"Best Friends: Antique Images of Animals and Their People," an exhibition of charming images capturing the human-animal relationship, is at White River Valley Museum in Auburn through April 15.
Burrowed beneath museum director Patricia Cosgrove’s office desk is a black-and-white border-collie mix named Gidget. She is something of a Frisbee nut. She’s also a beloved addition to the White River Valley Museum, delivering mail to the staff and inspiring its latest exhibit.
“I always have (her) with me,” said Cosgrove, patting Gidget’s head, as the dog surfaces from underneath her desk. “She’s very empathic, and I marvel at that (ability) of animals.”
Through April 15, the museum is hosting “Best Friends: Antique Images of Animals and Their People.” The idea came to Cosgrove as she was sifting through reams of old photographs. Buried between sepia images of stern-faced businessmen and street scenes from the city’s railroad days were some of people and animals, and she was struck by their candidness.
“Often people are pretty stiff in historic photographs — women are corseted, their hair is pulled back tight and men are wearing ties and hats. They’re holding still because that’s what you did to get a long exposure,” explained Cosgrove. “Suddenly when animals are added to a picture, it loosens and humanizes the presentation.”
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The series of photos portray a range: family members with their dog, shipmates with a cat, a farmer and his horse. Each is paired with lines of poetry and quotes about the age-old relationship between humans and animals. Some are endearing; others humorous.
“I think everyone can relate to it,” said Rachael Burrum, the museum’s curator of education. “Everyone has interactions with animals … And a lot of people come in here and they kind of get weepy. They think about pets they’ve had in their lives.”
The museum, run in partnership with the city of Auburn, is dedicated to the documentation of local history. Though the exhibit is intended to be expressive, Cosgrove said that “Best Friends” does have historical undertones.
The images depict an epoch she calls the Progressive Era, between the 1880s and 1920s. As cameras became increasingly accessible, they were advertised to women as pocket-size accessories.
As the region urbanized, people’s relationships with animals evolved.
“They may no longer be (just) for production, or for industry,” said Cosgrove. “They were seen as pets.”
She notes one image in particular by photographer Edward Curtis, who is most famous for his photos of Native Americans, which is uncharacteristic of him.
“(The photo) is a still-life in the middle of the story,” she said.
“I guess I take some comfort in the fact that you can essentially make up stories to go with them in some ways.”
A girl and her dog sleep peacefully against a background of shrubbery and tall grass. There’s a certain purity to the scene. And it’s with this image that Cosgrove has chosen to open the show.
“(Pets) are so sincerely in the present,” she explained. “They are direct, unaffected and react to phenomena combined with intention, not to the expectations of the future, or the past, or societal considerations or aesthetics — as so often do we humans.”
Cosgrove lives with post-traumatic stress, and Gidget helps keep her in the here and now. In return for her unwavering devotion, Cosgrove recognizes their relationship as mutual. She plays Frisbee with Gidget in the mornings and evenings and takes her to herd sheep. It’s that companionship she wants to communicate in “Best Friends.”
“When there’s an animal in the image, I relate more to them,” said Cosgrove. “The animal is like an opening of a door to that time and place.”