Why I Photograph Pets
When I was growing up, my Mum always had two dogs. I loved every single one of them, from the grumpy old Westie called Lassie, who would only put up with my toddler probings because she was too arthritic to move; Sherry the bossy Lhasa Apso who just knew she ran the house; Polly the Staffie cross who would wee when excited and would play ball with me for hours in the garden; but especially Heidi the Golden Retriever who we got as a puppy when I was 5, and was my constant companion when I was growing up. I don’t have a single photo of any of them.
How attitudes to animals are changing. As a kid I remember the first time I stood up to my Dad, we were going on holiday and Heidi and Sherry were due to go to the kennels. I thought this grossly unfair, and told him so. I saw them as members of our family who wanted to be with us, I clearly remember their agitation every time one of the family would walk off on their own. He, along with many adults of the time, saw them as just dogs who wouldn’t care where they were so long as they were fed. Was I being anthropomorphic and putting human emotions on to mere animals? Or was I recognising common emotions that we mammals share?
Whenever I photograph pets, its so plain to me that we do share many common emotions and characteristics. We are more to them than just a food source, and they are more to us than just beasts to keep out intruders. Dogs are unique in their ability to read human emotions, they are so in tune with us in a way that mere domesticated wolves can never be. Over the last 80,000 years we have evolved emotional bonds that amaze scientists, but just confirm what dog lovers have said and thought for decades.
Every time I pick up the camera I am looking to capture these common connections. I’m not sure if its the humanity in the animal I am trying to portray, or a reflection of the animal in us humans, but I do know we humans are closer to the animals than some of us like to think. Fear, happiness, greed, contentment, excitement, boredom, playfulness; we have these emotions in common, and these are the common threads that I pick at in my photography.
Traditionally, pets have been portrayed in art as either soft and cuddly, or hard working and loyal. Think of the cutesy pastel puppies in baskets, or the loyal gun dog standing erect with bird in mouth. This doesn’t represent my pets, how I interact with them or how I see them behave from day to day. For most of us our pets are key family members, our best mates, and this is how I aim to photograph them. I use human photography techniques more in line with human portraiture and fashion photography to emphasise our commonality.
In the studio, my first job is to create an environment where your pet can relax. These days I spend more time reading about animal behaviour than photography; the better I am at interacting with my subjects on their terms, the better a photographer I become. Whilst unveiling their characters, I sculpt with my lights to emphasise their unique attributes. An ear here, a quiff there, noses, paws, tails, brightly coloured feathers and leathery scales, we build up the portrait one exposure at a time. As we play, my camera ready, I wait for the moment I feel the character and pose are ideal; I press the shutter as the final portrait is revealed before my lens.
Many people ask why I photograph in a studio rather than outside in a park or beach, or in someone’s home. I prefer the freedom of the studio; my subjects have no distraction other than me and their family, and are free to behave as they wish. No strangers getting in the way, no other animals disturbing our connection, no leash to constrain them, no bad weather to spoil the light. The light, my main tool, is always perfect in the studio. Of course special moments happen in their own home, but people have their own cameras these days for those types of photos. What we strive to create is unique and special and can only happen in the right conditions. Our portraits sit on the walls and coffee tables, beside your own personal photos.
Photographing pets in a studio, with human lighting techniques and human emotions; that’s what I love.