In his introduction to Maude Schuyler Clay’s Delta Dogs, a book devoted to Clay’s photographs of rural Mississippi’s canine population, fiction writer Brad Watson says, “I wonder why anyone with a heart, with any amount of human dignity and courage and empathy for noble animals, would vote for a leash law.”
Watson’s attitude is one that many a dog lover would take issue with, but looking at Clay’s photographs makes it hard to dispute his point. The free-roaming strays and rustic mutts in Delta Dogs do possess a nobility that is generally missing among the pampered pets most Americans know. These are dogs as we rarely see them anymore: independent and unfettered, their canine spirit uncorrupted, if not always unbroken.
Clay, a Mississippi native who is known for both her portraits and for a previous collection of landscape photos, Delta Land, describes her lifelong fascination with dogs in an afterword to the new book: “Shall I confess that my photography career really began with photographing dogs?” Clay comes from a long line of dog lovers, and taking pictures of pet pooches is something of a family tradition. Not, she notes, that there’s anything unusual about that: “I firmly believe lots of other people have as many pictures of their dogs as they do their children.”
No doubt she’s right, but Clay isn’t interested in sentimentalizing her subjects in Delta Dogs. In fact, anyone who regards every stray dog as an orphan in need of rescue might have trouble looking at some of these stark and often poignant photographs. It’s hard not to feel the pull of pity when confronted with the image of a forlorn hound sitting alone on the roadside, a bedraggled mama of many litters, or an abandoned pup keeping vigil at her owners’ burned-out house. But the sad photos are scattered among many others that show dogs reveling in their freedom or simply going about their doggy business. Clay says that she has a mission “to record things as I see them,” and that’s what she has done here, allowing viewers the privilege of sharing in what she has witnessed.
Some of these black and white pictures are deliberately grainy and convey a sense of having been taken on the fly, while others have a profound quality of stillness. A few look as carefully composed as studio portraits. In all of them, the flat, often-bleak Delta landscape is as much Clay’s subject as the dogs are. As she frames them, the animals become a part of that landscape, almost inseparable from it, yet there remains something wonderfully individual and alive about every dog here. As Watson puts it, “These dogs are purely dogs, as dehumanized as they can possibly be, both solipsistic and supremely objective.” And, it might be added, as strangely beautiful as the place they inhabit.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Clothesline School of Writing in Chicago, the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in White Bluff.