At the plaza outside my local supermarket, an elderly woman walks her two chihuahuas every day. The dogs are just as elderly as she is, if not a little further gone. They don't flit along the ground like younger pups. You can count their steps, and they don't make many per minute. They've gone white around the eyes and mouth. Cataracts film over their eyes.
There's a certain kind of pathos in caring for an older dog. Psychologically, they don't age like we do. They don't get to spend time contemplating their own mortality or the eternity of their souls. They take it as it comes. They still wag their tails when you come home. There's a youth, an optimism in dogs that doesn't die until they do. Nancy LeVine has photographed that aging canine hope in her travels across the States.
Dogs don't fear death because they can't imagine it the same way we can. They can't conceive of the future; they can only get through the day, even if their bodies don't work quite as well as they used to. Dogs don't give up upon getting old. They stay themselves through and through. It's partially this relentless resilience that makes it so tragic to watch them age. Sad dog movies make even the toughest of constitutions weepy. Just ask anyone about that one Futurama episode. It's also that a dog's lifespan is only a fraction of our own. We get to see the timeline of our own decay enacted in miniature. We have to watch a creature more loving than we'll ever be die with more grace than we'll ever show. We have to watch while knowing they'd adore us until our own end if they only had the time.
LeVine also discovered the depths of human devotion in her journey. People give more and more to ensure that their pets experience comfortable golden years and the easiest passing possible. We shell out for vets, treatments, and prescriptions if it means our little buddies will have it a little better toward the end. They may not be human but we certainly like to grant them the right to die with human dignity.
You don't see a whole lot of animal portraiture from serious photographers, and that makes LeVine's series especially poignant. She manages to keep it sad without getting sentimental while capturing the character and vitality of these old troopers. While thematically linked, the photographs are all compositionally and stylistically quite different, as they vary in location from a Wyoming farm to a New York City penthouse. We sense the same sort of relationship between dog and owner in all walks.
In her artist's statement, LeVine makes the connection between her subjects and the elderly of America as they stand in the current debate regarding Social Security and Medicare. It's easy enough for people to oppose programs like these in the abstract, but LeVine strives to show how we as a nation do concretely understand how to take care of those who need it most. Extending compassion to an aging pet may be more readily available to us as an emotional choice than extending compassion in the form of resources to the country's elderly in the abstract, but only because the choice has been framed differently for us. We've got that human drive to take care of those who need it; we just don't tend to tap into it when talking policy. Maybe it's time for us to bridge that gap. We could at least stand to treat our elders like old dogs.