Photographer Tara Israel takes her very beloved and admittedly funny-looking Pomeranian almost everywhere she shoots—from rural Kentucky liquor stores to salty fishing boats off the Hamptons. And she has the delightfully quirky photos to prove it.
We had a million pets when I was a child. Cats, rats, dogs, salamanders… and if we got one we wanted it to have a friend. One cat turned into five, rats came in pairs, a turtle lived in our bathtub because someone broke the tank while cleaning it. I used the rats in a drunk driving PSA I made in a high school film class. We had a Doberman that ate $500 worth of Girl Scout cookies. I was mad because I was eight and wanted to eat $500 of Girl Scout cookies myself. I still do.
So it makes sense that I wanted a dog of my own when I went off to college. A big rescue dog that I would train to do impressive things and name after a First Lady. I loved a boxer I saw at the shelter. It was the color of red clay with muscles like a real boxer. I looked at collies and rottweilers online. However, as most love stories go, it didn’t turn out as planned. I ended up with a three-pound pomeranian puppy from a pet store. He was on sale because he was too tall and had scraggly fur. I named him Tito Jackson. That was twelve years ago. Since then I’ve traveled the world, often with Tito in tow. He has been to mansion parties in a tuxedo. He has been to trailer park parties and eaten from those giant sandwiches you order by the foot. We have slept in my Jeep on the side of the highway. We spent my 30th birthday at the Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan eating room service in the bathtub and watching “Blazing Saddles” on an iPad.
As I’ve gotten older my social life has gotten smaller. At some point I realized if I waited until I found someone to come with me to do the things I wanted to do, I would waste my entire life waiting. So I just started going. So did Tito.
– Tara Israel
NOAH: WHO IS TITO?
TARA: His full name is Tito Superdude Jackson. “Superdude” after the third-grade hamster on the “Simpsons” and “Tito Jackson” being Tito Jackson [of the Jackson 5]. My mom got him for me for my twentieth birthday, and I fell in love. He was funny-looking and nobody wanted to pay a premium for a funny-looking dog. He’s bigger than he’s supposed to be, he doesn’t have the fluffy coat he’s supposed to have. He’s basically a defective pomeranian by ‘breedist’ standards. People like to brag about having rescue dogs; well, I rescued him — from a terrible life of sitting in a pet store [laughs].
YOU AND TITO BOTH HAVE, UM, RATHER BIG PERSONALITIES. WITH THE DOG, IS THAT A RESULT OF NATURE OR NURTURE?
I feel like Tito’s a product of a little of both. He’s proof that bad ideas actually are good ideas, and also that deep, unconditional love can completely erase any mistakes that you’ve made in any relationship.
More than any other dog I’ve had or have traveled with, there’s a magnetic attraction. He knows how to work a room. He’s very trusting and he gets really excited. So he’s really good with kids. My grandmother, the last two times I saw her before she went into a home — she has dementia — Tito would just sit with her and be totally calm and super happy to be pat and loved. But if a little kid comes up to him and starts pulling on his fur, he’s also totally fine with that.
[When I was in college] Tito lived in a house with seven other students in campus housing. In your late teens and early twenties it’s kind of a crazy time if you’re doing it right. So he was along for the ride. I’ve tried to guide him with love rather than scolding, or however you usually train dogs. He’s completely fearless. I’ll go to the ocean and even if it’s the middle of the winter and it’s bombing, he charges into the waves and doesn’t care.
If you pick him up and hug him he’s totally calm and relaxed, even if you’re walking into a loud concert with a million drunk people trying to pet him.
There’s a communication [between me and Tito]. I feel like we think in complete sentences and hear each other.
WHEN DID YOU START TOTING TITO AROUND WITH YOU MOST PLACES YOU GO?
It started in the beginning because I was the party girl. I’d go into the city [New York] to visit friends, and because campus was half an hour away I felt bad leaving him at home as a puppy. He kind of became a security blanket. As an adult everybody needs their thing to get into places when you travel alone: You need to be a drummer or a foodie or a something, to find your people. I travel alone all the time, and I bring Tito and it’s a good icebreaker. Especially if I’m going on a photo trip to a town I’ve never been to before. If I was just a girl traveling by myself, the first person that’s probably going to come up to me is some creepy hobo or some pervy old man — maybe not the most reliable first source. But the first person that’s going to come up to you when you have a dog will be somebody kind.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST LONGISH TRIP YOU TOOK HIM ON?
His first birthday, I had just taken a leave of absence from school. My mom was doing a job on Martha’s Vineyard and I went to help her. Her client paid for us to take a private plane from East Hampton to the Vineyard. So Tito’s first birthday was actually in a private plane, and that sounds totally fabulous. He was terrified — it was maybe one of two times in his life he was genuinely terrified, because it was so loud, he didn’t understand.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO BLEND YOUR PASSIONS OF PHOTOGRAPHY AND YOUR LOVE FOR TITO AND START PHOTOGRAPHING HIM?
Having my picture taken makes me very uncomfortable, but I love taking pictures of Tito. Photographers and directors are very self-centric. Literally, as somebody who documents the world around me, the world completely revolves around me. So it’s weird for me to stop and take a picture of myself, because I’m not seeing myself, I’m seeing the world. [My photos of Tito] are my way of marking that I was here. I’ve seen it with a lot of other photographers — they do it with pets, props or a car, something that’s distinctly them. This is a way to say, ‘I have been here.’ I don’t really understand the whole selfie thing.
I ALMOST THINK OF YOUR PHOTOS OF TITO AS BEING SELFIES OF TARA. THEY SHOW YOUR HUMOR, YOUR TALENT FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, THEY SHOW THESE CRAZY PLACES YOU GO, LIVING BY YOUR OWN LAW.
Oh, totally. When people started doing selfies I tried to do it and I wondered, ‘Why is this so uncomfortable for me to look at?’ I realized it’s because when I’m having an experience or I wanna do something candid, I don’t want to stop and worry about my angles. I don’t see my face in my own memory. Taking pictures of Tito definitely was part of me documenting my little love child, but it’s also a selfie; it’s my statement — whatever bullshit statement we try to make with selfies. Me looking back at all these pictures of him over my life, I’m realizing that it’s probably more effective than me taking pictures of myself, because I remember that moment.
BEFORE TITO TOOK OVER YOUR INSTAGRAM FEED, @WHOISTARAISRAEL, WHERE DID YOU START POSTING THESE PHOTOS?
I started a Tumblr for Tito, and the only reason I started it was because a bunch of my mom’s friends had passed away, and I got really into these depressing documentaries on Netflix — about methadone and stuff like that, which is not very uplifting. And I’m like, ‘I think we both need a little pick-me-up’ and I thought it would be a cute thing to do. It’s only now occurring to me that people who don’t know Tito would care what Tito was up to. I see these celebrity dogs — I don’t know at what point their owners were like, ‘The world’s gonna care what this dog is up to. We’re gonna get you a marketing person!’ That just never occurred to me. I’m a bad ‘mom-ager’ is what I’m saying; Tito could have a total career right now.
YOU’VE GOTTEN HIM INTO SOME PRETTY HILARIOUS AND UNPREDICTABLE SITUATIONS, AS WE CAN SEE IN THESE IMAGES. TALK ABOUT A FEW OF THEM.
Tito has been the ultimate companion for me. Especially if I’m doing photo stuff, I don’t like bringing anybody that isn’t already invited because I don’t ever want to feel like I’m overcrowding or imposing on somebody else’s space. And if I want to go fast and they’re going slow, I don’t want to be bothered with it.
I realized that the only way I could combine my love of clamming and Tito’s love of the beach was if I brought him in the water with me. I figured out that this plastic drawer I had could be used as my clam bucket.
I could put Tito in it and he would float — it’s magical. At one point one of my friends thought that Tito needed a real boat, so he built a boat that’s to scale of the one he wanted to build for himself. EBay used it as a stock photo. It was up there for two or three days. So millions of people have seen Tito — they just don’t realize it’s Tito.
COULD YOU HAVE DONE THE SAME SHOOTS WITH ANOTHER DOG?
Definitely not. My threshold for discomfort is higher, because I don’t have a person with me most of the time, but at least I have him. If you talk to anyone from a small town, you find fun in really weird ways. It’s nice that I’ve been able to bring that with me everywhere I’ve traveled. That sense of imagination, most people lose as an adult. I’ve never had to conform to being a non-playful person.
[Tito] is a trigger. If you study oral history they talk about different ways to access memory. When I was going through the pictures, I realized it’s the experience that most childhood sweethearts who’ve been together for fifteen or twenty years have when they go through photo albums — like watching me go through my twenties, all these wonderful, crazy things we’ve done together. If you’re looking at a chapter of your life in relation to somebody you started that period of time with and also have started the next chapter with, time becomes a symphony. It’s not all these isolated moments.
We’ve been to some really fucked-up places. So it’s better that I’m in some fucked-up hotel room in God-Knows-Where, America, with my dog, taking photos of him next to some broken-ass TV or in the liquor store there, rather than fixating on how disgusting it is. Focus on the fun parts of it, or make it fun when there is none.
DID A SHOOT WITH TITO EVER BACKFIRE?
The only time he was just like, ‘This is not ok,’ was with this bell buoy by my house in East Hampton. I put Tito on the buoy and [my friend] backed the boat up so I could get a shot of him. He was uncomfortable with it only because there was a bell above his head and it was loud. He’s a dog and dogs don’t need to hear bells going off [laughs]. As both of us have gotten older, I know what he’s going to be ok with and what he’s not before I do it.
I call myself the Sally Mann of dog photography. Do you know who Sally Mann is? She did really stunning black and white photos of her children growing up in Virginia. Her kids were very young — most of the photography was when the kids were pre-pubescent, and they’re naked, running around the farm. [Over time], they became aware of the camera and that’s just how they interacted with it. And I know my Tito and he knows the camera, and he just makes the face.
IS TITO EVER JUST NOT UP FOR THESE ADVENTURES?
He’s definitely not always raring to go. I was down at the beach [working on a photo project] for ten hours today, and I had him for seven of those hours. He’s so tired right now that if we were in the city he’d go under my bed and pass out. Right now he’s asleep on the couch next to me. He’s snoring and it sounds like he’s whistling through a baloney sandwich because he’s so tired. He’s usually game but as he gets older he likes to sleep in.
IN THE IMAGES, HE APPEARS TO BE THE HAPPIEST PUP IN THE WORLD, COOPERATING ENDLESSLY WITH THOSE BIG, GLASSY EYES. WHAT’S IT REALLY LIKE BEHIND THE SCENES? ANY BRIBING GOING ON?
He’s the dog of a journalist — he responds well to questions. I don’t bribe him with treats or anything. Usually it involves me saying, ‘We’re going somewhere’ or ‘It’s dinner time.’For a while, weirdly, he was responding to the word ‘anarchy’; I don’t know where that came from.
I think he can tell when things are funny. He’s such a weird dog. He does weird things, and people get excited about it. And happiness is contagious. If you clap your hands he gets excited and spins in circles.
DO YOU EVER GET THE SENSE THAT HE’S IN ON THE JOKE?
He’s completely in on the joke. I see funny things all the time. I just think they’re funnier when you stick a ding-dong dog in front of it, especially because he’s either smiling or he has a completely blank stare. And they say that’s the formula for every great comedy, right, is repetition.
It becomes infinitely more funny when there’s like a thousand of these photos.
DOES HE HELP WITH LONELINESS, MAKE YOU FEEL SAFE?
Loneliness is not really my problem. I know I’m a portrait photographer but I’m really cool with being alone. The thing is, if I’m going on a trip that I can’t take him on, I don’t know how people spend all the hours in their day. Something we do every night is we go for a five- or ten-mile walk. It’s these little adventures and when I don’t have him I’m less inclined to do them. It’s really weird to not be accountable for another living thing.
With a lot of artists, there’s a difference between being in outer space and out to lunch. The people that are in outer space — the dreamers, the creative types — there’s always something that tethers them to reality, so they’re never completely lost. Tito’s not my only thread that connects me to reality, but he’s definitely my thing that connects me to normal society.
NOT TO BRING UP A SENSITIVE SUBJECT, BUT TITO IS NO SPRING CHICKEN. DOES HE APPEAR TO BE SLOWING DOWN AT ALL?
It takes him longer to recover. He used to take a fifteen-minute nap and he’d be ready to go. He doesn’t have all his teeth — you can see that he looks like a vampire in some of his pictures because they’ve pulled a lot of them at the dentist. But I think the reason he’s still as healthy as he is is the same reason that humans stay healthy: We eat well and we stay active.
BUT IT ALSO MUST BE THE ADVENTURE TOO, RIGHT?
Oh totally. The [high] school I graduated from does ‘team-building’ workshops, and in the eleventh grade you go on a four-day retreat with ‘LARPers’ — the live-action role-play people. You do this weird fantasy, storytelling game in the woods and everyone is dressed in costume. I asked [one of the organizers], ‘Why do you guys do this? Like, this is pretty fucking weird, you’re dressing up like goblins, jumping out of trees with fake swords.’ And he said, ‘The thing you have to realize is, you have to have a sense of play. That’s what keeps you young, that’s what keeps you happy. And the second that people lose that spark is when they become completely deflated and either just age overnight, or lose the will to carry on. You can tell that most people have that beaten out of them by the time they’re in their late twenties or their thirties.
You need to have that sense of play to be a happy, fulfilled person for the rest of your life.’ And I feel like maybe that’s what it’s like with Tito. Everything becomes an adventure even if it’s something as minor as walking to the post office.
DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT A LIFE WITHOUT TITO?
Uh, it’s really weird, I do think about it all the time. I’ve got some time to deal with it. There’ll be another Tito, ya know? The vet said he’s probably going to live till his late teens, early twenties. So we’ll just go with that, I’m not gonna get too morbid about it just now.
BUT ANY OTHER DOG WILL HAVE ITS OWN QUIRKS AND WON’T BE TITO, RIGHT?
I’m not gonna clone Tito and think it’s gonna be the same thing. I will have another pet at some point and I will love that dog for whatever it is. And maybe the dog won’t be as adventurous as Tito, but there’s some nurture and some nature involved. And I will nurture the shit out of the dog and get it to do whatever my lifestyle requires it to do [laughs]. That’s half the fun of having some sort of companion. You seek something out and you want it to fill a certain role in your life, and most of the fun comes from the fact that it’s not you so it’s contributing something entirely different.
Tito has had such a special life because he’s just completely trusted the people around him. If you don’t fight things your life becomes something really incredible. That’s kinda how I live: Try not to be offensive and stay out of people’s way but at the same time go and do what I want, and just go with it. Let every day unfold and just be something wonderful and magical, hopefully—or even if it just involves sleeping all day, that’s totally cool too [laughs].
WHAT COMES NEXT FOR YOU AND TITO?
We’re going to L.A. for Thanksgiving. Then we’re driving to Michigan to my uncle’s racetrack in December, and then he and I are going to Seattle and to Portland and back. We’re picking up my camper in April and then going on a four-month road trip to continue my [photography] project, focusing on women in Appalachia. Let’s just say there’s magic in the mountains [laughs].
I tell Tito all the time that I hope he realizes what a fun life he’s had. But he’s a dog and he doesn’t understand things like that… [long pause] I think he does.
This interview has been edited and condensed because both the interviewee and interviewer love to talk.
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Tara Israel is Narratively’s contributing photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. You can read about some of her recent projects and see photos of the questionable company she keeps at taraisrael.com. And you can also keep up with her, and Tito, on Instagram at @whoistaraisrael.