Jim Dratfield is the Dr. Dolittle of animal photographers. He talks to the animals he photographs using their own unique languages. His efforts pay off.
"When I am photographing a client with their animal, a lot of that time, if I am playing with the animal, or saying silly things, it's really to relax the client," Dratfield said.
It's the clients who pay fees of $1,000 and up per session to get Dratfield's artful take on their pets. The pets couldn't care less about lighting and angles. That's what this former actor likes about animal models.
"I have never had, for example, a dachshund tell me, you know, their snout and profile really, really looks bad. 'Can you, can you just cover me from this angle?' Uh, that's not so true with the humans, however," Dratfield said.
In addition to the private jobs he's hired to do, Dratfield, 44, has traveled the world shooting animals and the ways they reflect different cultures.
Some people like to dress their pets for photos; but Dratfield says that's not the largest part of his work.
"I tend to do a lot of nude animals, and I tend not to do a lot of dressed animals. But, you know, if that's what the client wants, then I am, I am up for doing whatever," he said. "I once photographed a skink lizard. And one was pregnant. And she was very demure, very lovely. But the male skink lizard wanted to take my finger off."
In Hollywood, Dratfield's clientele includes the actress Lara Flynn Boyle, the owner of five dogs, including a new puppy. Wherever he goes and whatever type of animal he shoots, he says — what he tries to focus on is the relationship between the human and animal companions.
And he doesn't seem to get star-struck when taking photos of Hollywood stars. "I had never met her before. And whether she was an actress or not, it's about that relationship. I mean, to be honest with you, I was more focused on the dog," he said.
Boyle appreciates Dratfield's focus. "You see some of these things and they always look posed or trite, and it just, from looking at his book I just knew it would be a really relaxed sort of shot," she said.
Dratfield has seen a lot of fancy neighborhoods since he started his business 10 years ago — a profession he came into as a fallback against the one he first chose, acting.
An Out-of-Work Actor's Best Friend
He appeared in the series Hollywood Beat, St. Elsewhere, and on Broadway. It was a shot he designed to send to casting directors — of him and his Akita — that encouraged him to try animal photography. Back in New York in the early '90s — in a career slump, working as a waiter — he displayed some of his work on the walls of a restaurant.
"I waited tables on a literary agent," Dratfield said. "And she looked and saw the work on the walls, and got very interested. Had an idea for a book."
He got a contract almost immediately, for the same concept that has characterized most of his books since: animal photographs that illustrate a broad range of human thought. Dratfield has also turned out collections of great pictures with terrible puns.
Dratfield says there isn't any particular type of animal that's easiest to film.
"The easiest one is one that is well-behaved. But even then, you just don't know what you're gonna get," he said.
And the pet owners — the ones who pay $1,000 and up, depending on the amount of time and the number of animals — often have ideas of their own. Gail Mendelsohn of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., has two Chinese cresteds named Sushi and Muffy. She wanted Dratfield to shoot photos of the dogs with their heads in a toilet bowl.
"There are people who have a very set idea of what they want, and I go with it. I mean, it's for them and I want them to be happy with it," he said.
And, if to certain people, some animals might look bizarre or ugly — Dratfield has a politically correct term to use instead. He calls them "animals of character." And he says he likes them best of all.
And if there's really no telling what the animal is thinking, Dratfield's concept is that sometimes they help us get in touch with what we're thinking — like when your career as an actor hits the wall and you discover that the publicity shot that finally resulted in regular work was the one you took with a dog.
Dratfield said, "When my dog passed away, I realized that this dog left a legacy. I mean, I have a career because of that dog."
For more information on Jim Dratfield's work, visit his Web site at http://www.petography.com.