During Vincent J Musi’s 20 years jetting around the world on assignments for National Geographic he has photographed lions, tigers and – in a Florida backyard – a pet cougar. But when his son Hunter turned 16 Musi decided it was time to pause and enjoy the final few years before his son flew the coop.
So, with the help of his photographer wife, Callie Shell, Musi set up a dog-photography studio behind a South Carolina pet food store. An initial mild career crisis was followed by a successful Instagram page, and now The Year of the Dogs – a book of stunning pictures and funny stories about the dogs that came in and out of Musi’s life during the studio’s first year.
Beautiful as the images are, it’s more than a book of photographs – it’s a series of smaller stories telling a bigger one. Each dog is given its own spread. You learn their name, a little bit about their story – and a little bit of Musi’s. We read about a failed attempt in Musi’s youth to jump a mailbox on his Fastback bicycle, and of the sadness he still feels at the passing of his neighbour’s dog, Macy. The book is tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating, with history and pop-culture references dotted throughout. Musi watches Stranger Things, for example, and worries some of the dogs find his camera as terrifying as the Demogorgon.
“The Year of the Dogs was my year of the dogs – [when] I rediscovered photography and I really kind of learned to love it again in a different way,” says Musi.
In a strange quirk of fate, I end up speaking to Musi on International Dog Day and he tells me he chose dogs because he was interested in the challenge of showing them in a way we might not be used to.
“When you bring studio lighting to a tiger, for example, or a lion, they become just even more majestic,” explains Musi. “I thought, if I could take that to something that’s not exotic, that’s just an everyday thing, how cool would that be?”
Musi isn't the first to merge pet photography and fine art. For 40 years William Wegman dressed his pet Weimaraners in costumes (trench coat, kimono, shirt and tie) and photographed them on thrones and with musical instruments. The images are playful, absurd, performative and loving. Musi’s images eschew props, but are no less affectionate for it. His intimate photos – taken in a simple studio setting – present the dogs as individuals, allowing their personalities to shine.
It sometimes surprises people that Musi doesn’t himself have a dog. But the studio is a good alternative. He spends hours with each one, learning their stories, temperament and habits to get a shot that sums them up.
Musi says while he was working on the project he initially felt out of place at an annual National Geographic photographers meet-up. “Everybody’s doing something big. Everybody’s saving the world. They’re worried about sharks, global warming.”
When it came time to show his dog snaps he was surprised at how well they were received. National Geographic did a story on his work. With a bit of encouragement and a push from Hunter, Musi started posting the pictures to Instagram with simple captions: the dogs’ names and the year the shot was taken. But as the community and engagement grew so did his approach.
“It’s become this very therapeutic thing for me to write about my childhood and my family life and somehow tie that into a labradoodle,” says Musi. In the book he writes about his first impressions of his wife and her siblings. And the hours he spent at age nine drawing pictures of a dog and a pirate in a bid to win a scholarship.
He tells me about the man who drove over from Canada to get a photo shoot as a surprise for his wife. And about the woman who took a final road trip in a Cadillac Escalade with her ailing labrador, driving across multiple states from the Texas border to reach his studio.
“I can remember every one of them,” he says. “Names, what happened – I hold onto that stuff. They’ve all been so different.”
Two years on he is still photographing dogs, but he’s eyeing a potential new subject.
“I may do cats next,” he says then pauses. “I may do them both.”