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wags - Photographer Bill Stanton

  By: AJ Mistretta

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Photographer Bill Stanton

When Bill Stanton’s son turned 10, the father decided he had an excuse to get the dog he himself had been wanting for years. Having grown up surrounded by basset hounds, Stanton, a photographer by trade, spent the years after he left his native Ohio for New York City stopping and saying hello to every basset he saw on the street. But now he had the rationale for getting the puppy he’d been pining after. “I told my wife, ‘he’s old enough for a dog — for some responsibility.’ I think she knew what was going on.”
Stanton got on the phone with his aunt back home in Ohio who knew some breeders. He contacted one gentleman who’s hunting Bassett was about to have a litter. A couple months later, just before Christmas, the family went to the airport to pick up the six-week old frightened puppy that immediately emptied her bladder on the backseat of the car.

Stanton says he’s always considered himself a journalistically inclined photographer. In his day job he’s a location photographer who does work for corporations, nonprofit institutions, and other entities. His work has appeared in the likes of Time, Life and The New York Times. But the strict rules of taking shots for others made Stanton long for more freedom with his art. “When Maggie arrived, she became my muse,” he says.

Always one to photograph what was close to him, Stanton found himself following Maggie around the house just taking snapshots. At the time, he was doing some work for a card company and was already in the mode of attributing quotations to pictures. “Based on the attitudes suggested in the photos, I began to thumb through volumes of quotations to find something that matched.”

Eventually, Stanton realized that the pictures he took of Maggie as a release paired with the quotations might actually have some mass appeal. “I tend to have some faith in my sense that if I like it, others will like it,” he says. “I began showing these pictures around and friends seemed to relate
to them. Often these friends didn’t have a basset hound.

I had a feeling that there was something there that a lot of people could relate to that they could see something about themselves in Maggie.”

He decided to compile about 50 photos and quotations together into a collection. That first compilation would eventually become “Maggie’s Way” a book put out by Andrews McMeel Publishing in 2001. Stanton’s latest book, “The Tao of Maggie”, is basically a continuation of “Maggie’s Way” with a bit more emphasis on Eastern wisdom.

Genesis of the idea

Stanton says his fascination with bassets began in childhood. The 1950s television show, The People’s Choice, starring Gary Cooper also featured a talking bassett. He says that image, imbedded in his mind all these years, is probably part of the impetus that led to him putting words in the mouth of his own dog decades later.

Stanton says as a breed, bassets tend to be quite expressive. “It’s easy to project a certain thought or speech to them because they look like they’re thinking it.”

To explain this, Stanton turns to the history of the breed. Originally bred as hunting dogs, and sometimes still used for that purpose today, Bassets were trained to chase game far from their hunting masters. “They hunted in packs and they had to be able to communicate both with each other and back to the hunters to let them know where they were or if an animal had been treed. They did that by howling and barking and therefore became very expressive,” he says.

There’s a particular theory concerning the evolution of the relationship between man and canine that Stanton says has always intrigued him. “Dogs came into our lives because there were a few wolves out in the tundra that thought it would be better to sit by humans around a campfire rather than chase a moose across the tundra,” he says. “That theory illustrates how humans project all kinds of thoughts that we have onto dogs.”

So how does Stanton come up with the ideas for the quote/photo pairings? “It works both ways. Sometimes I start with a picture and try to find a quote to match, other times I find a quote that I think fits Maggie and try to set up something to go along with it. Most of the pictures are shot spontaneously, just by following her around. Maybe 30 percent are set up.”

If Stanton and Maggie together can teach others things about themselves through the books, what has the dog herself taught the owner? “I do think I’ve learned a few things from her,” he says. “Principally be means of persistence, she has made the most of her life. She’s a dog who lives with a family on the Upper West Side, and let’s face it, she’s got a pretty damn good life. But I don’t think she would have lived quite as well if she wasn’t able to constantly communicate what she wants to us.

“She’s definitely a kind of character who resides with us and makes her presence known daily,” he adds. “She goes with us when we travel. She’s part of the family and we’re very conscious of her needs. She’s very much our second child.”

Stanton says for the most part, the books are fun, cute, accessible and amusing, with occasional zingers that offer real insight. “There are some ideas that the pictures of Maggie illustrate well, like standing up for yourself and persevering about your own ideas on what the right thing to be is.”

When it comes to acting for the camera, Maggie is fairly oblivious, Stanton says. Still, that doesn’t mean she isn’t photogenic. Unlike other animal photographers who use props or clothing to set up a desired effect, Stanton attempts to capture what he calls the “unadorned doggieness” of Maggie. “I’m trying to photograph her as she really is in her life — the natural dog within her family.”

Towards the center of “Maggie’s Way” there’s a photo of her lying asleep on a hardwood floor as a thin strip of sunlight from a nearby doorway drapes across her face. The quote fits perfectly, and one realizes the effect could never be the same without this unassuming pup to illustrate it. It brings to the surface all that we as living beings are and what we strive for to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized. “The sun shines, the earth moves, and for a moment we are illuminated.”

Photographs by Cami Johnson,