Pup Culture, By Bud Boccone
George Plimpton was an all-around man of letters, known to literary types as editor of the little-read but highly influential Paris Review. But in the 1960s and ’70s, he became an unlikely celebrity as a pioneer in the field of “participatory journalism,” in which a writer tries his hand at the activity he covers.
Tall and painfully thin, with a distinctive upper-crust accent, Plimpton was the last person you’d expect to see on an NFL gridiron getting clobbered by the Detroit Lions, or in a boxing ring with light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore, or nearly breaking his neck on a circus trapeze. Yet he did all this and more in his quest for total immersion.
I had my own Plimpton moment, not nearly as dangerous but no less humbling, at the recent Hatboro Dog Club show. I had resolved to spend the day photographing the show, just like the pros. I came armed with my fully charged camera, an amateur’s zeal for photography, and the optimism born of a powerful ignorance.
The Weimaraner ring seemed a good place to start. After all, William Wegman got rich on Weimaraners—why not me? First, I scoped out a good spot ringside, to get the right angle. But no angle seemed to be the right angle. I set up on one side, only to see the action shift to the other. I hustled to that side, and the action shifted to way over there. (If our photo editor ever needs a good shot of a dog handler’s back, she now has several excellent choices.)
As all those Weims whizzed by, it occurred to me that Wegman’s are always perfectly still. Smart guy. Did you know they’re much easier to photograph that way? By the time my brain told my finger to click, the moment was gone, even when I tried to anticipate where the dogs would be a split second later. I went looking for a slower breed, but even the Basset Hound (a “deliberate” worker, says the standard) proved an elusive target.
And so it went, ring after ring. My rotten timing often resulted in the dreaded derriere shot: Just as I clicked, the judge bent over and the moon caused a total eclipse of the dog. The pro photographers kneel to shoot dogs at eye level. I tried it and got some decent shots of Skye Terriers. But I later realized all the handlers’ heads were cut off, creating an army of Ichabod Cranes gaiting in ghostly procession.
After three hours of this travesty, my knee ached from kneeling. I began seeking out table breeds, so I could shoot them at eye level while I was standing. Mercifully, my camera battery finally died—from laughter, no doubt.
In Plimpton’s most famous book, Paper Lion, his attempt to play quarterback ends in ignominious failure, but he gains a deeper understanding of what makes top professionals tick. That pretty much describes my experience at Hatboro. And to gain that insight, I didn’t have to get flattened by a linebacker. All it cost was a slightly tattered ego and the price of an Ace bandage.