I keep taking the same picture! Dog and fire, fire and dog, each winter a repeating and repeating still life. I have taken this picture probably a hundred times. I am like some hapless poet, re-working one verse all his years. Or perhaps Edward Hopper, who said, “Maybe I am slightly inhuman. . . All I ever wanted to do is paint sunlight on the side of a house.” My own monomania is the fire and the dog, the dog and the fire.
Throughout our long winter, the dog is drawn to the fire. I lounge on the sofa, reading, day-dreaming, drinking coffee or tea. My mind drifts until deciding again to attempt a photograph. I stoke the flames for better light, but the dog accepts no manipulation. Asked to shift for a new angle, to sit and show his regal form, he grumbles, looks away, then moves onto the sofa. “I am no trained monkey,” he says. And so the pictures are un-posed, just the dog at ease, oblivious to my artistic labors.
Here we see the dog in good profile, well centered before the glowing fire. His white splash of fur seems almost a reflection, moonlight on a lake. The rug gives geometric contrast against the dappled dog. Yet the focus is off, and the image is dark. The wood stack is blurred. A gnawed rawhide lays aside like an afterthought.
Now we see the classic hound form, dozing before an incandescent stove. The dog’s white belly receives the fire’s glow, an illumination of floorboards between them. His dark fur and the iron stove form black boundaries. Holding heat and light within, they suggest a glowing orb. Outwards, the room fades to winter shadow. Interestingly, we again see a small white rawhide. Perhaps the dog intentionally includes the rawhide, as in the portraiture of John Singleton Copley, where a book on the shelf could denote the subject’s scientific attainments, or an open map indicate his estate in the West Indies. Perhaps, among canines, the dog is known for prowess with rawhide.
In its mix of light against dark, fire against winter, the picture seems to aspire to the wonderful image from Ernest Shackleton’s doomed polar expedition, taken in 1915, shown below.
Their ship locked in Antarctic ice and bound for destruction, the men huddle before the stove, talking, smiling, smoking, thinking. Peering to the flames, perhaps they see again their green and pleasant homeland. What does the dog see? Rabbits? A summer farm?
I once proposed, of a dachshund I knew, an experiment: if one could align the animal precisely along its spine — snout straight forward, tail straight back, ears balanced to each side — then for an observer exactly behind the dachshund, peering along the tail-snout axis, suddenly D – O – G would reverse to G – O – D, and in a flash would appear the face of God. The spelling can be no coincidence; God does not play dice, Einstein said. I performed the experiment. I believe its failure lay in the hound’s habit of favoring his right front paw, thereby never quite achieving the requisite symmetry.
Something similar is at work with this repeating photograph. Not a search for divinity, but for the true arrangement of cherished objects: dog, fire, wood, rug, stove, rawhide, light itself. Objects shift and angles change. We circle a central truth, the flawless alignment where picture becomes portal, to show the shape of heat, the thoughts of a dog, the measure of fidelity, and my whole life at one instant.
Outside, the night is very dark, the thermometer at -4. Snow falls, a foot before morning. The dog, the fire, and I, all stay inside.
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