Cannes is known the world over for its film festival and timeless French Riviera glamour. La Croisette, the town’s seafront boulevard, is The Place to stroll along, to see and be seen. Below eye level, a surprising number of rather glamorous, happy-looking dogs can be seen promenading too. A dog’s life on the French Riviera can be a very good one.
Earlier this year, I had the idea of going to capture some street portraits of pampered Cote d’Azur pooches. A client of mine, ‘N’ (Norwegian Air’s in-flight magazine), liked my pitch and so I set out, as writer and photographer, to explore the French Riviera from a privileged pet’s point of view.
Crotchless thong for a Yorkie
From doggy aromatherapy to local gourmet, organic petfood producers, there is an astonishing array of pet services on offer in and around Cannes. The aptly-named ‘VIP Dogs’ grooming salon was my first port of call. Situated just behind the prestigious Carlton hotel (which, incidentally, welcomes dogs – a startling 50 % of hotels in Cannes do-), VIP Dogs is perhaps the most luxurious of the town’s 11 pet pampering parlours.
Inside the boutique, pink ballerina dresses jostle for space with shiny, gold-sequinned bomber jackets and fur coats, all designed by French and Italian couturiers for four-legged customers. Dog collars studded with Moët & Chandon champagne caps, bottles of canine eau de parfum that go by the names ‘Angel‘ or ‘Bonbon‘ and doggy sunglasses (for those harmful bright reflections on board yachts moored in the sunny South of France) are standard issue here. One of the more unusual items I spotted was a crotchless leopard-print thong designed for a Yorkshire terrier.
frozen cats and forgotten graves
Things got more surreal at the pet crematorium. At Animal Respect, in the hills above Cannes, the boxes of tissues dotted around the reception room and a sympathetic shoulder to cry are all part of the service. Here, in an appropriately sombre room, groups of mourners can gather in a cremation ceremony and say goodbye to their beloved dogs / cats / goldfish – who are then efficiently sent on to the next world via a 650°C oven located behind the curtain.
I was a little late arriving and was surprised by the consternation that this appeared to cause. There was no time for niceties or an introduction to the centre as I was whisked straight into the cremation room. What I hadn’t realised was that, in honour of the photographer’s arrival that morning, a cat, previously frozen to preserve its dignity between death and its cremation, had been brought out of the freezer. Shampooed, brushed and laid out on the ceremonial table under its freshly washed blanket for a photograph, the poor lifeless moggie had been starting to thaw.
challenges of shooting from a dog’s point of view
The most challenging aspect of my project was nonetheless technical. Taking street photography of dogs from a dog’s viewpoint is not straightforward. It took much testing of different techniques to work out how best to safely attach my camera to a push-along child’s scooter. I attached a cable release to the camera so that I could press the shutter at waist height, but setting the focus and regulating exposure all had to be set-up in advance, with me then positioning myself at the right distance from the dog, and with the sun in the right place for my exposure. Framing each shot was then a haphazard process that depended on my knowledge of the lens – and hoping for the best.
It goes without saying that a 5’10” photographer who glides along the Cannes Croisette on a very small scooter with a large camera strapped to its base, and holding a flashgun and diffuser off to one side, doesn’t make for the most unobtrusive street photography. Added to my eye-catching appearance, the 24 mm focal length I was working with meant that I needed to be within sniffing distance of dogs in order to photograph them as I wished.
My initial attempts predictably ended up with photographs showing frightened-looking dogs and owners changing direction to avoid me. I decided to ditch the idea of stealth photography and instead asked owners for environmental portraits of their four-legged friends.
Rooster in a handbag
The most surprising thing I saw during this project didn’t have four legs at all. At one point, as I was scootering around on the lookout for eye-catching dogs, I raised my eyes to see a woman strolling past me with a Louis Vitton style handbag – not an unusual event in Cannes. But something made me look twice. Right before me, sitting nonchalantly in the bag, was… a cockerel.
“He’s the replacement life companion I chose after my husband sadly passed away“, the rooster’s owner explained to me. Living indoors and allegedly fully house-trained, this cock loves squeaky toys and is “the ideal pet“, she claimed. I very much wanted to photograph the pair, but sensed that both rooster and owner were reluctant to draw attention to themselves. It was suddenly a huge inconvenience that my camera was strapped to a scooter. Speed was of the essence to grab some unobtrusive photographs, but turning the scooter upside down and holding it high in the air in order to be able to see through the lens and adjust my exposure was neither fast nor discreet. I only managed to shoot 2 frames before I was asked in no uncertain terms to stop taking pictures and leave the two companions in peace…