Woof, Meow, and Smile!

Artists go animal crazy over photographing and painting pets

By Jessica Herman

Five or ten years ago, many people would have scoffed at the idea of paying $250, let alone thousands for a portrait of their pets. Now, in keeping with the booming pet industry, folks like pet photographer Amanda Jones are gracing the Style section of The New York Times on their way to becoming household names and pricing their pet portraits at a premium.

No longer reserved for warm and fuzzy greeting cards, the painted and photographic portraits serve a variety of purposes, from fine art to sentimental, and sometimes even educational.

“My philosophy is that we live in a society where lots of people work out of their homes and are a lot more isolated” says New York-based photographer Jim Dratfield, who coined the term “petography.” “I think the bond [between people and pets] is really strong, and people want to honor [them] as part of their family.”

Dratfield stumbled upon his interest 13 years ago while working as an actor when he photographed himself with his dog Kuma for promotional cards. Not only did he enjoy the process but his friends, and friends of friends, began to hire him to photograph their pets, too. His big break happened while waiting tables at a restaurant that had his photography on display. Dratfield was serving a literary agent who took to his work and suggested Dratfield propose a book of dog photographs to Doubleday. The artist dropped off the images at 5 o’clock that evening, and the next day at 9 a.m. the publisher called him to strike a deal.

Nine books (the latest, “A Dog for All Seasons,” is due out in September) and thousands of private commissions later, Dratfield finds himself traveling across the country to photograph people’s animals at $1,000 and up per shoot.

Unlike William Wegman, an artist known for his often ironic depictions of dogs, many contemporary pet photographers intend first and foremost to capture the animal’s essence. After earning a BFA in photography and dabbling in various professions, Seattle-based Emily Rieman found Zen by pursuing pet photography. “Definitely my vision is that these animals are individuals that have a place in the world, in somebody’s life.”

That’s not to say that pet portraiture isn’t stigmatized in the art world as a cutesy, fluffy genre. Rieman describes her work as perplexing to other artists. Because she photographs animals, Rieman says viewers approach her work with a dismissive attitude, but time and again the quality of her prints and stunning imagery entice people to take a second look.

Los Angeles-based Guillermo Borrajo began as a painter, creating portraits of his dog and cats as a hobby. But when people came to pick up their commissioned paintings and saw artful depictions of his animals lying around the studio, they asked Borrajo to paint their owmn pets. Eight years later, Borrajo makes his living rendering pets in four signature styles: cartoon, pop art, pop art realistic, and masterpieces. In the past year alone, he’s done 300 to 500 paintings, charging $99 to $750 per portrait, and has his own company, Woof Art. He’s even painted the celebrated pets of Sharon Osbourne, Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore, and others.

“When you deal with paintings, you are dealing with a name and career and not with the painting itself,” explains Borrajo, who says he’s satisfied with the course of his career. “When you’re dealing with a portrait, it’s something simple; either you touch with the soul of the dog and [the guardian] likes it or you don’t and they don’t like it. You really have to capture the pet. There’s less room for misunderstanding.”

For Ohio-based painter and PopARF creator Nathan Janes, painting became a means of educating the public about compassion for animals. While Janes makes a pretty penny on his private commissions ($5,000 and up), he chooses to donate several paintings to not-for-profit organizations advocating animal adoption. He even created a cartoon character, a boots-andcape-toting mutt whom he calls “The Urban Underdog,” to promote oft-overlooked and under appreciated mutts.

“Dogs can look up to mutts as a symbol of hope and perseverance through neglect,” Janes says. “I’m hoping to use this character in numerous paintings [as a means] for getting across the message of stopping cruelty to animals.”

While the artists all share a healthy sense of humor about the field as a whole, they’re equally passionate about their work and the role that the images play in their clients’ lives, whether they’re commemorating a pet who has died or celebrating a new life in the family.

“I realize what I’m doing is not brain surgery, [but] I also realize it offers something to people on an emotional level that is so profound. I’m pleased and honored to touch people’s lives,” Dratfi eld says.

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