Smile and Say 'Bone'
November 13, 2005
By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN
ON a recent Sunday morning, Amanda Jones arranged lights, set out snacks and erected a stark white backdrop in a rented a photography studio in Chelsea as she awaited her clients. Briscoe, her 11 o'clock, bounded in with so much excitement that his companion looked worried.
"He totally went on the way but sometimes when he gets excited - " explained Jessica Pell, hurrying in after him in.
"Don't worry, it happens all the time," Ms. Jones said.
Ms. Pell then quickly passed a check to Ms. Jones. Her mother would be arriving soon, and Ms. Pell didn't want her to know that she was spending $850 to have her dog photographed. Ms. Jones, 38, kicked off her shoes and got to work, setting off the flash to get the 11-month-old Brussels griffon accustomed to the bright light and feeding him Pup-Peroni.
"If you get a dog who doesn't care about food, you're sunk," she said as she squatted and waved a treat with her left hand. She moved it to the left and Briscoe looked to the left. Click. She held her hand over her head and Briscoe looked up. Click. She meowed and his ears perked up. Click. She squeezed a squeaky toy and he cocked his head. Click.
"I had to learn how to shoot with one hand," Ms. Jones said. Click. "I set the focus where I want it, and then I move the camera until it's in focus." Click. "Oh, man, that's a cute dog." Click. Click. Click.
Ms. Jones is one of the alphas in the rapidly growing commercial-photography specialty of pet portraiture. In a country where consumers can purchase handbag-shaped Chewy Vuitton plush squeaky toys, diamond-studded dog collars and wrought iron canopy beds for dogs, there is no shortage of pet owners willing to pay Ms. Jones's fee because they believe she is the only person who can truly capture the essence of Sparky.
Using the type of seamless background generally reserved for fashion shoots, she probes for pets' idiosyncrasies, eschewing Wegman-like props, which she dismisses as "demeaning."
"Just like there are people who want to be the next Richard Avedon, there are photographers who would give their left arm to be the next Amanda Jones," said Cameron Woo, publisher of Bark magazine, which Time called "The New Yorker of pet magazines." He said that so many pet photographers have emerged in the last few years that he has to turn much of their advertising away so that they don't dominate the magazine.
Ms. Jones discovered her calling by accident. Eight years ago she was a freelance photographer in San Francisco, primarily shooting portraits for Red Herring, a business technology magazine. "I would try to make them interesting in their cubicles, but it just wasn't my cup of tea," she said. Then, on a lark, Ms. Jones gathered seven of her friends' dogs and photographed them against a backdrop. "Until then, the photos didn't mean much to the people I was doing them for," she said. "But their dog portraits really meant something to them in a heartfelt way, which had a big impact on me."
As Ms. Jones was finishing with Briscoe, Ms. Pell hovered. "I'm never going to be able to show these pictures to anyone," she said, "because they'll say, 'You did what?' "
It is a typical comment at a session with Ms. Jones. As blindly devoted as pet owners can be, most invariably reach the point - whether it's when they're reaching for the credit card at a doggie day spa, or looking at a closet full of dog clothes, or buying their dog an edible birthday card - where they suspect they've gone bonkers.
How tempting is it to swat overindulgent pet owners with a rolled-up newspaper? "The dogs are easy, but the hardest part is dealing with the owners," Ms. Jones said. "Especially when they're coming to the studio as a couple. Then there's your whole couple dynamic."
Ms. Jones's studio is in North Adams, Mass., but she shoots mostly on the road. In November, for example, she rented studios in Chicago, Cleveland and London, booking five sessions a day for both a Saturday and Sunday in each location. She does about 150 sittings a year. Ninety percent of her business is dogs; cats make up the rest.
In addition to doing portraits (her work is online at amandajones.com), Ms. Jones has also published three books featuring dog photographs, the last of which, "Dachshunds Short and Long" (Berkley), came out in October. To find models, she posted a request on Craigslist for fit, well-behaved and well-groomed dachshunds, a strategy, she said, that provided mixed results. "I had one girl tell me she had the most beautiful long-haired dachshund in the world," Ms. Jones said. "Then she showed up for the shoot and the dog was probably seven pounds overweight and not that cute at all. And she barked at me the whole time."
Allison McCabe, Ms. Jones's editor, was also on the shoot. "There was a lot of naked ambition of people who wanted their dogs on the cover," Ms. McCabe said. "Some people were fine, but others made me think of 'Best in Show.' They'd say, 'My dog didn't have enough time.' Or, 'My dog was just getting warmed up.' "
Ms. McCabe, who recently left Berkley for Random House, first discovered Ms. Jones's work a couple years ago, when she was seeking a photographer for a book on greyhounds. "There's a lot of pet photography that's very cloying, very sentimental," Ms. McCabe said. "Amanda gets past that. She has a good rapport with dogs and gets them to be themselves on camera - she gets the expression in their eyes that you see and say, 'Yes, that's my dog.' "
The client who posed that Sunday's biggest challenge was Scott Letcher. For the last several years Mr. Letcher and his companion of 23 years (he works for a conservative firm and did not want to be identified) have hired Ms. Jones to photograph their dogs for a holiday card. They now have four female dogs: Madison, a black Labrador retriever, 9; Ellie, also a black lab, 8; Alex, a vizsla, 8 ("We didn't do very good family planning," Mr. Letcher quipped); and Bea, a Weimaraner, a 7-month-old puppy.
This year's card also will include a male dog, Toby, a 1-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel whom Mr. Letcher purchased in France for his mother. During that Sunday session, Ms. Jones and Mr. Letcher's trainer, Richard Lovejoy, somehow managed to pose all five dogs sitting close together.
Ms. Jones said holiday cards now make up about 10 percent of her business, mostly for clients who don't have children. Mr. Letcher is frank about the compensatory role his dogs play in his life.
"People who have kids talk about having a legacy, but as wishful as I may be for two men to have that, the reality is very different," he said. "So having dogs is a way for me to express that part of myself - of wanting, and needing, to be a parent."
Mr. Letcher, a psychotherapist, has no illusions about the relationship between dogs and people being uncomplicated. "They adore you because you feed them," he said. "They don't come with any expectations of what, or who, you're supposed to be. It doesn't matter to them that you didn't take much math or science in high school or didn't get straight A's. They sort of normalize things."
He held up a photograph of his two black labs that Ms. Jones took a few years ago. The dogs lay back-to-back on their sides, nearly mirror images of one another, and look toward the camera, their eyes the color of chestnuts. "If this is the only thing I produce in my life, then what else is there?" he said. "Those are my dogs, and they love each other. It may be simplistic, but it is what it is."