How Did You Become a Dog Photographer?

"So, how did you become a dog photographer?"

I get asked this all the time. Sometimes daily. Certainly at every networking event I go to, dinner party, and even client Creative Meeting. Even though it’s a story I’ve told literally hundreds and hundreds of times, it’s a tall tale that I always enjoy recounting.

Here’s how it typically starts out. I’m enjoying myself with new acquaintances at a business meet-up for local entrepreneurs, or maybe having dinner and meeting a few new faces, and the question inevitably comes up: "So, what do you do?" "I’m a photographer." And most of the time people will say "Oh, so you photograph weddings and stuff?" And I say "Oh no no, not weddings! I’d go crazy! I study the human-animal bond. I photograph dogs- mostly private commissions, some editorial projects, from coast to coast." And then….. of course "A dog photographer? Really? But what do you really do? It’s not your full time job is it?" When I assure them that, yes, it is my full time job and, yes, I’m pretty good at it, the next question is always "How did you become a dog photographer!?" So, here’s how I became one of the most well-known dog photographers in the country.

I had recently moved to San Francisco from the East Coast at the ripe old age of 23, and was enjoying a life of low-responsibility and tons of fun in my new city. I needed a job, of course, and a friend of a friend worked at a dog daycare in San Francisco. They lied and told the boss that I had experience with dogs – at that time, I was actually a bit afraid of dogs after a dog-bite when I was younger, and had no clue whatsoever about dog behavior. I was completely clueless. But I applied to work at the dog daycare, and lied about having dog experience (sorry karma- I know lying is bad). I got the job somehow, and on the first day of work I got thrown into the big dog play group. Pretending to be cool, I walked into the large play yard and in seconds was surrounded by hundreds of big barking dogs (in reality, it was probably more like 30 dogs, but who’s counting?).

I’ll admit— I was scared. I froze up, and didn’t know what to do. I thought- this was a real mistake. I don’t know anything about dogs! And all these big dogs are barking at me and what am I going to do? All of a sudden a big, beautiful brown pitbull named Lennox calmly approached me, parting the sea of loud, curious dogs. He walked right up to me so quietly, and looked right into my eyes. I looked at Lennox, and he looked at me, and he could tell I needed help. So he turned and walked away, leading the barking pack of dogs to the other corner of the play yard, quieting them down. There was a lull, and Lennox turned and looked back at me to say ‘You’re safe here. You’re one of us now.’ And from that very moment, I was hooked. I was so taken by the power that exists within that dog/human space that I have been working with dogs every day since. And that’s about ten years. It’s a true story.

 A few months later I starting taking a couple classes at City College in San Francisco on lighting and darkroom printing, just to advance my skills. Soon after, I weaseled my way into a coveted position as apprentice at the city’s only fine art family photography studio and every moment that I was not working at the dog daycare facility, I was either taking a photography class or apprenticing at the studio. Part time apprenticing turned into full time apprenticing, which — just one year later— turned into an offer to become an official associate of the photography studio.

Just a few months into my apprenticeship one of my mentors suggested I try photographing dogs, since I did not have much interest (or skill) in photographing families. I thought photographing dogs was such a silly idea, because the only dog photography I’d seen up to that point was cheesy and poorly done. But with his encouragement I took my Hasselblad and a few rolls of black and white film (my tools of choice then, and still today) and photographed a friend’s Pug, Gus. It was one of the best shoots I’ve ever done, and a print of Gus still hangs in my studio today. After that, I jumped in with both feet, with the one simple goal of recreating the look of contemporary dog photography, of turning it into fine art. With my strong fine art portrait background and love for the dog-human bond, becoming a full time fine art dog photographer was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

A photo of Gus- the very first dog I ever photographed.

A photo of Gus- the very first dog I ever photographed.

Jesse Freidin3 Comments