Goofy and fluffy, prim and trim, flighty and slim – dogs are an endless marvel to humans. Whether they instil love or indifference, they are pervasive within our culture. We caught up with the Creative Director of Four&Sons, Marta Roca, to talk all things dogs. Now on their eighth issue, this Australia-based, pooch-powered magazine is winning followers everywhere.
Congratulations on your latest prize! (Best Use of Photography, 2017 Stack Awards)
Yay! Thank you.
Firstly, why dogs?
It was a happy accident, really. It all started as a collaboration with a friend, Christina Teresinski, who, though not involved in the magazine anymore, is the fairy godmother to the project. We were keen to work together and the two things that stood out on our ‘love’ list were ‘dogs’ and ‘culture’. Christina, who at the time was designing dog accessories, is the ultimate dog lady. I was the rookie.
The thought slowly crept in: 'What would happen if dogs and culture collided’? Coming from a design background, I felt a publication would be the perfect medium. At the time we moved from digital to print, magazines like The Gourmand or Smith Journal were already opening people’s minds to niche worlds. Everything seemed possible. We started to snoop around (excuse the pun) and a whole world opened up. We knew about William Wegman and Lucian Freud and Jeff Koons and KAWS, but could have not imagined the depth, the endless potential. I was totally sucked in. The more I researched, the harder I fell in love with it all, and all these ideas came rushing in. It connected with a gentler side of me. Christina’s dog, Walter, a spirited black poodle who behaves like a puppy trapped in a grumpy old man’s body, became our muse.
What do you think of this natural gravitation towards dogs, and how did it inform the way you crafted the magazine?
Dogs are the ultimate ice-breakers, and also great social levellers. They are an immediate source of affection and ‘realness’, which makes them super-endearing and addictive. We realised not many ‘dog people’ (us included) were aware of their influence in culture. No magazine had attempted to explore a dog’s influence in photography, art, literature, films, and music in one neat little package, and from a contemporary point of view (move aside, tiaras). We quickly realised there’s always a very personal story behind the work. Dogs show a side of artists we may not expect, or one we rarely get a chance to see. It gave us the courage to approach people we have admired from afar (i.e., Mike Mills, Eileen Myles, Dave Eggers, Geoff McFetridge). For some people, especially creative types, talking about their buddies feels more natural than to keep harping on about themselves. It adds another dimension to the person. It’s really moving. The barriers seem to drop. In fact, sometimes there are cases of ‘wow, too much information’. When Mike Mills told us he used to sleep with his Jack Russell, Zoe, prior to marrying Miranda July, we all melted.
Another thought: Four&Sons is as much about dogs as it is about culture and about being inspired. It is important to us to also surprise and to entertain readers who don't own a dog. It is the bond between dogs and us that I found the most interesting: how it shows our humanity, how it drives artists and so on. That is something pretty much everyone can relate to.
What sends most of our customers cooing is the beauty of the photography. What informed the way you wanted to present the dog?
We never intended to limit ourselves to cute puppies. Beauty is a big factor for us. The quality of the visuals is crucial to be taken seriously (there was a few sceptics who couldn’t see beyond the cheesiness of what was considered ‘doggy’). We really hope the features make readers look at dogs in ways they never expected. Photography and illustration are great conduits to spike curiosity and thought. The variety of sections allows us to mix ‘conceptual’ content with playful, tongue-in-cheek pieces or lifestyle-driven articles. Without getting too heavy, the content naturally circles back to ‘universal’ truths like trust, loyalty, companionship, responsibility. Our overarching motto is still ‘the dog is the muse’.
How do you source such an abundance of interviewees?
Most come directly from the minuscule editorial team or through our network of contributors. There’s a lot of ‘a friend of a friend is an interesting creative with an interesting dog’ kind of serendipity. Sometimes a photographer will cross paths with a cool dog while shooting another project, other times a writer pitches a story they are interested in exploring. We have all developed a finely tuned ‘dog radar’, but inspiration can strike anywhere, really. I recently read in the Paris Review that Dorothy Parker lived with an attention-seeking poodle. That would have been a good story to follow up on. I would have also loved to interview David Forster Wallace about his black labs Drone and Jeeves. The list goes on.
A lot of these people adopted their dogs, and some photographic essays have highlighted stray or street dogs. Why did you feel it was important to draw attention to this part of life?
The aspiration is to present dogs (and the relationship with humans and environment) from multiple perspectives, to acknowledge that many dogs are not living large in Brooklyn or Shoreditch. We are no authority, but we can hold a mirror up to remind humans of the abuse and neglect we are capable of. The reflection is not pretty. We do try to be mindful of cultural differences and to avoid simplistic judgement. As poignant as they are, I always find hope reading those stories: from advocacy groups to adoption agencies, all are steps in the right direction.
Four&Sons is not only exceptionally good-looking, it’s very practical. With your travel guides and interviews it makes the idea of having a dog seem more possible – did you want to encourage or reassure those in pursuit of a four-legged friend?
This is such an unexpected compliment, and one we cannot take full credit for.
Although ‘lifestyle’ filters through the mag, we never purposely set up to focus on pet-ownership. Courtney Love (I kid you not), once described Four&Sons as ‘dog porn’. Maybe she had a point. In a way, we are showing many lives lived alongside dogs. We see the mainstream adapting to accept dogs in ‘everyday life’ and work environments. If the magazine reassures people, then we can be pretty proud of our small contribution.
Do you feel the sentimentality towards dogs has grown over history?
I listened to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell a while back. He explained how Winston Churchill fussed over his dogs. Back then, showing affection towards a pet was, for some people, the only ‘acceptable’ way to openly engage with another being. Although times have definitely changed, the need for connection is still there. There’s a growing number of people who has opted not to have kids and are totally devoted to their pets. Where dogs used to be considered working pals or four-legged protection, now they are part of the family.
Do you have a dog?
Alas, sadly I don’t. I live vicariously through the mag. A black Labrador will come my way, sooner or later.
Interview by Libby Borton