried me about the photographs of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti. I remember looking at length at a display of his photographs at a corner in Paris Photo a few years ago and wondering how he managed to control the dogs who play such an important role in many of his images (such as Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992.)
It wasn’t as if the same dogs appeared in many images, so it was unlikely that he had a troupe of highly trained canine actors, and the pictures were taken in various countries, which would create tremendous logistic problems for such a company. And the animals certainly did not look stuffed (though some stuffed animals have been realistic enough to fool the judges in prestigious wildlife photograph contests.) Many of the images show the dogs on a background of snow, which would have made it rather easier to add some or all of the dogs in printing, but there were none of the signs of that making it highly unlikely. But obviously the photographer had to have some way to attract and place the animals, and something that left little trace in the images. There were no signs of bones.
Coleman’s revelation, first made in an essay for a 2010 book, comes in a shortened form on his web site, but there is a link to download his whole essay. In it he comments on a text by the late John Berger which was printed in Sammallahti’s ‘The Russian Way‘ and is also on-line.
Berger, like Coleman and myself and almost everyone else who looks at the work of Sammallahti had of course noticed the dogs – it would be hard not to – and he posits:
“It was probably a dog that led Sammallahti to the moment and place for taking each picture.”
Coleman comments that on this occasion Berger (for whom he expresses respect and admiration) got it precisely wrong – and spills the beans, having asked the photographer and, perhaps surprisingly, got a straightforward reply – which you can read in his post. I’m pleased too, that Coleman mentions his collaboration with Jean Mohr, which produced the works by Berger I most admire, and was the main subject of my remembrance of him in Berger & Mohr last month, though neglected in much of the media comments.
It is of course, as Coleman makes clear, not just a matter of the dogs, but about how critics need to examine the actual evidence – and where necessary to ask appropriate questions rather than simply postulate theories. It’s often also important to be or have been a photographer so as to appreciate what is likely or possible – and what isn’t. Those who write about photography without having had an intimate practical involvement in making photographs are often likely to get the cart before the horse.
Coleman has also recently added more to his comments on John Morris’s continuing fabulation about Capa’s D-Day pictures. Morris’s story (or now rather stories) fails on many points, but not least the photographic practicalities. Things like knowing that in the days of film, working photographers when unloading 35mm film would usually rewind the leader inside the cassette or at least tear it off so there was no doubt the film had been used and could not be reloaded by accident. Like knowing that after fixing, unexposed film is clear.