When most people see Nancy LeVine’s images of aging dogs—eyes cloudy with cataracts, ears bent and a sometimes crumbled posture—what strikes them is how human the creatures look.
“The photos really speak to them,” said LeVine. “Dogs can be extremely expressive through their eyes, their facial expressions and their body language…It’s really sort of a collaboration between me and the dog. And the response I get mostly, is that these dogs have a presence. They feel so human to them.”
LeVine who calls Mercer Island home, but regularly works in New York, first began photographing the animals for assignment eight years ago. Her body of work includes an impressive array of projects ranging from fashion photography in New York City and Paris to a long work relationship with Seattle Children’s Hospital, and a jewelry side project called Luscious Lobe that specializes in simple but elegant studs for women with double piercings.
As LeVine watched her own dogs age, the fragility and dignity of the process inspired her to capture that wrinkle in time in other dogs’ lives. LeVine’s images were more than just pet portraiture. They were glimpses into pockets of the U.S. she believes she never would have witnessed if not through the narratives of these creatures. The assignment took her from coast to coast, and everywhere in between.
“When you work on a project it means you meet the people, as opposed to being a tourist or maybe just passing through,” says LeVine. “When you have a purpose, you have a way to connect with people who are of that place, and it enriches your experience. The dog too, is of that place.”
LeVine, who often took her nephew with her on assignment, recounts one trip to Butte County, South Dakota. She was tasked with photographing a Newfoundland in the gusty windstorm. In the image a regal dog faces the wind against a grey sky and hills arching in the background.
“There we are, having this life experience which you’d think you’d have to travel far and wide for,” she said. “That’s just one small story, but it gave me a chance to see how people live in their landscape.”
LeVine collected subjects mostly through word-of-mouth and organizations that took in senior dogs. And though in her photographs, the canines assume center stage—except for a foot or the side of a face, rarely do people appear in the images—LeVine found the owners caring for these dogs to be just as compelling: “Anybody who takes care of senior dogs, which just like people need special care and special attention, that says a lot about that person.”
She hopes to turn “Senior Dogs Across America” into a book. In the meantime, her photos have appeared just about everywhere, from the New York Times Lens Blog, to BBC and Bark Magazine.
“When I’m photographing dogs, it’s really no different than photographing kids or patients. It’s the same set of skills.”
The photographer, who also teaches classes at Photo Center Northwest often leads her students outside on assignment. She asks them to zero in on an object and spend five to ten minutes exploring every detail of it.
“I tell them to really look at it and see how it’s made up. To pay really detailed attention to something, that’s a metaphor for being a great photographer. You have to be able to see, to see everything.”