|Photographer Cami Johnson
Anyone who’s taken pictures of their dog knows that while the result can be rewarding, the process is often grueling. Dogs respond better to tasty treats than the words “say cheese,” and even then, getting them to keep the perfect pose is a matter of luck. But one woman has made canine photography her life’s work, capturing more than one-hundred dogs over the years at their happiest and most animated moments.
Cami Johnson’s work has been featured in this magazine and in a number of other publications including Mother Jones, Photo Review and Boston Magazine. Her Web site, oldyellersrevenge.com, offers a number of playful pup pictures for purchase, and she is presently working on getting a distributor for a new line of greeting cards that incorporate some of her best photos.
Johnson grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. She says throughout her childhood, her family had dogs, beginning with an Old English sheepdog named Rags. An affectionate shelter adoptee, Rags marked the beginning of Johnson’s love affair with shelter pups.
Her younger years also introduced Johnson to what would be another lifelong interest—taking pictures. She says her mother, a professional photographer, kept a darkroom in the house. As a child, Johnson would take pictures as a hobby and develop them in the darkroom. In college she completed an independent study in photography, spending two years snapping pictures of cows. “I did a lot of close-up shots of the cows’ faces, trying to capture the expression. Cows are actually a lot more expressive and funny than people think.”
After the bovine project, Johnson moved on to Boston and the New England School of Photography in 1991. There she continued her study of the finer points of the medium and eventually worked in the school’s career placement office helping others find jobs in photography.
In the meantime, Johnson also began to shoot professional wedding pictures with a friend. She says the business was enjoyable at first and then became overwhelming. “We were having to deal with people forever afterwards,” she says. “One bride contacted us three years after we shot her wedding. She had just gotten divorced and wanted us to reprint all of the wedding photos without the groom. That’s when I decided I needed to do something different.”
Dogs had been a favorite subject since Johnson had begun taking photos. When she decided she wanted to try to make a living at it, she got a job taking the after pictures of dogs at a grooming shop. Slowly she started trying to catch dogs in more of their natural habitat. “I would shoot them in their homes where they were comfortable or in the park or where they walk—wherever they seemed to come to life the most.”
The side-interest developed further as friends began asking her to photograph their dogs. Word got out among Boston-area dog lovers, and Johnson was busy snapping canines in all kinds of settings. She decided to be creative when selecting a name for her new company. “I chose Old Yeller’s Revenge because I thought it was funny,” she says. “Old Yeller is such a depressing story. As a kid, I would watch movies where a person died and an animal died, and I would always find it much more upsetting when the animal died.”
Dog owners continue to hire Johnson because of her unique ability to capture the expression of their pets. “They’ve either seen my work on the Web site or have heard about me from friends and they know that I’m not going to be taking the standard, posed shot of the dog standing. The photos are going to be fun and spontaneous and that’s what people who are crazy about their dogs want to see.”
The Web site also allows people looking for unique dog photos a plethora of options. Johnson says she doesn’t get a lot of retail sales from the site, but she does sell usage rights to textbook companies, magazines and others looking for stock photos.
Johnson’s work will be featured in a fun, upcoming cookbook for canine meals and treats by authors Susan Orlean and Sally Sampson. Johnson photographed ten different dogs in various settings for Throw Me a Bone, being released in November by Simon & Schuster.
“In some ways taking pictures of dogs is easier than photographing people,” Johnson says. “Some dogs are shy around the camera, but for the most part they don’t mind. For me, it’s fun just to spend time with them and follow them around, see where they lead me.”
Dogs exhibit more character and emotion than most people give them credit for, Johnson says. “If you spend enough time with them, you get all sorts of different expressions.”
Those canine expressions are mostly conveyed with the eyes. That’s why Johnson says she has certain breed favorites and types of mixes that she enjoys photographing more. “Some breeds just have more expressive eyes than others,” she says. “I’m really partial to shelter dogs and any dogs where you can really see their eyes. … I fell in love with this Boston Terrier Pogo (cover, June issue of Urban Dog). He had the biggest eyes and he was one of the funniest dogs I’ve ever seen.”
Susan Orlean’s dog Cooper spent a week with Johnson to capture shots for Throw Me a Bone. “Susan was going out of town and she wanted me to have as much time as I wanted with Cooper. He had almost human eyes, very expressive. He was a character and we had a great time together.”
Most shoots begin with Johnson and her assistant at the dog’s house with plenty of treats on-hand. Johnson says she will start inside or outside, depending on how wound up and hyper the dog is. From there they will move where the owner suggests and the dog leads, usually shooting between seven and 12 rolls of film. Johnson doesn’t use flashes or any unnatural light in her work. “I feel that I can be more spontaneous with the dogs if I don’t have to worry about lighting. It’s just cumbersome to have to set that up and you miss the natural shots.”
Johnson has been asked to take some unusual shots. For the upcoming cookbook, she photographed a dog in a restaurant not yet open for business. As workers bustled about trying to get the restaurant in order before opening day, Johnson says the canine subject was petrified by the fast-paced atmosphere. “The pictures turned out just fine though.”
On another occasion Johnson was asked to photograph a dog inside a small diner that was open for business. The shoot was short-lived when a patron complained about the dog’s presence. “It was pretty busy there so I expected we might have some problems,” she says. “Artistically that kind of thing is just something you have to work with.”
Today Johnson makes her home in Medford, Mass., just outside Boston, with her Rhodesian Ridgeback-mix Sunny, Husky-mix Max and cat Kibbles.
At home, Johnson says her own pets run the gamut of interest in the camera. “Max is the older one, so she’s kind of the boss. She’s really in-tune with the whole photographic process. She will sit still in the chair for an hour, and she even knows when she hears the film rewinding that she gets a break and will jump down. Sunny is the attention hog. He gets a little impatient with the camera.”
Taking pictures of kitty Kibbles is a whole other ballgame, Johnson says. “She doesn’t really care one way or the other about the camera. Cats are a lot more challenging because they don’t work for food as well as dogs,” she says.
Dogs have a tremendous calming effect on people, Johnson says. No matter what’s going wrong, she says she can always depend on her dogs to be there for her. “They’re just great to fall back on. Dogs are a lot of work, but they’re totally worth every second because they give you so much more back.”
As far as the future goes, Johnson says eventually she’d like to be able to photograph more dogs that she finds in public and do less private sessions. If that happens, she would rely more on the company’s Web site sales. She’s also looking for some breed-specific subjects like Great Danes, Boston terriers and bulldogs.
Johnson says the goal of her work is simple: to make people laugh. “I’m trying to capture the dog’s sense of humor. If I’m successful, people will be able to laugh at the pictures. That’s what I’m shooting for.”