Doggie style 

Marc Joseph's handsomely packaged photography collection, American Pitbull (Steidl), asserts that when it comes to those battling bow-wows, you are either unambiguously fer 'em or agin 'em.

Going deep into the pitbull way, Joseph documents the affection, machismo, sex appeal, concrete block kennels and other totems of this doggie demimonde. American Pitbull is a survey of the pitbull competition circuit, from young black breeders to a Massachusetts family's pit dynasty, as well as enthusiasts including Fairburn kennel owners James Patton and his brother Antwon (otherwise known as Big Boi from OutKast) and local artists Michael Gibson and Carolyn Carr.

Joseph's most visually satisfying portion of pit-ophilia is his documentation, a la August Sander, of 48 pitbulls shot against the kind of wood paneled backdrop that recalls Calvin Klein's controversial kiddie-porn ad campaign. The formally arresting images (which attest to the breed's charms more than the effusive dog-love expressed in the book's text) show the sheer variety of the beast, from knock-kneed and baby-faced to caramel-eyed and sinister.

Try as the book might to sanctify the breed, the pictures often tell another story, of a dog whose reputation for violence is as exploited a macho fashion accessory as the "bring it on" signifiers of heavy tattoos, shaved heads, Hummers and gold teeth.

Not content to leave documentary photography of the dogs and their human fans alone, in an accompanying essay writer James Frey's Yankee Doodle Doggie pro-pit proselytizing is as heavy-handed as a Jack Chick comic.

The real redemption occurs beneath the surface in the book's valorization of this quintessentially working-class breed and the kind of salt-of-the-earth types who idolize its fighting spirit. American Pitbull is a complicated expression of how objects transform into icons, and how this courageous, unstoppable breed serves as a symbol to owners glorifying those same qualities in themselves.

American Pitbull by Marc Joseph. Essay by James Frey. Interviews by Cory Reynolds. Steidl, 200 pages, $30.

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