I first learned of Mr. Winkle in 2002, and was an instant fan. His cuteness and versatility as a canine photographic subject seemed impossibly vast. His little pink tongue that lolled out of his mouth in a perpetual gesture of humility made him completely irresistible. At the time I first encountered him was a junior high teacher, and Mr. Winkle became my secret weapon. I loaded up my ipod with a photo album of Mr. Winkle pictures, and when one of my adolescent students misbehaved or was grouchy, I’d insist that they spend a few minutes looking at the pictures. It worked every time; within seconds their mood was better. Mr. Winkle was a veritable panacea.
While people often ask of Mr. Winkle “What is it?” there is no doubt that whatever he is, he’s cute!
Whether you have a soft heart or not, it’s hard to deny that there is transformative power in cuteness. Cuteness has both evolutionary and sociological functions that are equally important. While it may be a stretch to say ‘Cute will save the world” (though I’d really like to be able to say that), it is undeniable that there is a certain shift that is enacted when the right kind of cute is inserted in the right place, at the right time (Mr. Winkle, as far as I can tell, is right all the time.). Anger is diminished, stress abated, smiles increase, people soften.
There are varying scientific and academic associations with cuteness. Kawaii, derived from the Tale of Genji, is a culture of cute that permeates nearly all aspects of Japanese society. The popular website cuteoverload.com has a taxonomy of cute spelled out in a growing list of over 30 Rules of Cuteness. Subsets of science and social science – anthrozoology or ethology, for example - are dedicated to studying human-animal relationships, and the increasingly visible field of evolutionary psychology uses science to explain how our thoughts and actions are in the service of evolutionary advantages.
Cuteness is most commonly associated with humans or animals that have neotenic features, like those of an infant: large eyes, big forehead, small limbs, etc. These characteristics serve an evolutionary function to encourage us to have protective, maternal feelings. But cuteness gives back, too. Cute animals can be therapeutic, they provide comic relief, they teach us how to express love, they spark our imagination, and can even be our physical or spiritual voices. (I refer to my own dog as my physical trainer and my anti-depressant.) And while we are more likely to anthropomorphize cute creatures, in so doing we reveal our own thoughts, needs, desires, hopes, and imagination. Mr. Winkle embodies all of these facets of cuteness and more.
It is often said that animals choose us, we don’t choose them. Mr. Winkle chose well, indeed, for it was only through the eyes and perception of his human, Ms. Lara Jo Regan, that his true greatness was revealed and shared with the world. A renowned documentary photographer with an eye for truth, Ms. Regan was observant and sensitive enough to know what gifts Mr. Winkle had and that they needed to be shared. Her extensive background in photography armed her with the creativity and vision that would give Mr. Winkle the platform he needed to work his magic. Ms. Regan’s photographs of Mr. Winkle call upon a long history of tableaux photography from the Pictorialists of the 19th century to 20th century photographers such as Cindy Sherman. Thus Mr. Winkle came to be contextualized within a dialogue of art and photographic history as well as within the science of cute.
While there have been momentary cute-animal fads – such as Knut the baby polar bear or Maru the Japanese cat – Mr. Winkle has been a cute-celebrity for over 10 years, commanding a massive fan base, and countless excited accounts of Mr. Winkle sightings or encounters. He has brought pleasure to thousands, and has affected people of all ages. Whether the result of hard or soft science, his je ne sais quoi yields an infectious, insatiable, indescribable desire for more Mr. Winkle. From kitschy to kabalistic, silly to spiritual, Mr. Winkle embodies the canine sublime.
Los Angeles, 2011