StyleTails spoke to Grange Prize winning artist Jo Longhurst and Thrill Engineer Brendan Walker, with their two willowy whippets Terence and Vincent.
To say that Jo Longhurst and Brendan Walker love Whippets would be a slight understatement. When Jo and Brendan came to own their two very cool canines – Terence and Vincent (Vinnie & Tel) 10 years ago, the pair became intrigued by the show scene and the breeder’s obsessive quest for perfection.
Using their own dogs as inspiration, Jo embarked on her acclaimed project – The Refusal, photographing and exploring the bloodlines British Show Whippets, while roping Brendan in for some glory in the ring along the way. I met this interesting little family on a freezing morning in Victoria Park to find how to rescue a Whippet off a window ledge and what it takes to scare yourself half to death.
ST: Your critically acclaimed 2008 project The Refusal uses the British Show Whippet as its subject. What originally inspired you to work with dogs in your art?
JL: Around the time we got Terence and Vincent, I applied to the Royal College of Art and I was thinking about my PhD project. We started going to dog shows with the Whippets and I became intrigued by the whole scene – the way the dogs were bred to an ideal standard and the breeder’s obsession with creating the the perfect dog. I was struck by the way dogs were talked about and judged purely as physical specimens which seemed in total contrast with the traditional emotional attachments humans have with dogs. The Refusal was about exploring these human / dog relationships further and looking at this as a microcosm of human society.
ST: You worked very closely with the breeders on the project. Did you get the sense that the dogs enjoyed showing and competing?
JL: Yes, aboslutely. It was a social event for them.
ST: The dogs look so perfectly still in the images – was it hard to get them to pose?
No, they were incredibly compliant subjects – it must be the show ring training. My dogs were always really engaged and far better behaved when a camera was on them. They love the attention!
ST: You’re judging the Dog Photographer of the Year competition which launched at Crufts. What will you be looking for from the winning entry?
Passion, engagement with the dog, something that captures the moment, or the human / dog relationship – not a technically sterile or cliched image.
ST: You’ve been labeled a ‘thrill engineer’. How did you end up in the business of thrill?
BW: I started out as an aeronautical engineer and then went on to the RCA to study industrial design – I actually designed some pet products earlier in my career. I became quite fascinated with the dynamics of emotional experiences and published The Taxonomy of Thrill in 2005. From there I went on the work with theme parks looking at trends and futurology in rides – so basically, what will cause fear and anxiety for people in 10 years time.
A lot is to do with the idea of terror versus horror. Horror is specific and known, whereas the terror is the unknown which is scarier. There will also be more interactivity on rides – so spectators can control the ride as well.
ST: Is ‘thrill’ the same for everyone?
No, it’s deeply subjective. What thrills one person may not thrill the next – for example one person might be thrilled by cross-dressing, whereas shoplifting might do it for another. People also have varying degrees of sensitivity to things. It takes a lot to get a strong emotional response from some people whereas it can be very subtle for others.
ST: Are you easily thrilled?
Unfortunately no. Jo arranged for me to be tested for the ‘thrill gene’ which some people have. It means that it’s harder for you to get thrilled by things and therefore you feel you need to go to greater extremes to get a kick. I am one of those people.
ST: What’s the scariest ride you’ve ever been on?
BW: It actually wasn’t a ride – I went skydiving in California and chose the cheapiest, dodgiest company I could find. The plane looked like it was falling to bits and they were repairing the parachutes with a sewing machine when we arrived. My tandem instructor was a Korean guy who didn’t speak a word of English and the chute didn’t open properly on the way down. He eventually got it untangled but there was a moment when I really thought that was it for me.
ST: You like to build your own rides. What’s the strangest ride you’ve ever created?
I created a ride in Hackney last year that involved people in swings with gas masks whose experience could be controlled by their breathing. That was quite odd. Strangely it didn’t get picked up by Thorpe Park.
ST: What do you love about Whippets?
BW: They’re so affectionate. They love to curl up on the sofa with you like a cat, but they’re better than cats. They really feel like proper dogs – very athletic and so beautiful to watch when they run.
ST: Had you always wanted Whippets?
BW: We had originally wanted a Greyhound and we were searching around in rescues but they were just a bit too big for our lifestyle so Whippets seemed like the perfect alternative.
Did you set out to get two dogs together?
BW: We had only planned to get one dog but as we were leaving with Vincent, Terence started running around the breeder’s garden and performing tricks for us. We figured he’d chosen us and we ended up going home with two dogs.
ST: What trouble have they got themselves into?
BW: Poor Terence has really been in the wars. He’s swallowed a battery, had his stomach pumped, managed to open a window of our second floor flat and climb out onto the ledge. He also lost one of legs after dislocated his shoulder jumping over a bench to bark at a passing Staffy.
How did you get him down off the ledge!?
The entire street had congregated by this point and some people were holding a blanket in case he fell. Finally he realised he realised he could get back in the way he came out – through the window.
The Dog Photographer of the Year competition 2013 is now open for entries from budding photographers around the world, both amateur and professional. Enter via the Kennel Club’s website – entries close 31st August 2013