Two approaches to animal portraiture

One of my followers has commented that animal portraits seem to be my specialty. I will admit that the farm provides many good subjects and having raised animals for all these years has given me a good practical understanding of how individual species and breeds think and behave. The fortunate coincidence of opportunity and experience has, I will admit, allowed me to capture some nice shots. There seem to be two schools of animal portraiture; I have experienced both. Nearly a decade ago some dairy-farming-friends called to see if I would be interested in helping a professional photographer take some photos of a few of their prize-winning Brown Swiss dairy cows. Such images are recorded to demonstrate fine achievements in selective breeding, advertise the sale of an individual, or to highlight the prowess of a herd sire (photos of the bull are also important, but not as much as images of heifers or cows which represent his good influence). The beautifully posed portraits of Get-R-Done Braiden Gigi (on the left) and of Lee-Ann’s Braiden Glitter were taken by Cybil Fisher of Cybil Fisher Dairy Photography out of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Both of these animals provide proof of the very fine genetic potential of a bull, Blessing Tex Braiden, whose semen may be purchased at Select Sires of Plain City, Ohio. These shots have utility in that they record dairy phenotype, that suite of physical traits so important to diary farmers across the country and around the world. When I dropped in to help out my friends I learned just how difficult this sort of portraiture is. What do you notice about these two excellent portraits? How were they engineered? Both girls have had a very thorough bath; hooves and dewclaws have been painted and glossed; tails have had their switches augmented to make them look fuller; each is late to be milked, allowing her udder to show its capacity; milk veins are massive and shown to best advantage; the right-side hind leg has been placed to show the shape, placement, and attitude of the right-front teat; the girls have been placed in front of a light (artificial) background to accentuate the uniformity of the top-line; and they have been made to stand with their front hooves on a slightly elevated surface which serves to keep them alert, head-up, ears forward, and on-their-toes. There are other small tricks as well, involving mostly powders and sprays, which I won’t take time to mention. Can you imagine getting a cow, one who has little clue as to what’s going on, to do all of these things? And, at the same time? Take a quick look at theΒ Fisher photo, bottom on the right, and you’ll see that cows are simple beasts and find all of the fussing quite trying at times. Suffice it to say that getting a really nice shot of this sort is very hard work and excellent photos, of the sort taken by Cybil Fisher, should be greatly admired.

And so now, to the Pairodox approach to animal portraiture. Certainly there is little practical utility to such casual shots in this second gallery of my own images. I believe, however, that in contrast to the shots required of the livestock industry, the images I have captured provide a feel for the animals themselves, as individuals. Maybe my images allow you to get just a little bit inside-their-heads. Perhaps you are of the opinion that animals are animals and lack character and personality. Not true. I speak from years of experience. Species have different character (horses, versus cattle, versus goats, versus sheep, versus dogs, versus cats, versus poultry, versus rabbits), and breeds within species have different character (Angus, versus Swiss, versus Holstein, versus Devon, versus Charolais, for example, among the bovines), and individuals within species can display unique personalities as well. I hope this sort of disparity (rather than diversity) among species, breeds, and individuals comes through, to at least some degree, in the animal portraits I have created.

14 thoughts on “Two approaches to animal portraiture

  1. I’m catching up today … sorry I am late. Like, like, like, like, like like! One of your specialties, indeed!

  2. Looking at your images (which I, as all the other readers, like much more than that carefully crafted ones of the first kind) it becomes immediately clear why there are so many human-like animals in literature – from fables to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. BTW – I am just catching up after having spent some days really offline. I have seen lots of cows on alpine pastures πŸ™‚

    • That’s a great point, about human-like creatures in literature, I had never thought of it! Brilliant. When we were in Switzerland we had an opportunity to see some cattle high up in mountain pastures. We were told that one of the wonderful traditions, come fall/winter, was the herding of the animals down from the mountains to the lowlands as the bad weather closes in. That’s something I’d really like to see … and photograph! I hope you are recharged after your time in the alps! D

  3. Not sure if I am the follower you refer to in this post BUT … you have a knack for capturing the essence of animals! The “livestock” photos are great for what they are but YOUR images tell a story! I especially love the pigs all snuggled together and the one of the goat, who looks like he belongs in the Heidi story. No joke. These all merit second and third looks!

  4. David I love the way you capture portraits, and you really do share with us a sense of each animals essence. I’m not keen on the highly manufactured images you describe at the beginning … it’s similar to what goes on at Crufts Dog show, or horse dressage … I like earthy reality so your style to me is beautiful.

    • I agree. You know, it has been said that “When you look into the eyes of a sheep … you see the back of its head,” and I don’t agree. All animals have personality. Joanna says that cats can smile … I have yet to see that … but do agree with her that you can certainly tell what any animal is thinking … if you take the time to listen. I’m glad you like my approach. D

      • I find animals wonderful teachers of being in the moment. Trying to tune in to what they are thinking or feeling is usually all about what’s happening there and then … except of course if it’s nearly feeding time … then it’s all about the expectation of that lovely meal πŸ™‚ The dogs especially are like clockwork and gather expectantly about 15 minutes ahead!

    • Ha! I’ve got a draft post that I’ve been working on for a bit, and it is titled “I don’t do portraits.” I’ll photograph a sheep and a chicken … but no humans, please and thank you. D

  5. Fascinating. I had never given it that level of thought, but now that you’ve explained it, the whole thing makes perfect sense! Simply put, then I see it as 1. staging for commercial purposes and 2. creative. For my purpose, then #1 is of academic (and, sadly, passing) interest but #2 is something I’ll keep coming back for. That’s Hank up there at the top, right? He’s the kind of guy I like to work with: get’s his work done, fits in with the team, doesn’t complain πŸ™‚

    • Yup, that’s Hank. And, you are correct, he doesn’t complain. He’s getting older. Each time he gets up it takes his hind end a minute or two to realize what’s going on … poor guy. He’s still ‘with it’ though and can always be counted upon to complete his appointed rounds. He’s a good ‘ol boy for sure. I’ll try and keep those #2 portraits coming. D

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