Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Book review: An unlikely intersection of humanity … Dogs and Politicians

At first glance, the pairing may have seemed to be an odd juxtaposition of two authors on the Charleston Music Hall stage recently as they discussed their newly published books - one about dogs and one about politicians. It was a sold-out show.

These writers’ careers as two of the best photographers in their respective areas of expertise have brought them accolades, awards and left them with thousands of photographs.

But their recently published books share deeper insights than just pictures from their travels. These writers have taken years of observation, connections, creativity, and a sensitivity to the world around them and translated it, through their own unique lenses, into two compelling books.

Callie Shell spent more than 25 years photographing world leaders and international events just an arms-length away from some of the most powerful people in the world. For eight years, she chronicled Vice President Gore’s two terms. For the last two decades, her work has consistently shown up in the pages of Time, in Michelle Obama’s autobiography and in CNN news stories among many others.

Vincent Musi has spent a long and highly successful career photographing animals all over the world. His internationally recognized work has graced hundreds of pages in National Geographic over the years.

Not only did Callie and Vince share the stage in Charleston recently to promote their books – his about dogs and hers about the Obamas – but they also share their charming Sullivan’s Island home; their teenaged son, Hunter; and 20 years of marriage juggling international photo assignments while still keeping the home fires burning.

When Hunter reached high school, these globetrotting parents and internationally acclaimed photographers decided it was time to make some changes and stick closer to home before Hunter left them as empty nesters in a few years.

Vince realigned his “animal whispering” abilities moving from large exotic animals photographed in all corners of the globe to focus on dogs creatively photographed in the couple’s warehouse studio in downtown Charleston. Callie looked to her years of photo files from travelling with the Obamas to do something new.

Books were born.

 An unlikely pairing of topics? Maybe not. I guess when you think about it, there are some similarities between the subjects of their photos. Politicians can often be found nipping at each other just as dogs do. Likewise, dogs can often be found falling all over themselves as politicians tend to do.

Regardless of the connections around the subject matter, these two books are well worth reading – and buying. And don’t try to read them on your Kindle or iPad. Buy the hardback versions. These are books you’ll want to go back and re-read to just bask in the details and creativity of the subject matter. I’ve already been through both of them twice and am certain the pages will eventually be dog-earred (yes, pun intended).

While Callie’s book, Hope, Never Fear, may appear - because of its subject - to be a political story, that’s exactly what it’s not. As Callie noted in opening her talk at the Charleston Music Hall, her book is the story of hope and family, not politics.

image copyright Callie Shell
In the opening pages of the book, Callie tells the story of how two people who love their country, their families and their community can have the same impact on the kid playing basketball around corner as on the international leader around the world.

Callie’s photographs blend the unique vantage point she was granted by the Obamas with her sharp eye for detail. These magnificent visuals frame a moving narrative drawn from her years of travel with the Obamas who trusted her with their most intimate family time. This adds up to dozens of her photographs that portray a realistic, yet nonpolitical, snapshot of a family who could just as easily be your neighbor as the leader of the free world.

The captions associated with Callie’s photographs come directly from Obamas. But her own moving words in the opening narrative reflecting her perspective of hope triumphing over fear are inspiring and uplifting. Don’t jump to the pictures before you read her introduction!

I became acquainted with Vince’s writing over the past couple of years because of his entertaining and hilarious Instagram posts with accompanying stories about the antics of the dogs he photographs for owners who travel from near and far (with Callie as his able studio assistant). These posts are what brought together the backbone for The Year of the Dogs.

image copyright Vincent J. Musi
Vince’s stories reflect his canine subjects’ personalities and quirky habits with a humor that can only come from his lively imagination plus his willingness to let dogs just be dogs. The narratives that accompany each pup’s unique photo range from sentimental to side splitting. Most of the dogs are still among the living. For others, the photos in the book stand as a memorial to much-loved pets.

Even if you think you can’t abide a dog, Vince’s book leaves you with that feeling of having just been loved on by a gentle Great Dane with a really long tongue. Even if you think you can’t stand a politician, Callie’s book leaves you with a renewed feeling of hope for humanity in general.

In the interest of full disclosure, I can’t claim that this is an objective or formal book review. Callie and I have been friends since we were teenagers. I’ve known Vince since we were young adults. When I first heard about their book plans, I knew their photography would be exquisite. But the writing in both books is moving with equal parts humor and insight sprinkled with their own unique perspectives.

In recent years, I’ve developed a personal practice of buying hardback books from independent booksellers only. I was glad to support Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston when I bought these books at Callie and Vince’s event at the Charleston Music Hall. Even if you can’t buy the books from a local indy store, buy the books. They will both be collectibles you’ll want to pull out and read often for a dose of laughter and a reminder of what binds us all together as humans.

Follow Vince and Callie on Instagram.

This review also appeared in the October 9 issue of Midlands Biz.

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