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How to Satisfy a Niche

Pet photographer David Sutton has marked his territory.

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I would have broken up with Girlfriend a long time ago if it weren't for one thing: my wife and daughter love her. Our relationship has never been quite what I'd hoped. Sure, she's beautiful and athletic, but we're just not comfortable with each other. I think she's too loud, and she seems to think I'm a bad guy because sometimes I need a little more space than she does.

Plus she pees on the floor.

Girlfriend is a black Labrador mix we picked out at Orphans of the Storm, a Riverwoods animal shelter, on New Year's Eve 1998. We named her Girlfriend in part because that's what a lot of men my age want. I was hoping for companionship, brains, not too much licking. And her Lab side provided all that. But her other side--our vet says it's terrier--is a manic, anxious, barking, hyperactive whirlwind with no "slow" setting. She can never walk down the stairs in our house; any time of the day or night she bolts down as if there were a 20-pound squirrel at the bottom. God help anyone who might be walking down ahead of her.

I don't like her jumping on people, I don't like her racing to the front windows every time someone passes our house, I don't like her pushing open the bathroom door when I'm indisposed. But my wife and daughter adore Girlfriend, think her mania is cute, and for whatever reason don't mind being in constant danger of getting tripped on the steps. So even though Orphans of the Storm encourages people to bring back the animal if it's not a good fit, we've kept her.

My troubled relationship with Girlfriend was on my mind when I walked into the Evanston studio of David Sutton, a photographer whose business it is to take pictures of people with their dogs. His portraits, all black-and-white, depict the best of the human-pet relationship. People snuggling with their dogs, goofing with them. Dogs with their ears cocked, eyes bright, tails in midwag. These are people who come home eager to roll around on the rug, people who like nothing better than hooking up the leash for a good long walk. The people I thought I'd be.

Sutton's crisp, often humorous pictures of what he calls "dogs and dog people" have been displayed on family Christmas cards, in living rooms and veterinarians' offices, as keepsakes of well-loved, sometimes dearly departed animals. They've shown up in pet-supply ads and annual reports for pet-related companies, and now they adorn a line of blank cards available at Crate & Barrel stores (with the brand name Semper Fido!) and a fund-raising calendar sold by animal shelters nationwide.

"Dogs are easy to capture on film," Sutton says. "They're natural and comfortable and they're auditory--they react in really funny ways to sounds you make for them. And they'll do anything you want for a piece of freeze-dried beef liver." People aren't always so easy (just look at your driver's license). Put them with their pets, though, and "everyone is more comfortable and playful," Sutton says.

Of course, only people who adore their dogs are likely to spend $695 to $1,800 for a pet portrait. If both the four-legged and the two-legged subjects are happy to be there, the picture is sure to come out better. That's not to dismiss Sutton's expertise. In seven years of shooting people and their pets--not just dogs, but cats and the occasional rodent--he's developed a reliable repertoire of tricks and inventory of props. He gets the people in place first, then positions the dogs, often tempting them with a tiny piece of beef liver. ("Cats don't give a shit about beef liver or what you want them to do," Sutton notes. "Mostly you just let someone hold them for the photo.")

"It's probably very hard to photograph animals because there are so many unknowns--you can't tell them to look a little bit to the left," says Stuart Clarke, a veterinarian at Lincolnshire Animal Hospital who had Sutton shoot his dog, his cat, and his two children last year. "You have to trick them into doing what you want or wait for them to do it on their own. If you've ever taken pictures at a wedding, you know how painful it is to get people looking right. But David has a way of communicating with the animals so he can get really good pictures."

With dogs, Sutton not only speaks in a gentle, friendly tone but plays the harmonica, blows into tubes, squeezes squeaky toys, and makes silly mouth noises. He starts communicating right away, saying hello, petting the animal, and giving it time to sniff every corner of his studio, once a beauty parlor. Needless to say, some dogs pee on the floor soon after they arrive. "That's their way of signing in," Sutton says. When he first started shooting dogs, he used standard photographers' backdrops of dyed muslin, but he quickly found that it retained the smell of dog urine. Now he uses painted muslin, which has a thin coat of polyurethane. "I use enzyme sprays to help eliminate the odor so I don't get the domino effect of every male dog who comes into the room having to add his pee to it."

Sutton's patience also extends to children. Clarke says that when his two- and four-year-old were photographed, they had "their own agenda of crazy little things they wanted to do with the dog, like hold it upside down." Sutton, he says, "was unbelievably patient. In between those moments he had them take little breaks to let the pets stretch and be themselves, and in those moments he captured what I wanted, the relaxed relationship my kids have with their pets."

When you look at Sutton's portfolio, it's hard to believe that his subjects aren't posed--but "a lot happens when they start to relate to each other the way they would at home," he says. He didn't know that a man in a suit would put his 40-pound dog up on his shoulders, that another could get his tiny terrier to sit so formally and upright in his hand, that a middle-aged man would put his dog's ear in his mouth, or that a little girl would drape herself like a deadweight over her dog's neck. "You can be going along doing strong shots, and all of a sudden I see the moment and have to react in a split second, and I know I've got it," Sutton says.

Kathleen Carbonara of Winnetka--who paints oil portraits, often of pets--had Sutton photograph her three kids with their chihuahua and two boxers two years ago. She says the difference between her work and Sutton's is a matter of immediacy. "An oil painting should look like somebody sat there for hours. But photography lends itself to capturing a second." She wanted something that would represent her children in full kidhood--her youngest was missing two front teeth at the time--but she also wanted a piece of art. Sutton's work, she says, offers "wonderful composition. It's all about where the shapes and the negative space are. Very artistic without being too outside the box."

What's outside the box of some Sutton photos is the human subject. His preference isn't usually the standard dual portrait, with both subjects facing the camera. The person in his shots might show up only as a pair of arms or legs, or the person's face might be partially obscured by the dog's outstretched ears.

Sutton once hoped to work in film, but he's found another way to tell short, humorous stories. Plus he gets to play with dogs, something he's always been good at. Growing up in South Bend, he had a miniature poodle, Chotto. The two were very close: "There were lots of times when he'd run away, and I was the one to go find him. I was very good at retrieving him. It was just a matter of knowing how to approach him. You can't chase a dog and catch him--you have to have the patience to wait for him to stop and pee, and then you can get him. That's a lot of what I do now with the portraiture. I just wait for the dog to do what I want."

In high school Sutton was involved in a Notre Dame-based TV production company for kids; later he went to Indiana University for three semesters. (During his first year there, his parents had to put Chotto, then 17, to sleep.) He transferred to the University of Southern California but couldn't get into the highly regarded cinema department and eventually wound up at UCLA majoring in German. After college he returned to Indiana (Bloomington) to start a freelance photography business but found there "wasn't much of a market for it."

In 1986 Sutton moved to Evanston, where his sister was living, and eventually landed plenty of corporate and magazine assignments. But shooting "a guy wearing a tie at a computer" got old fast. Living in the Evanston studio space, he'd sometimes shoot portraits there. And occasionally a subject would show up with a dog, so he'd shoot them together.

But things only clicked when Sutton got his own dog, Zane!, an exuberant border collie-Australian cattle dog mix whose personality cried out for a name with an exclamation point. When Zane! was enrolled in an obedience class in Riverwoods, Sutton showed some pictures he'd taken of the dog to his instructor, who told him he ought to go into the dog photography business--then as now an almost nonexistent field.

Sutton thought he'd get started by advertising in a now defunct paper called Pet Planet. The only call he got was from a Channel 2 news producer looking for subjects for a "be kind to animals day" segment. "She said, 'Let me come to your studio and do a piece about your business.' Well, up to that time there was no business," he says. But recognizing the PR opportunity, he hung every dog picture he had on the walls before the TV crew arrived. "They did the segment as if I were shooting Zane! and while we were still on the air, my phone started ringing," he recalls.

Since then Sutton has learned to observe the relationship between pet and person but to keep his insights to himself. One typical duo is the small woman who comes in with a huge, dominant male dog. "There are issues there that I'm not going to ask her about," he says. Most people happily tell him the weird things they like to do with their pets, like the man who lay on his back pretending to "fly" his dog on his shins who asked Sutton to capture the moment on film. Nobody's ever confessed anything creepy or sexual.

Sutton says that even though he pushes dogs' rear ends to position them and generally invades their space, only one dog has bitten him--an elderly cocker spaniel brought in by the adult children of its owners. "They may not have known the dog well enough to put it into a strange situation," Sutton says, showing the scars on his left hand.

I figured Girlfriend and I would be Sutton's hardest case, that even he couldn't make the two of us look as if we get along. So I loaded her into my car, lectured her sternly about getting carsick--and no barking at dogs in other cars--and drove to Sutton's studio.

Seconds after Girlfriend wiggled over to meet him, he took the same attitude toward her that dozens of other people have: What a sweet, friendly dog! What's wrong with you that you can't love her? That's OK. I'm used to it. If Tolstoy had written about Anna Karenina's dogs, he would have said, "All happy pet owners are happy in the same way. All unhappy pet owners have a litany of pooped-on rugs, midnight barking, and muddy paws on the couch they're not telling you about."

Sutton left Girlfriend to sniff her way around the room, a trip she interrupted by peeing on the floor. "I usually only have that problem with males," he said, which I took as a sign that he might wind up siding with me on the Girlfriend issue. But in a few more minutes she had him eating out of her hand, her big brown eyes following him everywhere, sitting and staying--for a short time anyway--where he put her. He seemed to enjoy her endless supply of friendliness, which on off days I interpret as pathetic neediness. He kept her attention by making noises--a little green squeaking toy was her favorite. She loved the guy, as far as I could tell, and he loved her, laughing even after she'd jumped out of place for the umpteenth time to find the (now hidden) toy.

During the 40-minute shoot I saw the patience and communication his clients had talked about. He had me sit closer to Girlfriend, scratch her neck, talk to her about our cat. As the time went by, I felt myself warming to her, seeing her as something other than a slow-learning nuisance. Sutton got shots of Girlfriend lying in my lap, standing between my legs, having her paw held while I crouched beside her. The session felt like couples conseling, with him showing me how to make her feel wanted.

The session ended, Sutton told me he'd send my editor some pictures, and Girlfriend and I left. As we drove up the expressway, she slept on the backseat--the seat I'd told her not to get on in the first place so she wouldn't get hair all over it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, David Sutton.

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