It began with a car. Theron Humphrey was killing time, amid a road trip, and decided to photograph his Coonhound Maddie on his car. He was trying to recreate the feeling of those car photos from the 1950s and 60s, where people stand proudly in front of their new vehicle in the driveway. This may not have been quite the energy this photo gave off, but nonetheless there was something there. Maddie, he realized, was quite the stander.
“Why not put her on some cans, man?” one of his friends asked. And so he set out the soup cans, and Maddie obliged. Thus the idea of Maddie standing on things was born.
As Humphrey traversed across the country, Maddie stood on trees and people and signs. Humphrey (pictured below) posted these photos on Instagram under the name @thiswildidea, gathering nearly 100,000 followers.
I was one of these followers, hopping on the feed some months back. Given that I generally despise animals photos (having spent too long working on the Web and having my work overshadowed by cats), I felt conflicted about my fascination with this dog. I rationalized that Maddie was not so much a dog, but a refined human stuck in a canine's body. That was the only way to explain the elegance with which she did things like suck on lightbulbs and put bananas on her face.
As the months passed, I assumed that @thiswildidea referred to the wild poses that Humphrey put his dog in. Like many of his other followers, I missed the point. Maddie, it turns out, is just a side-project; a daily diversion as he attempted to accomplish his truly wild idea, which was to quit his soul-sucking job and travel the country, documenting the life of a different person every single day. As he drove, icebreaker Maddie by his side, he was looking for strangers “like my mom” he says; people who may not appear that unusual at first, but deserve to have their story recorded. People like 101-year-old Gino Hernandez in Seattle.
In August, after a year on the road, Humphrey completed his project. He raised $16,000 to see the project through on Kickstarter, in part with the attention he gained through his incredible dog. While photos of Maddie gets thousands of likes and shares, sifting through the other photos, and accompanying audio, it’s clear that this other work is not quite as popular. But that does seem to bother Humphrey.
"Musicians have this song they took to the radio and they are grateful it feeds them, but on their album they have these other songs they care about more. I think every artist has that," he told me on the phone the other day.
Maddie is his lovable popular hit. And these other people, they are his passion. Humphrey is the quick to acknowledge that the quality of photos varies; you try to produce a story about a stranger every single day for 365 days and some will be more compelling than others. But from day one, he has been committed to putting it all up, knowing that you can’t foresee meaning.
This point was driven home after spending a day with Patrick Millard in Pittsburg.
“It wasn’t the day I had the best photographs. The images were just OK,” he says.
Two weeks later, Millard’s mother contacted Humphrey and told him her 30-something-old son had suddenly, tragically passed away.
There is comment at the bottom of Patrick’s page on the This Wild Idea site: “This has brought me much comfort through such a difficult time ... Thank you.”
It turns out that Humphrey's plan to find meaning in the lives of strangers wasn’t really so wild at all.