The dogs of Bogot

The dogs that appear again and again in Alec Soth’s photographs of Bogota, Colombia, are street dogs.

Scruffy, tawny mutts regard the Minneapolis photographer’s camera with wary ambivalence. They seem street-smart and vulnerable at the same time.

Those dogs roam a city of seeming contradictions. At night, from above, it’s a twinkling metropolis of more than 7 million people. Up close, it’s all cracked plaster and crumbling concrete.

"Dog Days, Bogota" at the Weinstein Gallery presents a series of images from a 2002 trip to the Colombian capital. Soth and his wife, Rachel, arrived just before Christmas to complete the adoption of their daughter, Carmen.

Soth said “paperwork hang-ups” kept the newly formed trio in Bogotá for weeks. The holidays shut down the country’s courts and the adoption process stalled.

In the meantime, Soth, who said he “had no intention of being a photographer down there,” did just that.

At first, he carried his Mamiya 6 camera up Cerro de Monserrate, one of the Andean peaks that skirt the city to the east. The mostly Catholic locals make a pilgrimage up the mountain every Sunday.

It seemed like an apt metaphor, he said. After all, Soth and his wife were on their own life-changing journey.

But as that journey stretched on and on, Soth, restless, spent less time on the mountain. Instead, he explored Bogota’s streets — first with a guide and then alone — finding nearly everywhere street
children.

“I knew the street kids were sort of an important part of this tale for me,” he said. “I just really didn’t want to photograph them.”

Soth said he was worried about exploiting the children. He was troubled, too, by visions of an alternate reality, one in which he and Rachel never intervened in Carmen’s life.

The dogs became stand-ins: dirty, unkempt citizens of the street with no way to explain how they got there.

“My daughter, who is 5 now, looks at the pictures,” Soth said. “The first thing she said is, ‘Does that doggy have a mommy?’”

“That’s the idea,” he said. “She got it.”

Another important thing happened during the nearly two-month stay. Soth and his wife were given a book from Carmen’s birth mother, whom they never met.

The book was handmade, filled with poems and pictures, covered in sparkles and hand-colored. Soth said he was “in awe” of the hope placed in that book and the “giving spirit” of its creator.

“Since we only have this one thing from her, it’s such a tender gesture,” he said.

In the book, Carmen’s birth mother included a wish for her daughter, two lines that eventually became the theme of “Dog Days, Bogotá.”

“I hope that the hardness of the world will not hurt your sensitivity,” she wrote. “When I think about you, I hope that your life is full of beautiful things.”

Inspired by those words, Soth let beauty and hardness mingle in his square-format photos. Colors are de-saturated so that the photos look faded. Images are tinged gray, as if seen through a mist.

One of Soth’s favorites shows a girl, probably younger than 10 years old, in a sweat suit and tennis shoes. She stands on the edge of the dirt trail up Cerro de Monserrate holding a darker-skinned baby doll. It was a scene that resonated with the father of a newly interracial family.

“That girl on the hill looks like my daughter, now,” Soth said.

His daughter’s favorite from the series shows a girl in her bedroom, her stuffed animals hanging against the window. She kneels beneath them, hands folded in her lap, gazing directly into the camera.

Soth proves most adept at drawing out the beauty of Bogotá in these photos of girls, as well as pictures of young women and their babies. He is gently feeling out storylines in that alternate reality, seeking for what could have been.

What to make, then, of the men Soth makes portraits of? Is he looking for a father figure in the thin, young man with the coral tie and scarred eyebrow, or the unshaven, middle-aged oddball in a rumpled suit?

Martin Weinstein, owner of the Weinstein Gallery, said the middle-aged man — who also appears to have a lazy eye — reminded him of the eccentrics who appear in Soth’s more famous “Sleeping by the Mississippi” series. It was that series that catapulted Soth to fame in 2004, when its entry in the Whitney Biennial earned praise from some of the art world’s most influential critics.

Weinstein said other portraits and still lifes in “Dog Days, Bogotá” are also distinctly Soth. But one of the photographer’s great strengths, he added, is that each series of photographs is also a discrete body of work.

This is Soth’s most personal yet, for obvious reasons.

Carmen appears in one photograph, as a newborn lying naked in the grass. Around her are just-fallen flower petals and old, brown leaves. The sun shines through a tree, covering her in both shadows and golden light.