Ask Seattle-based photographer Jen Ohlson, of Jen Ohlson Photography, the name of any person she’s worked for in the past five years she’s been photographing pets, and she’ll look at you blankly. But mention any animal by name, and you’ll see her face light up instantly as related “tails” from the shoot come to mind.
Why does she have this uncanny way of knowing and recalling the unique character of each animal? Because it’s that character she attempts to capture on film.
Most people who come to Ohlson to have their pets photographed don’t want their “best friends” to look cute or funny in their pictures. “My photographs are really about the animals as individuals, because that’s how their owners think of them and want them to look in their portraits. To me a photo should say, ‘This is Cheryl’ or ‘This is Lucy.’”
To capture an animal’s personality, Ohlson takes the time to get to know her subject. “Usually I will talk at length with the owners to get an understanding of what the animal is all about, and what he or she means to them. I also find out whether they are looking for color or black-and-white, if they want more of a direct-studio or a fine-art portrait, and what the most comfortable place to shoot the animal would be. Cats, for example, really don’t like being taken out of their environment,” says Ohlson.
As soon as arrives at the shoot, Ohlson is on the floor playing with and gaining the trust of the canine or feline superstar. Afterward, she steals away to bring in her equipment and look for the right background. “Sometimes they’ll lead you somewhere, or there’s a place the owner wants them to be photographed, like in their kitty condo or on their favorite chair,” says Ohlson. “But if there isn’t, I’m not afraid to make one.”
That’s exactly what she did when she photographed Pete, a 10-year-old Boston terrier. “I came across the perfect chair in one space and the perfect window in another, and asked if I could move the furniture,” recalls Ohlson, who almost overlooked the chair because of its ugly color until she reminded herself she was shooting in black-and-white. She captured the image using her Pentax 645 with a 75mm lens at f/2.8 and was thrilled with the way she managed to put this really regal-looking dog on “the perfect throne.”
Not every pet enjoys being in the limelight. In fact, dealing with distrustful animals can be one of Ohlson’s biggest challenges. “The problem is, you’re standing away from them and looking at them, so the focus is on them, but they’re not being touched, so they get suspicious and can come at you,” she says. So, instead of feeding a small dog 27 treats to get him or her to do what she wants, Ohlson addresses this problem with a few squeaky toys and a lot of patience. This is one lesson Klaus (p. 19) taught her when he smelled a rat. “I think after about ten minutes of shooting, the cat figured out we wanted a photo of him and decided he wasn’t going to cooperate,” says Ohlson. “I had to just be patient and follow him until I got something beautiful.”
Sometimes even owners can become obstacles to getting a good pet portrait. Ohlson says, “A lot of times they (the owners) try too hard to get the animals to do something by getting close to them and waving treats in front of them.” Meanwhile, they end up standing in front the strobe, and the dog is drooling all over the white seamless paper under them.
“That’s when an assistant comes in handy,” says Ohlson. Although she doesn’t usually work with an assistant, she thinks they’re great for more complicated shoots, such as those with multiple dogs or dogs with children or family.
But those are actually her favorite kinds of shoots. In fact, she’s spent the past five years on a book project called Finders Keepers, which is about adopted dogs and the kind of impact they’ve made on the lives of people who have adopted them—the “animal-human connection,” as Ohlson puts it.
There is also a certain concentration on dogs that have had “ruff” lives. Cheryl (p. 19), for example, was a retired greyhound racer who spent her entire youth in kennels at a racetrack without experiencing any affection or socialization. Ohlson says, “These happy-ending stories, where I see adopted dogs like Cheryl being capable of so much forgiveness and going on to have such a positive impact on people’s lives, are the most rewarding part of my work.”
Ultimately, Ohlson’s goal is not only to promote animal adoption, but to build her portfolio. She also uses her website to showcase her style as a fine-art portraitist and generate a client base. “This is especially helpful for dealing with individual clients as opposed to commercial ones, because they just don’t have time to set up an appointment to see your portfolio,” she points out.”
Another method Ohlson uses to wrangle that individual client base is to hang large 16x20 or 30x40 prints of her work in retail locations where prospective clients will visit, such as in vets’ offices and doggie day cares. It’s a win-win, says Ohlson. “Businesses appreciate having art on their walls, and it’s really good promotion for me.”
For her next project, she’ll work off the theme of Finders Keepers, photographing dogs once deemed unadoptable that have been reformed after a 10-week training session with kids at a juvenile detention center. “I want to open people’s eyes to look at animals as individuals and connect with them as they would with humans.”