We are asked to comment on the formal structure of Elliott Erwitt’s image ‘Felix, Gladys and Rover. New York, USA. 1974’, and whether the structure contributes to the meaning of the image.
I recall that, when I first saw this image, my attention was first drawn to the woman’s (Gladys?) booted legs and the chihuahua, which are the darkest and highest-contrast parts of the image. I saw the second pair of larger legs en passant but concentrated first on the chihuahua which appeared to be the main subject and the focus of humour. It has an odd expression (wall-eyed) and is clothed in a knitted wooden hat and jacket – suggesting a cold day, as reinforced by the woman’s overcoat and boots.
I noticed the legs at the left of the frame but, on my first viewing, assumed they were human and uninteresting. It is only on a longer examination that we realise that the second pair of legs belong to a very tall dog, probably a Great Dane. This is the element of Barthesian punctum, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. This double-take realisation forces us to re-evaluate the picture and the relationships between its three subjects, particularly the size difference between the dogs which we assume are both owned by Gladys. We might speculate about details of their day-to-day life; are there two different sized dog-baskets (or kennels, or food dishes) for instance? Certainly, there must be practical differences in the exercise regime.
This is not a conventional rule-of-thirds picture. Gladys is centrally located and the chihuahua (is he Felix or Rover, by the way?) is entirely within the right-hand third. OK, the left-hand vertical third line coincides with Dane’s left leg and it is possible to draw a weak lower horizontal third through the ankles of the four longer legs and the belly of the chihuahua, but I do not see those as major elements. To me, the main organising elements are the expressed vertical lines (four long legs, the lead and the secondary elements of the tree to the left and gazebo to the right) and the implied horizontals (hemline of the coat, bottoms of the feet, and a weak central horizon line), giving an overall grid to the image. The even spacing of the main elements contributes to the impression of an ordered grid.
This is not an HCB ‘decisive moment’ grab shot, but something more considered. I do not know whether we are looking at models or a group that Erwitt has met by chance and persuaded to pose, but he has taken time and trouble to arrange the elements properly. By getting himself (or at least his camera lens) down to chihuahua eye level, we are able to get an idea of its viewpoint and to emphasise with it; nearly everything in its world must be taller. If this were a grab shot as the subjects were walking toward the photographer, all four Great Dane legs would be in frame and the element of punctum would be lost. Instead, the Dane has been posed side-on so that its rear legs are out of frame to the left. (Well, nearly so. The Magnum image above shows part of a thigh in the top left corner, which has been cropped out from the version presented in the course notes).
Erwitt clearly loves dogs. At least four of his books (Son of Bitch, To the Dogs, Dog Dogs and Woof) are devoted to them, and his doggy images have elements of anthropomorphism and humour. Felix, Gladys and Rover is no exception. Although the chihuahua is part of the image, we feel that we see the world from its viewpoint, emphasised by the low camera angle and the decision to crop the other two subjects at knee level. Its expression and clothing inject the sense of humour, but we also know that it is cared for to the extent of keeping it warm on a cold day. I also get a feeling of closeness, love and/or friendship between the three subjects, emphasised by the grid structure and their physical closeness.
[according to WordPress, that was 683 words – which is a good indication of the level of detail that will be required to produce 1000 words on a single image in assignment 4]