The Fine Art of Dog Photography: An Interview with Sophie Gamand
Sophie Gamand, a French fine art photographer based in New York City, takes absolutely charming photos of dogs. Rightly so, her award-winning Wet Dog series went viral earlier this year. Sophie has an incredible talent for capturing the individuality of each dog she photographs, from the looks of uncertainty at the groomer’s to the truly sweet nature of misunderstood strays. I spoke with Sophie about becoming a fine art photographer, the questions her current series explore, and her project of passion—charity work with animal shelters.
If you’d like to win a Flower Power calendar, showcasing Sophie’s recent work with shelter pit bulls, enter the Rafflecopter giveaway below.
Sophie, how did you first enter the photography world? Did you have formal training?
I was always very artistic and self-taught. I became more serious with photography around 2007 when I stumbled upon Flickr, which at the time blew my mind! I got a DSLR and started experimenting.
How did you get started photographing dogs?
It was not until 2010, having moved to New York, that I discovered my obsession with photographing dogs. It happened by accident. I snapped a photo of a dog in a vet’s office in Brooklyn. The look on his face said it all. He seemed worried, out of place, human. I started exploring all the things people do with—and to—their dogs, especially in New York. I wondered how dogs were able to fit into such a highly urban lifestyle. One story led to another. I brought dogs to my studio and then realized I had a certain talent for capturing their expressions. I was surprised to see that most photographers still photographed dogs as if they were animals, when really I think they stopped being animals a long time ago, at least in big cities. They are more human than animal. So I focused my images on their faces, their expressions. I was looking for the individual in them. And that, I think, separated me from other dog photographers. I was not comfortable with the title of “Pet Photographer” because I wanted to say so much about dogs—our relationship with them and what it says about us as a human society. The way we treat dogs, whether we celebrate them like gods or abuse them, speaks volumes about our civilization and how lonely we feel among our peers. By photographing dogs I try to understand people better.
Where do you find inspiration? Do you visit museums and galleries to look at others’ art?
My head is always filled with ideas and visions. I never really look for inspiration elsewhere. All these years I’ve barely been able to keep up with the flow in my head. It took me years to tame the beast and learn to understand, treasure, and protect my creative process. One of the things I accepted is that seeing other photographers’ work was not inspiring. It was undermining my own process. I felt like others were more talented or had done my ideas better than I could ever do them. It is only when I stopped looking at what others do, and started focusing on my work and voice, then finding my own little niche, that I truly found my artistic freedom. Once I realized no one else was really doing what I was doing, not my way anyway, I became free and all of a sudden everything became possible. I stopped judging myself too.
Oscar © Sophie Gamand, Wet Dog series
Do you have a favorite photographer or role model?
If I had to mention a photographer it would be William Wegman because he revolutionized the way we photograph dogs. He pushed so many boundaries. I believe no one else has taken their work further. And since him nobody has explored the weird world of dogs—and what they let us do to them—to such an extent that he does.
What is the best part of being a fine art photographer? And the most challenging?
The best part is that I get to do what I want when I want to do it. Nobody tells me what to do. I could not have it any other way. The most challenging part is that… I get to do what I want when I want to! It is both a blessing and a curse. Being your own master, giving yourself your own direction, is not always easy. My challenge was always that I tended to overthink everything. And then I would find myself stuck. But over the years I have learned to just follow my creative instincts and trust my inner flow. The challenge is to let the flow run freely. Once you start overthinking or overdoing things, everything falls apart. I used to sing opera and it is very similar—you have to be in control of your breath and your muscles, and the emotions. But at the same time you have to be completely relaxed and open so the air and the sound can travel freely and in a more powerful way. The more you give up control, the more powerful and pure the sound will be. The more you tense up or try to control the sound, the less power it will have, and the less control you end up having! It is very contradictory! I found opera singing so difficult because I was never able to truly give up the control. I believe that all arts are the same. You need to master your tools and your creative ideas while allowing things to move and evolve freely. That balance is the key to a successful, fulfilling artistic path. This year I believe I found that sweet spot. I am very happy. Sometimes I worry it won’t last. Artists are always chasing something.
The Wet Dog series earned you international acclaim. Tell us a bit about the shoot and what inspired you to create it.
Wet Dog happened at the exact moment I gave up control in my work. Before that series, I was overthinking a lot of my work. The day I shot Wet Dog, I didn’t know what I was going to be photographing exactly. I had a rough idea, which was to document the dog grooming process and take before/after photos. So it was a starting point. But I was open to anything else that would come my way, and when the groomer started bathing the dogs, I just took photos with no agenda. When I realized the dogs were making incredibly expressive faces, I knew I had something. As soon as I released the series online it went viral. This was a year ago and I still give interviews about Wet Dog! It has been an incredible journey. I also won two prestigious photography awards for the series [Sophie won 1st place in the Portraiture category of the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards and 1st place in the Professional Fine Art/Portrait category of the 2014 International Photography Awards] and signed a book deal with Grand Central Publishing [the Wet Dog book will be published in Fall 2015]. Definitively life-changing.
Britney © Sophie Gamand, Wet Dog series
Describe a typical session for us. What kinds of things are you thinking about when you’re behind the camera?
I take the time to set up and prepare the studio—the light, etc. Then I meet the dog. Let the dog sniff around and get comfortable. I give the dog some commands to assess his comfort level and responsiveness. I give the dog treats, so he knows I mean business but I am also friendly. During the actual shoot, I just try to get interesting expressions from the dogs. I don’t overthink too much—or I try not to. I think photography is a great tool for that. You can set up everything and then at some point you have to let the magic happen. I also know how to get specific things from my models. It’s a balance between trying to get what I have in mind and allowing for the magic to happen, and for myself to be surprised by the model and by our dynamic together. It’s probably like dancing the tango.
The photographs you take capture the spirit of each dog so well. How do you make your subjects comfortable to show you their personalities? Is it important to bond with each dog before photographing them?
Each dog is different and each shoot is different too. I always follow the dog’s lead. Some of them want to interact. Others are not interested. Sometimes it’s best not to bond—it keeps the models on their toes! It really depends on each situation. The most important thing for me is to give off a strong, firm but understanding vibe. I treat them like professional models. They are here to perform a job, and their reward is petting, treats, attention, and love. I have to be assertive. I keep the dogs interested and engaged. Usually they sleep very well after a shoot!
You just finished working on your first book—congratulations! What was it like to turn Wet Dog into a book?
It is very challenging to take a series that comprises 10 to 15 images and turn it into a book of over 100 images. How do you stay true to the original series while producing a final product that will be exciting, entertaining, and new at every page?
The whole experience so far has been quite exciting. I had to organize more shoots, find more groomers to work with, put more colors into the images, find more dogs with different shapes, sizes, and colors! My organizational skills came in handy and I ran everything like a military operation! During the shoots I tried to always look at things with a fresh eye. I went into each shoot trying to find ways of keeping it exciting for myself—using props, for example, or trying new things. I knew that if it was boring to me, it would be boring to the viewer too. I shot a lot of new images—more than I needed, really—because I wanted to make sure every page would be amazing, fun, surprising.
Buddy © Sophie Gamand, Wet Dog series
Now all the images have been shot. The book is in the hands of my editor and the designer. We made a selection of images together—it was hard!—and now I will let them work their magic. I view the making of a book as a team effort. Artists often want to keep a firm hand on every aspect of their work. I have learned that you need to give up some of that control and let other professionals do their job in order to be successful and not kill yourself with work, and anxiety. I cannot wait to see the first layout of the book and work on the small details that will make it special!
A significant part of your work promotes rescue shelters and adoption. How did you decide to start Striking Paws? Can you tell us more about its mission?
Striking Paws is my project about photography helping homeless pets. When I started offering my photography services to shelters and rescue groups many of them would turn me down or not answer me at all. It was quite frustrating. I often meet photographers who encounter the same issue. I volunteered for over a year and half with a group and saw behind the scenes, all the things involved in running a rescue or a shelter. Now I have a better understanding. I can see both sides and I believe it is part of my mission to educate shelters about the importance of good photography, while educating photographers on how to approach shelters and how to best work with them.
Striking Paws is a place for my photography work dedicated to rescues: shelter shoots, when I take photos of dogs who are available for adoption in order to aid in the adoption process; campaigns I develop to shed light on certain issues, such as Flower Power, dedicated to shelter pit bulls, and I’m also working on ideas for senior dog adoption and other sub-groups who are overlooked at shelters; and stories I cover to bring awareness to certain places, such as Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico. I have the dream of traveling the world to document various stray dog populations—or at least in America!
Dead Dog Beach © Sophie Gamand
I could simply not imagine being a photographer working with dogs and not helping rescues. In New York alone there are more than 150,000 dogs available for adoption! Most of them are pit bulls. When you hear numbers and you understand how intricate the situation is, you have to want to do something.
Do professional photos help dogs get adopted faster?
Absolutely! Good photos help shelters in many ways. A photo that goes viral because it’s beautiful or cute or funny will bring more attention to the dog and the rescue group. Recently, one of the Flower Power models was adopted after over two years at the shelter! She had been overlooked for a long time by potential adopters. Then all of the sudden, after I took her photo, everybody wanted her. She received several applications and met with several potential adopters. Because she drove more traffic into the shelters, other dogs also got opportunities to be adopted. Besides helping in the adoption process, I believe that strong, clean photography helps shelters convey a better image. Too often, still, people see shelters as sad, dirty places. I think this is partly due to bad photography. When I work at a shelter I always retouch all the images to get rid of scratches on the background, stains, and hair. I want the images to be pristine. An adoption photo is like a marketing campaign. You want people to want your “product.” Shelters should think long term, and in the long run, good photography can help with their image, leading to more adoptions and more donations.
Rome (Animal Haven) © Sophie Gamand – Rome was adopted!
You already mentioned your recent shoot, Flower Power, a few times. It challenges our notions about pit bulls. Can you tell us more about this project?
America euthanizes upwards of one million pit bulls every year. We are facing a major pit bull crisis, yet things are not really changing. There is a true disconnect between pit bull advocates who say they are the sweetest and best dogs ever and pit bull detractors who say they are killing machines. I for one was not a big fan of pit bulls, but I could see that my feelings toward them were not based on facts but rather what I read in the media. At the shelters I was often around pit bulls and would tense up near them, which does not help because dogs can sense when you are tense. So I thought it was time to confront these feelings by working on a pit bull series. The idea of the flowers came to me when I realized they were always portrayed in a very harsh light. Pit bulls are associated with a badass image. That image is one of the main reasons why they attract greedy, irresponsible, uneducated backyard breeders and owners—people who want to make a quick buck selling “scary-looking” dogs, people who use dogs as a social status, people who don’t understand what a pit bull, or any other dog for that matter, needs to be happy, balanced, and safe. I started wondering what if these dreamy portraits of pit bulls with flowers were the only image we knew of them. Could it change the fate of pit bulls? Maybe they would not attract these people anymore. Maybe we would not be scared of them anymore. Then we would truly be able to assess the dogs and see them for their individual qualities as opposed to judging them for their looks and giving them a death sentence with no trial.
Lucy (Animal Haven) © Sophie Gamand – Adopt Lucy! More info here.
The campaign is going really well. I’m toying with the idea of extending the project to the rest of the country and maybe work with schools too. I launched #PitBullFlowerPower on social media to engage people and participate by posting photos of their pets with flowers. It’s not just about pit bulls. Flower Power is about every breed, every species that is judged for a few bad elements and condemned. It’s also about us humans who don’t like being labeled and judged on our looks. Why are we doing it to pit bulls? It’s about time we face the pit bull crisis and address it.
What is the most significant thing you have learned through your work?
I think by studying dogs the thing that strikes me the most is how lonely and disconnected people are. Dogs have become substitutes for so many things. They often replace meaningful human relationships. Have we become too lazy to try harder to connect with our peers? Dogs are easier. I call this the “Engineered Companion Syndrome.” We have manufactured a perfect friend. One that never fails you, loves you unconditionally, fits in your purse. A child that never grows. We are taking an easy way out.
Is there any one thing you wish you had known or piece of advice you would give to an aspiring fine art photographer?
Things only happen to people who start doing things. Start somewhere. Too many creative people kill their creative spirit by overthinking. Accept that a project has a life of its own and it will take you to surprising, enriching places if you let it.
Visit Sophie’s website to see even more of her personality-filled dog portraits and to purchase prints: www.sophiegamand.com
The 2015 Flower Power calendar is available for purchase at Lulu.com. Proceeds will go to three NYC rescue groups (Sean Casey Animal Rescue, Second Chance Rescue, and Animal Haven) and to support the #PitBullFlowerPower campaign.
Join the #PitBullFlowerPower campaign on social media!