Theron Humphrey of "Maddie on Things" on His Photogenic Pooch and Life on the Road
Chances are you've seen Maddie on something. Be it balancing on a bicycle in Michigan or a basketball hoop in Iowa. Stretched out between two staircase railings in Pennsylvania or posing inside a giant watermelon in Mississippi. Driving a tractor in North Dakota or curled up inside a barbecue at a park in Wyoming.
These may not seem like events worth documenting, but Maddie is a dog -- a 3 1/2-year-old, 45-pound coonhound hailing from just outside Atlanta. The balancing act is in her nature, her human, Theron Humphrey says. And capturing such an event -- be it Maddie on a ladder or the roof of a car -- requires little more than a command and the promise of a treat. Humphrey began taking pictures of these often hilarious, sometimes human-looking scenes using his iPhone and posted them on Instagram.
The canine concept came to Humphrey last year, while trekking through all 50 states for a different Kickstarter-funded, 65,000-plus mile adventure, This Wild Idea. That project was picked up by National Geographic, which listed Humphrey as one of its Travelers of the Year in 2012. In each state, he found new and creative ways to capture Maddie's ability, creating an Instagram feed that has gathered a few hundred thousand followers and led to yet another project across America, dubbed Why We Rescue, and partnerships with animal-friendly brands like Petco.
Almost entirely due to the success and accessibility of platforms like Tumblr and Instagram (and the Internet's affinity for animals), the pictures of Maddie garnered hundreds of thousands of "likes" and "shares" across the Internet. Humphrey curated the images into a book, Maddie on Things: A Super Serious Project About Dogs and Physics, and the two embarked on a second journey across the country, this time in the form of a book tour.
Maddie and Humphrey will be at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe this weekend for a book signing and meet-and-greet. Humphrey called us from the road (naturally) outside Denver to talk about his canine companion, his favorite photography apps, and why everyone should host a traveler -- at least once.
How long have you been on tour for Maddie on Things: A Super Serious Project About Dogs and Physics? We've been on the road for over five months now. We've got about five months left. We're halfway through. Is 10 months on the road normal for you? Well, last year I was on the road for a year just traveling alone. This year, my buddy (Garrett Cornelison) came with me. We're shooting a couple of documentaries while we're traveling, and he's helping me with the book tour. It's good; things are really good. The Denver stop was great, 100 people showed up. It's always really amazing and humbling to have people come out.
I've been following the tour online and via Instagram. It seems very interactive in terms of outreach with social media. Has that been an interesting aspect for you, to have people be privy to your adventures along that way? Yeah. I think what's been fun about that is it's making the Internet tangible and real. So, it's not like I'm just some strange anomaly or anonymous person on the Internet. I'm a real dude with a dog! I think people come out obviously to say hi and meet me and meet Maddie, but it also validates the whole Internet because it's so easy to get lost online. [You] either read interesting stuff, or bad stuff, or just consume stuff -- you don't even know where it comes from. So, it's really special to authenticate the Internet and make it real. It's been pretty valuable this year to be able to do that.
All these photographs -- the ones in the book -- are shot and edited with the iPhone. Yeah, all the images in the book are shot with the iPhone 4.
So, as a photographer, what do you think that really means for the future of photography? How are these apps changing the medium, and is it going to create the capability for people to do things like this book? Ultimately it's still a tool. Instagram is not a camera; it's just a platform. And it's interesting to use whatever tool is nearby or whatever helps you create your vision. For me, at first I didn't respect the iPhone as a camera, and I think a lot of photographers kind of felt the same way. But over time, sharing the image immediately had more value than having the absolute highest quality. It's kind of an interesting shift. To post it immediately was better than having no digital noise or biggest file possible. That was much more secondary.
I feel like there's this movement in terms of like, the best camera being the one you have with you, in a way. Yeah! Yeah, sure. And this project kind of relates to that. Do you have a particular photography platform or editing app that you tend to gravitate toward? These days I'm using VSCOcam a lot. It's been up for a little while, but it's gaining a lot of traction. I think they have about 4 million users now, so it's a pretty big community. And it's growing, and the tools are really powerful and they have great filters. A little bit more than a filter -- you can scale it. With Instagram I think people grew really weary of the filters really quickly because it's like all-or-nothing, very heavy-handed. But with VSCO it's a sliding scale from like, 1-12 so you can have a very subtle adjustment where the image still speaks, but the filter just adds something. It's a nice contrast. It's like a preset.
One of your recent photographs is a picture of Maddie on top of a mountain in Colorado -- which seemed like an incredible feat on four legs. Is that challenging? Has anything ever presented an issue? She's never fallen and she's never been hurt. It's just like, in her nature. With that shot on the mountain I was just like, "Maddie, up!" She just climbs up there and starts looking. It's in her quiver of talents.
The image I love the most -- that really surprised me, I was really impressed with her -- is we were in North Dakota and there's a photograph of her on a tractor tire. Like, on the axle, curving with the giant wheel of a John Deere tractor.
That is definitely one of my favorites and it's aesthetically really beautiful, and I'm really impressed with her balancing. How did you discover that she could do all of this? When I first rescued her, I got her in a shelter down in Atlanta, right before I started traveling. She's my first dog and I figured Steinbeck had Charley [referring to Steinbeck short novel Travels with Charley]; I needed a companion for my adventures around America.
I came home one day after getting a cup of coffee with a buddy. We came back in, and she was standing up on the back of a couch. She wasn't curled up in a ball, sleeping. She was standing there with her head down, kind of looking like Eeyore, standing there. I was just like, "Oh, that's so weird, Maddie!" It grew from there. It's always been a reflection of her natural talents and abilities. I just pick her up and tell her to stay, and give her a treat and she's happy. Has adopting her has inspired you to work with rescues? Such as chronicling people and pups around the country with that "Why We Rescue" series? "Why Rescue" was at the end of the year when I shot this yearlong documentary called "This Wild Idea" that got picked up and published by National Geographic. So I pitched [the idea of] rescue and adoption stories across all 50 states, to do this big look at what it means to bring an animal into your life. I mean, I didn't want to share like, sad animals in sad cages -- not that that never exists, but I didn't want to perpetuate the myth that animals from shelters and rescue organizations are second-rate. I wanted to show that they're a great addition to families and can hopefully be your first choice if you're bringing an animal into your life. It's a very salt-of-the-earth documentary and every-day storytelling.
That seems to be something that you're very into. I mean, going on the road for a year or two at a time, what is it about being on the road as opposed to being stationary that you relate to or that prompts you create these projects? I think the great part of traveling is consistently being inspired by states you haven't seen before. In my DNA is this great desire to discover and see places I've never been before. This year will be the second year I've been to all 50 states, but I've literally seen stuff I've never seen before. You could travel for like, 10 years in America nonstop and still see new places. It's so huge and vast. It's the drive to keep moving. And it's addicting. The lifestyle. It's comfortable. I've been doing this so long now.
What often inspires me is people's hospitality. Staying in people's houses and getting to take photos I've never taken before, it's incredible. Often in America we have this idea that people are very private and don't want to share. But I've discovered people just wanting to connect and tell stories and, "Hey! Camp on our land! Come hang out!" I feel like, people are always asking 'how can I be inspired' and my biggest thing is offer hospitality to people. Open up your home to a traveler, to someone coming through. I think you have to do things in life that make you a little uncomfortable, particularly to keep you fresh on your toes and gain a little perspective. It's easy never having people in your house, right? Most people know what that's like, but, what is it like to open up your home and cook dinner for someone and share stories and get their perspective on life. So yeah, I try to tell people to just offer hospitality to travelers. It's a great way to make the world a little bit smaller in a good way.
On the flip side of that, do you have any advice for just being on a road trip? Any habits you tend to recommend? Last year was just hanging out with people. Every day experiences. Like [in Seattle], it was never my goal to go to the Space Needle, right? Not that that's a bad thing to do, but a local, they go maybe once a year? So I wanted to just spend time with them in the coffee shops or in their backyard or go hiking. The things that we did were really simple and profound, but it's what defines a life. Like, choosing to go hiking on the weekend instead of watching TV -- I wanted to be a part of that experience with somebody.
Those words are really simple: "going on a hike." But when you would go you'd find this incredible old abandoned railroad bridge with these beautiful trees falling across it. So instead, that's like, what the hike was. My year has just been full of that. Trying to seek out people to spend time with. Folks love to share the place they come from. People love and are really proud of their towns.
The doggone good time starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, August 24, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. Purchase of the book ($15.95) admits two.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.