Dogs in the 'hood
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South of W. 59th St., between S. Western Ave. and S. Harvard Blvd., Los Angeles, 2003
The barking of dogs accompanies me through urban alleys and back streets. Guard dogs are the loudest; seemingly well fed, they are left in yards, behind fences, protecting homes as adults go to work and children to school. Chihuahuas are gaining in popularity; they are loud, sneaky, quick and cheap to feed.
When I make photographs in Los Angeles in particular, I often encounter many more dogs than people. I stand on the roof of my car to shoot over wire, plywood, iron and concertina wire. The dogs rush to the fence and bark until they get tired; or, their tails raised, they bark and bark from the middle of the yard; the most energetic jump high, barking nonstop. Flattered by the attention, I climb down from the roof of my car so I can photograph them close up, their eyes and teeth flashing.
Behind a low-rise housing project in Newark's Central Ward, I watched a guy named Tony as he trained his pit bull for fights. He harnessed the animal to a tire that it had to pull uphill. "Don't tap on the ground, otherwise he will jump on you," Tony told me as I photographed his dog. Riding the L train in Brooklyn, I photographed Michael with his $200 pit bull, Max. In the alleyways of South Los Angeles, I've come across carcasses of dead pit bulls, one with the name "Shy" spray painted on a plastic bag that served as a shroud.
Feral dogs are at home in the ruined city. I have seen them looking elegantly out of windows of burned buildings in Chicago, sitting on discarded sofas in the Bronx, leisurely trotting along the streets of Newark, or -- ears alert -- in the courtyard of an abandoned motel in Detroit. In South Los Angeles, a famished dog with bloodshot eyes hovered over a chicken carcass, prepared for the apocalypse.
I am interested in capturing the variety of shapes, colors, ages and breeds of these hardscrabble canines. But they do not appreciate my attention. They snarl; they howl. No dog ever approached me expecting something good.
Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include "American Ruins" and "How the Other Half Worships."