Dogs in the 'hood
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South of W. 59th St., between S. Western Ave. and S. Harvard Blvd., Los Angeles, 2003( Camilo José Vergara / For The Times / June 1, 2012 )
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."