In Conversation with photographer Mark Peckmezian

Amanda Winberg

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the dog

spring, 2022

1) Jagdszene aus: Abhandlung über die Jagd, Mailand, 863 n. d. H./ 1459 u. Z. Chantilly, Musée Condé, Ms. 368, fol. 85r. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Mark Peckmezian is a Berlin-based fashion-photographer and artist with an extraordinary eye for the beautiful awkwardness in failed visual archetypes. He has earned international fame for his creative fashion-photography for major fashion houses such as Gucci, Hermes and Dior, as well as for his portraits of Bill Gates, Joe Biden, and other political animals, featured in outlets like The New York Times and Le Monde. The most recent work of his is the artistic portraiture book Nice from 2021, printed by Roma Publications.

In this issue of Differens Magazine, #II. inside animals / animals inside, we have been given the opportunity to learn more about Peckmezian’s dog photography. Describing it as a reconnection with his artistic practice after many years of art theory at the Ryerson University in Toronto, photographing animals seem to has figured as something like a source of creative vitality for Peckmezian since the beginning of his career:

I started shooting dogs immediately after leaving school, actually. It felt like a bit of a detox or something. Returning to an innocent and joyous engagement with photography after being brainwashed by university, this delusional academic discourse. I hated the way my professors talked about and conceived art. In fact, they would’ve absolutely hated these dog photos.”

With a visual language characterized by irony, drama and extravagance, the dogs in Peckmezian’s photography raises fundamental questions about interspecific perception, scenes and spectacles. His dogs are not nonhumans but morethanhumans, pointing toward something extremely, perhaps supreme, human, yet to find its concepts. We, being this embarrassingly contrived species with too much self-consciousness to assertively express and stage our equally hilarious as beautiful temperaments, find ourselves admitting that humans have a lot to learn from the expressive aesthetic of the dogs, in Peckmezian’s photography.

Being one of our times hottest dog photographers, what do you think about when you hear the word dog?

Haha I reject that characterization but nevertheless: I think I think about dogs? I should say that I don’t think my dog photos are about dogs really. I see the dogs as a token subject. They’re a stand in for the human subject, and the project is a space to play with photography and its codes and conventions. This describes my creative motivation at least. They are still literally pictures of dogs, and I do like dogs a lot. I can see why the pictures would be interesting to dog enthusiasts even though they were meant differently. 

Your dog photography often investigates the moods and attitudes of dog-being, how different is it to approach and shoot dogs compared to humans?

I think of shooting dogs and shooting people as very, very similar activities. They both involve a lot of the same creative ‘modules’: Getting a read on a character, a personality; distilling that into a relatable idea; finding the right photographic form to articulate that. 

I think I often approach portraiture as something like caricature. You get an overwhelming sense of a subjects’ mental state or persona. For example: the small prissy dog, wound up tight, trotting anxiously on its little ballerina feet. I know that mood! I know that person. How do you depict this visually, in a clear and compelling way? To answer that question involves understanding a lot about photography, and a lot of that knowledge is directly applicable to portraiture of people. In this way I see these photos as one big exercise.

Describing it as a retreat from theory, do you at all work with something like an ideal for the portraits or is it just interaction and Zen all the way through?

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

I think this work specifically is all about letting go and reacting. I found that whenever I go to a dog park with expectations, the pictures fall apart. There are too many variables to ever really control, so it’s foolish to even try. I just walk around, watch dogs, and daydream about picture ideas. The vast majority of my dog pictures were taken spontaneously, when I was out with a camera. I would also deliberately go to hang out at dog parks to find dogs.

I’d like to take a moment to think about the meeting between these fluffy sometimes clumsy and, you know, fleshy, bodies and the hard, objective, and technical instrument, that the camera is. What happens in the meeting between dog and camera?

As it happens, dogs don’t really care so much about my presence. They usually pay me minimal attention, they’re too busy sniffing shit or whatever. Sometimes the flash angers them.

Something I always find interesting is the reaction of the dog owners. I’ve photographed hundreds of dogs and not once has an owner ever objected. On the contrary they seem to beam with pride. This always makes me laugh for some reason. I imagine that they think “someone else sees how beautiful and perfect my dog is,” their personal vanity somehow extending to another being. 

While I was doing some research for this interview, I came across texts about your photography that suggested that you were “giving personality” to the dogs through your style of expression. How do you feel about this characterization?

I have a very agnostic attitude towards this. I always start off being inspired by something specific about the dog, but I’m not loyal to that perception. I’ll do whatever makes for a good picture: ‘Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ I cheat pictures all the time. Maybe a dog was in fact a graceful dog, and was running gracefully when I took the picture, but in the frame I have he looks like a wild mess. Maybe that attitude makes for a better picture.

 If there is such a thing as unphotogenic humans (that is, humans who don’t really photograph well), are there correspondingly unphotogenic dogs?

On an ultimate level I think there are no boring subjects. Every subject has some kind of interestingness somewhere. It comes down to the intelligence and talent of the photographer to be able to find and articulate that. But conventionally speaking yes of course. I think people or dogs that are banal, have nothing specific about them, are “unphotogenic.” Of course even that banality, if concentrated enough, can become special. 

An interesting corollary would be that some subjects are too photogenic. I think this exists. I think about subjects that are too obviously interesting. Consider the poodle with dyed pink hair or something. I think as a viewer you always want to feel like you’re discovering something, and subjects like to deprive you of that experience.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

I understand your dog portraits as an ambition to capture the temperaments, directness and playfulness of the dog’s bodily expressions, perhaps suggesting that a similar humour is to be found in the expressions of the human body and its doings? Is the value of something being “fun” or, as your latest publication is called, “nice” underestimated in the art world?

Yeah I think that’s the tone I bring to most of my work, lightness and humour. I laugh a lot when I take pictures. I think about the whole enterprise of making art as possessing a fundamental absurdity. But I don’t mean that as a complaint: I want to celebrate that absurdity, I want to enjoy something as it is, exactly as it is.I don’t believe that all art has to be pleasurable per se, but personally I certainly prefer art that is.

Additionally I have no tolerance for work that discards pleasure unduly, usually out of narcissism (refusal to meet the viewer half way), incompetence (inability to communicate well), or out of some sort of ideology that says ‘pleasurable work is unserious work.’ 

As we approaching the end of this interview, I must ask the question I’ve been most excited about: do you envy dogs and their humor?

Great question and the answer is absolutely, yes. I think I fetishize a state of innocence. I admire that deeply. I think dogs have many attitudes that, if possessed by a human, would be very admirable. I’m imagining the cliche good natured dog: easy going, down for whatever, always enthusiastic about whatever they’re doing, curious and adventurous, friendly, trusting.

I know some people like this. I see these qualities as a kind of moral intelligence. I think there are many kinds of intelligence, and I think moral intelligence is the most valuable kind by a factor of ten. And some people just seem to be born with sound moral intuitions. I don’t have that, I felt like I had to fight for every inch haha. 

Haha, relate. But now I immediately feel compelled to ask one supplementary and last question… If you must pick a human to symbolize the virtues of the dog, who would it be?

Hmm in terms of a well known figure, maybe the Prince from The Idiot.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian