|Article Author: Angie McKaig|
Bark & Smile and the photography of Kim Levin by Angie McKaig
There's something compelling about the expressions of dogs captured through the lens of a camera. Sometimes goofy, sometimes wistful, the pictures are always heartwarming and a pleasure for dog lovers all around the world.
Kim Levin is a New York based photographer who specializes in pet portraiture. Her company, Bark & Smile Pet Portraits, combines her passion for photography and her love of animals. She is committed to capturing the essence and true personality of each animal photographed, and she does so in a way that is guaranteed to make you smile.
In addition to commissioned pet portrait sessions and art shows at local galleries in the New York area, Kim has published several books featuring her incredible photography. Why We Love Dogs, Why We Really Love Dogs and Erin Go Bark! all showcase Kim's talents, as well as the upcoming title Dogma.
We recently spoke to Kim about her photography and her company, Bark & Smile.
pp: When and how was Bark & Smile created?
ss: In 1996, after several years in the advertising business, I began photographing the dogs on the streets of NYC. I had always been a photographer (having bought my first camera when I was 12), but I had never considered doing it professionally until I realized that I wasn't fulfilled working in advertising. I am a self taught photographer, and had always lived in a household full of dogs, so it seemed very natural to spontaneously capture the dogs in NY. They were everywhere.
After a few months, I started a project called “Create A Home” with the CACC (The Center for Animal Care and Control in NYC). They were in desperate need of help promoting their adoptable dogs. I took several rolls of film of the homeless dogs and made posters that I placed around the city. It was during this time that I decided that I would pursue my photography full time. Bark & Smile essentially grew out of my love for dogs and my love for photography. I also had a lot of marketing experience from my 5 years in the advertising business so I had the confidence that I could turn this “brainstorm” into a viable photography business.
Within the next year and 1/2, I created a portfolio of my best images and started to think about how I could turn them into a gift book. I started to think about why I love dogs so much and why I photograph them in the first place. That book turned into Why We Love Dogs, my first book. Believe it or not, I had not had the courage to leave my full time job in advertising until the month prior to the book being released. But at that point, I knew that I was meant to be photographing animals so it was a very easy decision to leave my job, and embark on this new endeavor. Since 1998 I have never looked back, and never been more fulfilled with what I do for a living.
pp:What made you decide to concentrate on pet photography?
ss: While I love to take black and white landscape and people portraits, my true calling is animal portraiture. I think it's because I am so comfortable with dogs in particular. I have always felt a rapport with dogs and I think that comes through in my portraits of them. I try to capture each dog and cat's personality when I photograph them. I also find a lot of humor in animals and I think that also comes through in my images of them. What is key, as in most people portraiture, is capturing a look, or a moment. And I love that.
I also care immensely about animals. I believe that they enhance our lives in ways that we don't even realize. Having had dogs my whole life, I wouldn't know what it was like not to have a dog. So having a dog in my life is intermingled with who I am. Photography is very competitive business - there are so many great photographers. I knew that I had to specialize in a type of photography in which I could stand out. I also knew that my passion for animals would be at the core of my business. And it still is. I spend much of my time donating and working with animal humane organizations such as The ASPCA and Petfinder.com. Those relationships I treasure because it is my way of giving back to the community I love so much.
pp:Why do you choose black and white over color in your photographs?
ss: I have always photographed in B&W. When you strip away the color, you have texture and detail that you don't always notice in color. I think it works especially well with animal and human portraiture. There just always seems to be more character in a B&W image. I do some color commissioned assignments, but I always encourage the owner to include a roll of B&W.
pp:How long does a photo session usually last?
ss: Two hours. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Usually if I am photographing a home with dogs and cats, it will take three hours. But animals are like people - they get tired after a while.
pp:How many photos do you usually take?
ss: Three rolls is my average especially if there are two dogs or two cats or a dog and a cat. It is always better to take more than less. I usually end up with three or four great shots per roll.
pp:Do you use any special tricks to get the pet's attention?
ss: Yes. I use a harmonica which makes many dogs tilt their heads - that probably the biggest trick I have. But I also use high pitched noises. With cats, you have to be much more subtle - little scratching sounds. Of course, dog treats always helps too. And special words that the dog knows like “cookie”. I always ask the owner what words the dog reacts to.
pp:Which part of your work do you find most rewarding - the books, the exhibits, or the commissioned work?
ss: Good question. I love creating the ideas for books. I think the reason I enjoy this so much is I get to compile all of the hard work I have done for a period of time (usually a year or two of images), and combine it with text that appeals to most animal lovers, like me.
While I both wrote and photographed Why We Love Dogs, Why We Really Love Dogs and Why We Love Cats, I recognize that I am a better photographer than I writer. I recognize that there are other people who are better writers. My first collaboration was Working Dogs: Tales From Animal Planet's K-9 to 5 World. This was a book created by the Discovery Channel and published by Random House. I was simply the photographer and the book was written by a freelance writer.
The next collaboration was with my husband John O'Neill. We went to Ireland on vacation and I photographed all of dogs we encountered there. When we returned, John came up with the idea for Erin Go Bark! Irish Dogs and Blessings. The result was this very cute book of Irish Dogs with blessing from the dog's point of view. John, of course, wrote the blessings. We collaborated again with For the Love You Give which came out last April. My newest book Dogma coming out this September is a collaboration with Erica Salmon, a writer from Los Angeles. It is her first book and we're very excited about it.
I like exhibiting my work and of course, enjoy doing commissioned assignments. I like being able to give personal pet portraits to someone who adores their cat or dog. I know that the portraits I give them, they will have for the rest of their lives as a memory of how much they loved their pet. That part is definitely very fulfilling.
pp:Of all your books, which was your favourite to do?
ss: It is always exciting doing something for the first time so Why We Love Dogs is definitely at the top of my list. But I really enjoyed creating Erin Go Bark! with John - from beginning to end that book was so much fun to make. The trip to Ireland was great, and then it was just fun to work with my husband (he wasn't my husband at the time; we got engaged on the trip). So the book is very special to me for personal reasons, but also because I loved the feel of the book. Erin Go Bark! captured the way I saw Ireland. All of the dogs were so independent. I especially liked the way the photographs turned out - they were less pet portraits, and more photo journalistic in my mind. There was so much texture and interesting backgrounds in the images. Plus I felt like the writing was hands down, far more clever than I could have done myself. The book was very funny and very poignant.
pp:Tell us a little about your latest book, Dogma.
ss: I am very proud of the wayDogma: A Way of Life turned out. Erica is a great writer. She had a real knack for fitting her humor with my images. Basically Dogma is a book about the rules/guidelines that dogs live their life by. There are some inherent things that dogs do like: “Take naps”, “drink lots of water” and “be humble”. But there are also lines like:
Grow old gracefully
Live each year of your life like it's worth seven
Befriend all sorts of creatures
Smile even if your teeth aren't perfect
Exercise when the spirit moves you
The book is also designed differently than my other books. We wanted it to stand out as a separate book and I think it does. Hopefully people will be inspired by the book because the way dogs live their lives can teach us all some very valuable lessons. And that is basically what the book is about.
pp:What plans do you have for the future of Bark & Smile?
ss: This year I continued my relationship with The ASPCA. I had the honor of photographing their Adopt A Shelter Cat poster and their 2003 calendar. I photographed their calendar last year as well. I also began an e-greeting program with them (features the images that I have shot exclusively for them; they are all color) in addition to the Bark & Smile e-greeting program on Yahoo Greetings. The exposure from Yahoo greetings has been tremendous - they are in Japan, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and the UK.
I also have a new relationship with a company called Galison. Bark & Smile postcard sets (both cat and dog) are coming out this spring, along with two new note card sets and magnetic pads.
I also am continuing my relationship with Andrews McMeel - Bark & Smile now has greeting cards with Recycled Paper Greetings (this is a partnership between AMP and RPG), and a new Bark & Smile journal is also in the works.
Other than that, John and I are working on some new book ideas. And as always, I continue to donate my services and books/products to many local humane organizations around the country. I love that part of Bark & Smile - sometimes it seems small donating a little book for an auction, but I know every little bit helps make money for shelters so I will continue to contribute any way I can.
pp:Tell us a little about your dog.
ss: Our dog is Charlie. He is a border collie, greyhound mix. We adopted him from The ASPCA in NY in 1998, and he is such a love. He has turned into such a great dog - he's really smart, and extremely sweet. I think he gets the intelligence from the border collie part of him, and the sweetness from the greyhound side. He is now 4 years old. The funniest thing I can say about Charlie is that he has friends. He has friends like I have friends. Every late afternoon (this of course depends on my schedule - every day is different) he goes “to the woods” to play and run with his friends Luke, Harry, Floyd, Lucy, Goldie, Zoe, Cooper and Ashley. All of these dogs by the way are in Dogma. He lives to go to “the woods”.
Bark & Smile does commissioned pet portraits in the NY/NJ/CT area. It also sells the entire Kim Levin photography product line. For more information, visit their web site at www.barkandsmile.com. Kim's books are also available through Amazon.com as well as your local bookseller.