Say 'Cheese'!

By Connie Ogle

Knight Ridder News

MIAMI The Shih Tzu's flowing auburn hair had to be refluffed every few minutes. The blue tick hound absolutely did not want to jump up on the platform. And the possibility loomed that the excitable Rottweiler might pee on the background screen.

None of these crises fazes the good-natured, patient Deborah Samuel, freelance photographer and creator of the delightful books “dog” and “Pup” (Chronicle, $29.95 and $14.95, respectively). When you're working with dogs, “It just takes time. It may feel repetitious to someone on the outside, but I'm not seeing the same thing in every shot.”

Boy, does it ever take time. First, the dog is allowed to roam the studio, sniffing and collecting ear scratches and generally indulging in goofy canine behavior. (The tiny paws of Jezebel the Shih Tzu, however, were not allowed to touch the floor; too messy for her perfect tresses.) Samuel observes the dog, noting its characteristics: “The curl in the tail, an ear, the coloration, differences that are distinct breed to breed.”

Eventually the dog hops up or is repeatedly dragged, in the case of the recalcitrant hound on a platform and, with the judicious use of turkey hot dogs and squeaky toys from two intrepid handlers, Samuel begins to shoot a work of art. “They're like children,” she says of her subjects. “You have to keep them happy and vibrant.”

The portrait may be fairly traditional, or it may veer into the avant garde, focusing on a silken ear, a curly tail, a sweetly soft paw. Samuel starts by shooting the whole body, then zooms in on the details that catch her eye. She hopes to bring out the dog's personality, so she's not particularly interested in perfectly trained pets.

Owners tend to get antsy if their babies are not behaving well, but Samuel shrugs off unruliness. “It's about real dogs and trying to get their characters,” she says. “The more energetic the shoot, the better it is. It's all about energy.”

Make no mistake: These portraits are not your Pet Supermarket specials with Santa. This is art, for serious collectors: Commissions start at $2,000, which includes the cost of film, the hiring of the handlers and up to five 11-by-14 silver prints. Samuel, who travels every three weeks, requires four commissions to visit an area. Most of us will have to settle for enjoying her books.

But not everything about the process is high end. Samuel, a lifelong dog nut who has found a way to make her passion pay, says she's donating part of this session's proceeds to the Humane Society of Greater Miami. It was a Humane Society benefit at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bal Harbour, after all, that first brought her to South Florida. The event raised more than $500,000 for the planned Fine-Soffer shelter, says Michelle Grosman, president of the board of directors.

Grosman, owner of three dogs, including the sometimes-incontinent Rottweiler, fell in love with Samuel's work at a SoHo gallery, bought the original photo on “dog's” cover and decided she'd invite Samuel to appear in Miami.

“She's a true animal person,” Grosman says. “And her work, the character comes through in the photos. They have an architectural look to them.”

Samuel, who has four dogs back home in Santa Barbara, Calif., began by photographing her own pets; after her beloved Labrador Ernie died, she regretted that she had only snapshots of him.

Soon friends were requesting portraits, and strangers were approaching her in the park where she walked her pets with similar queries. She also shoots cats and horses, and despite a successful career in the fashion and music industries, admits that the dog work almost 90 percent of her business has superseded almost everything else. Commercial photography “is a job,” she says. “This is a passion.”

That she's never even had a problem with an owner also helps produce a good working atmosphere. “You're always in a positive environment with dogs,” she says.


Samuel, whose mother bred collies, doesn't have favorite breeds, but she admits that the most exhausting shoots involve Jack Russell terriers, with their boundless energy and ability to leap. She said she needs a few days between shoots, because working with them is exhausting. Big dogs are tough, too, because they “wander around like horses,” and hounds and beagles “don't focus the way other dogs do.”

Small dogs like Jezebel, who belongs to Aventura's Lynne Lassman, can be moved around easily, which is good, but all that hair hides their tiny features. “Everything's small here. “Everything minute in her movements you have to expand.” Jezebel grew weary of modeling at one point, and Samuel still needed movement. She hit upon a solution: she broke up a cardboard box and had the handlers and assorted owners wave cardboard to create a breeze and movement! as Jezebel pattered gamely across the platform.

And then there's the peeing, most of which is done by puppies, Samuel says. This time, she didn't have to worry about that particular problem. Diesel the Rottweiler managed to control himself. “He felt so comfortable,” says a pleased Grosman. “Deborah was so perceptive. She could be a pet psychologist.”

(c) 2003, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): DOGPHOTOGRAPHER

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