|Article Author: Scott Rose|
Talking with talented photographer Sharon Montrose about her newest book by Scott Rose
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Francesco Scavullo... they are all OK as far as they go as photographers, yet their oeuvres are fatally flawed by a marked neglect of canines as subjects. That is why Sharon Montrose is among our all-time favorites. She puts dogs front and center before her lens and captures them for all time with the most artistic of eyes. Her photographic portraits are consistently engaging; they have even moved the artist to say "When I look at these images I can't help but feel that the oversized face looking back at me is inspiring me to be a better human being." I interviewed Sharon about her delightful new book MUTTS (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Please tell me about the process you go through to get dogs to pose.
It depends on the dog - some dogs have a quirk or gesture they make that I'm aware of before I begin shooting and I aim to capture it on film. With other dogs, I find their quirks through the lens during the shoot. I typically don't do the same routine with every dog - each dog is unique and I enjoy finding his or her specific hidden charms.
Was there an inspiration for your doing a volume of mixed breeds?
Several years ago I had a commercial job that required not just purebred, but Champion Pedigrees. It was really a sight to behold; each dog arrived with one or two handlers and a dog groomer. At times, you'd have thought I was taking photos of supermodels and couture fashion lines. These dogs are beautiful - literally the best of the best: the silkiest coats, perfect body to leg ratios and the stack poses! These noble beasts stand as if they're posing for a sculptor - in fact, at a glance you might think the dogs themselves were the sculptures.
Working with the champions exposed me to all the exciting traits of purebred dogs - so much so, I began to spot these qualities and become fascinated whenever I encountered a mixed-breed dog. Over time, the fascination and mystery of mixed-breed dogs utterly captivated me. As I began to document and take photos of these genetic wonders, it dawned on me that no two mutts are identical... even siblings from the same litter!
And, it became clear that the mystery of the mix is half the fun. A majority of the mutts featured in Mutts are rescue dogs, and as such many of their owners don't know the exact combination of breeds that resulted in their special mutt. A smile inevitably creeps across the face of a mutt owner when you ask him what kind of dog it is. I can't say how many times I've heard, "Well, we've been told that Rascal is a border collie/whippet, but we think... " Even me: if I was asked, "What kind of dog is Avery?" I'd be smiling ear-to-ear when I answered she's an Italian Greyhound/Shar-pei/English
Where do you find your canine models?
Some of the dogs in Mutts are the pets of trainers I work with on a regular basis. Others are dogs that I find in my neighborhood, etc. And some dogs are friends of friend's dogs.
What was the overall impression you aimed to give in MUTTS from a photographer's point of view?
I wanted the images to be clean and simple, with a strong sense of the dog's personality - which is why I chose to photograph all the dogs against white. This also makes the image solely about the subject(in this case, dogs).
As for my lighting, I vary it a bit for each dog - which is to say a lighting setup for a Great Dane Mix isn't going to work the same for a Chihuahua mix. But, overall, I like the lighting to be crisp and clean, yet still allow for depth.
What camera did you use in shooting MUTTS?
I shoot exclusively with a Mamiya.
In shooting this collection, did you ever find that one of the mixed breeds had a temperament completely different from what you might have expected based on what you knew of the dog's mix?
I wouldn't say I was surprised by any temperament as it related to the breed or mix of breeds. However, what did always put a smile on my face was the broad range of tricks some of my trainers' dogs could do. For example, Kuma can pick dimes off the floor and put them in a piggy bank; Dana can jump rope; and Rowdy can hide his eyes with either paw.
How did you choose the specific tone of white that serves as background for the portraits in MUTTS?
I always aim for the white to be neutral - not too warm, not too blue and cool. Believe it or not, getting a neutral white is very difficult. The studio where I shoot repaints their backdrops after every shoot, so the walls and floor are always clean.
The printing of the photographs and, in turn, the published book also plays a significant role in the look and feel of the white. My printer here in Los Angeles very patiently deals with me in my quest to get the white just right.
How did you get Nike the poodle and cocker spaniel mix to pose so playfully on her side?
Nike belongs to my friend and trainer Sarah - we work together all the time. Nike was really a young pup when we shot her photos, so it wasn't difficult to get her to be playful.
What about Beans, the terrier and Australian Cattle Dog mix, with his paws covering his eyes in a "see no evil" pose? How was that accomplished?
That's one of my favorite photos from the book! Beans also belongs to a trainer friend of mine, Sue. Beans has a great repertoire of tricks, and the hidden-eyes is one of them.
Honey the boxer and pit bull terrier is sporting a link chain collar. Was a decision made to have her pose with the accessory?
I liked the way the collar looked on her for the photo - I thought it suited her.
Did making this book ever set you to thinking about a combination of breeds you have yet to see, that is plausible, and yet would produce a hilarious and/or exotic result?
Of course! My non-mutt dog is a ten-year-old Rottweiler named Simon. My husband grew up with Malamutes, but has totally fallen in love with Simon. We're always joking that we'd love to see a "Rott-a-mute," or a "Mala-weiler." We have a neighbor who has a gorgeous mutt. The neighbor must think I'm a stalker, but I finally talked to her and found out the dog is a Shar-Pei/Dalmation. I'm trying to set a date to shoot her photograph.
Do you have any stories about dogs you wanted to photograph, but that just would not permit you to get the shots you wanted?
In all the years I've been shooting photos of dogs I've only ever had one dog I couldn't get a photo of. I was on a commercial shoot that was shot in different cities and featured dogs belonging to employees of the company. One of the dogs was a very frightened German shepherd, who only got more skittish when my lights started to flash. Her fear turned to aggression and when she lunged at me, I decided it wasn't worth her anxiety or me risking a bite.
To what extent do you play with the photos after taking them in order to achieve a particular effect? For example, the portrait of Finnigan shows the upper right-hand quarter of his face, with very intriguing reflections in his eye. Was it just luck that the reflections came out that way?
As far as adding things to the photos in post-production, I don't. In fact, the only manipulations I make to the images are to clean up smudges, errant hairs, etc. I prefer to do as much as I can through the lens, including cropping.
Do you ever offer portrait-taking sessions to private clients?
Though I mainly work commercially, I do commissions based on my gallery work. I exhibit the work from Mutts and similar works as large-scale 36"x40" art pieces, which are framed flush mounted under Plexiglas on a white wood block. The finished pieces are quite beautiful. I have had private parties commission me to do works like this of their dogs.
What future projects do you have planned?
I have several books in the works, all will be shot in the same style as Mutts, but I'd like to keep the actual titles a surprise.