For those who don’t know Mary Ellen Mark personally, the notion of one of the world’s premier documentary photographers hosting a Christmas party for dogs might sound downright weird. But for the past decade, Mark has opened the doors of her New York City studio to throngs of canines.
Mark, decades into a storied photographic career, has always turned her camera upon animals. "I have an incredible relationship with dogs. I'm kind of a dog-whisperer," she told LightBox earlier this year.
In 2001, around the time Mark and her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, moved to a new studio in Soho, she decided a holiday party for mutts “would be funny. I always used to have funny little parties when I had a tiny studio and people would come by with their dogs all the time."
A decade later, Mark's doggy Christmas party is attended by notables in the photography and publishing worlds, but also by canines the photographer has met over the previous year on the sidewalks of New York.
Mark sets up a backdrop and encourages dogs, one at a time, to pose for her, sometimes with their owners, sometimes with a human in costume, other times alone. On the walls hang couture clown costumes hand-sewn for dogs. A nearby table overflows with sunglasses, pink boas, polka dot bows and wings.
In years past, the parties have been themed – a royal wedding, the zoo, the ballet, twins. Sometimes the motif is somewhat abstract, like in 2007, when the party celebrated patriotism to mark President Bush's last year in office. This year’s theme was the circus.
Small dogs arrived first -- several Chihuahuas, a whippet, two terriers -- and immediately began changing into costumes. For the first hour, they mingled and greeted each other in the arms of their companions, posing for Instagram photos and enjoying one of six types of flavored water curated specially for them.
"The strange thing is that the dogs seem to realize it's their party. They ignore the humans," Mark told me.
When I first arrived, I expected a tiny studio space bristling with canines, coarse barks rattling off whitewashed walls and teeth tearing through seamless backdrops, camera straps and perhaps human flesh. To my surprise, on a cold night in early December, I found a wonderful celebration of man's best friend.
The photographer took her position behind the camera, surrounded by a cloud of assistants toting film holders, clipboards and a bicycle horn. A short blast from a small tin whistle pursed between Mark's lips earned the focus of her subjects -- a trio of Beagles named Bert, Henry Hudson and Cindy Sherman -- for a microsecond. Certain words, meanwhile, like treat or walk, were uttered only with great caution. Almost any sound, even something as subtle as a scrap of food hitting the floor, served as permission for the dogs to bolt from their perch and back into the crowd of tongues and tails.
Next up was Jake, a brown boxer in a black hat. He listened to Mark's cajoling as intently as he could, cocking his head left and right with each squeak of the bike horn. But he too succumbed after a few minutes, hopping down to playfully investigate a dog wearing a sock monkey on its back.
Mark's pictures have to be very simple to work; the opposite is true for the wardrobe. Anthony Rubio, an acclaimed pet fashion designer who's creations were featured earlier this year, was in attendance, toting several designs (and headpieces) for his two Chihuahuas, Bogie and Kimba.
More and more dogs filled the space as the night wore on. As animals brushed against my legs with every step I took, Mark's words echoed in my head. "I always say this is the last year," she had told me before the party. "But then I just keep doing it."
One might assume that Mark is overwhelmed by the throngs of dogs that show up at her party every year. But looking back at images from parties past, Mark vividly recalls the names of nearly every dog (and owner) she's photographed. Her motivation, it seems, runs far deeper than a desire to host a distinctly New York party.
"The highlight of my year is seeing Mary Ellen working with these dogs," said Jody Watkins, a photographer and participant in several of Mark's workshops in Oaxaca. "It's magical."
Looking around, one notes that social media has inevitably altered the relationship between dogs, guests and their photographer host. Although Mark shoots medium format black and white film -- just as she's done for the last ten parties -- nearly all the guests take their own snapshots to email to friends and post online. And why not? Sharing pictures of dogs in costumes is practically why Instagram was invented, isn’t it?
The pack thinned as the night wound down, the dogs slipping out of costumes and back into the Alpaca wool sweaters they arrived in. As one Chihuahua prepared to depart, he glanced around the room at his companions as if to say, “Now that was a holiday party.”
Was it ever.
Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.