Lots of chores this weekend. Nothing unusual about that; meadows always need mowing, blackberry tendrils always need pulling. I don’t mind donning my protective ear gear, very snappy red and orange sound muffs, my sporty straw hat, and shoes that should no longer appear in the light of day. I don’t mind wiping down the riding mower, making sure no matted clumps of cut grass have caught in the blades. Gassed up and with oil freshly changed, its engine roaring with satisfactory growl, the machine begins its work. With each sweep from one end of the meadow to the other, I leave a trail of closely mowed clover, an evolving zen garden inviting meditative contemplation of deep thoughts.
Very satisfactory, but just the start of the real job at hand.
My wife trains and photographs dogs. She trains dogs of all sizes and temperaments to any number of purposes, from the first simple elements of obedience to the specialized skill set necessary to success in agility competition. Her clients include large dogs that lump through their exercises, small dogs in perpetual motion, and sundry irregularly sized and shaped dogs including my favorite, Princess Mango, a pit mix that loves her work in agility so much that she howls when it’s time to pack up and head home. We’ve transformed an orchard into our year-round all-purpose training facility and a small meadow into a grass agility field, and both are included in the weekly sprucing up.
And … then we move along to the photographic side of the enterprise. You have probably seen my wife’s work as her photographs appear in dog calendars trotted out in November as the holidays and a new year approach. Grandma loves her Shih Tsu? You’ll have to choose between the Shih Tsu calendar and the Shih Tsu Puppy calendar. Shiba Inus? Bernese Mountain Dogs? Portuguese Water Dogs? My wife has posed and prodded virtually every breed into drool-free calendar portraits. Newfoundlands and Dogs de Bordeaux? OK, maybe a little drool.
Here’s the thing about calendars: They are generally associated with, you know, months. In order to have a reasonable array of options for the publishers, my wife has to engineer settings and backdrops that reflect the seasons, which means that we often have to reconfigure some portion of our property so as to suggest autumn or spring, Christmas or the 4th of July. It takes a pro to set things up so that a relatively unimpressive corner of the yard takes on the aspect of a manorial estate, as she hopes will be suggested in the portrait at the top of this article. Just to be clear, we do not live on a manorial estate. We have a few acres of rough meadow grass and a lawn that is occasionally uniform in color but more frequently a patchwork of dark green, pea green, and puzzling splashes of yellow. So, my wife has to do some inventive repurposing of our property in order to provide a background appropriate to the sorts of photos she needs, which means that as leaves fall or shrubs and gardens blossom, my wife looks at the area with a photographer’s eye, gauging the possibility of both vertical and horizontal shots. In both cases, any distracting or unfortunate element in that composition has to be shaped or eliminated, which is why we spent Sunday afternoon transforming a dandelion patch into green carpet so that Cavalier King Charles Spaniels could pose in regal serenity in front of the Japanese Maple.
The setting now pristine, she now faces the greater challenge of convincing dogs to sit reasonably still and refrain from actions that are perfectly natural but unseemly in portraiture so as to generally comport themselves as exceptional examples of their breed. Some dogs were born to pose; some dogs lick themselves robustly just as the shutter clicks. Francis, a dachshund whose posture was unfailingly aristocratic, struck his pose with no coaxing; he loved the camera and the camera loved him. On the other end of the spectrum, Daisy Mae, a rescued pit bull once used as bait in a dog fighting ring, was spectacularly relaxed, perfectly happy to be held upside down, willing to be dressed in costumes, delighted to be asked to pose again and again.
I’m awfully proud of the work my wife does, and I’m not alone in thinking she is one of the best photographers in her field as well as an exceptional trainer and teacher. I love the calendars, of course, but those who know my wife will find it no surprise to learn that she absolutely understands the special place that dogs can hold in their owners’ hearts, often sensing that as a dog ages and starts to fail, a last portrait of the dog with its owner may be an important way of honoring the love a dog has given over the years.
About a week ago she took a photo of our eldest dog, Jinx, the border collie that we thought we had lost last winter, a dog who after having been trapped in icy water for hours on the coldest night in December, moves stiffly and uncertainly. She has lost her hearing almost entirely and is easily startled as her vision has failed as well. She is happiest sleeping on a rug near us and will follow us until we settle then drops at our side. There was no sculpting of backdrop for this picture; my wife saw Jinx at my feet and snapped off a shot before I noticed and looked up.
I don’t always see the gifts given me, and I can lose sight of what remains important, but I won’t forget what that picture represents.