LK: Grace, thank you very much for agreeing to do an interview with us. Can you tell us how you eventually found a career in professional photography, let alone pet photography, especially considering your background as an art director and designer in the advertising industry?
Grace Chon: In 2008 I was working at a large ad agency and working crazy hours. I was burned out, beat up, and needed to find something to do that would make me happy. I had just adopted a dog from Mexico when I bought my first entry level dSLR – a Canon Rebel XTi. As an art director having just gone through months and months of searching for a dog to adopt, I realized the benefit of these adoptable dogs having great headshots to help them find a home. I reached out to a rescue group in Los Angeles called The Dawg Squad and started taking photos of their dogs on the weekend. Interest started growing in my photos and a few months later, I started a pet photography business and moonlighted as a pet photographer on the weekends (www.shinepetphotos.com). My business grew really fast – faster than I could have ever imagined. After 8 months of working as a full-time art director and pet photographer, I decided to take the plunge and focus on my pet photography career. I quit my agency job during the beginning of a horrible recession in 2009. People thought I was absolutely nuts. I had just launched a well received TV campaign that garnered a large raise for my partner and I, and people were losing their jobs left and right. But I had to follow my passion and see what would happen if I gave animal photography 100% of my focus. I haven’t looked back! I’ve retired from taking on privately commissioned work, and am only shooting editorial and commercial work now.
LK: Having attempted many times to photograph my German shorthaired pointer, I can appreciate the challenges associated with photographing pets. Can you tell us about some of the methods you use to capture the expressions and emotions of the pets, as well as the fine detail that shows off their beauty?
Grace Chon: I think working with animals is 50% technical and 50% intuition. I see a lot of animal photos that are technically sound, but the animals look a little soulless. There’s a reason why the most successful animal photographers love animals! Respecting and working WITH the animal is huge. Every subject I work with is a willing participant and I don’t view it as the animal is there to do my bidding – we are in it together, and we are creating images together. We are partners, and they choose to work with me and open themselves up to my camera. I never end a shoot without thanking my subject for their love and cooperation. Aside from that, patience is key! And you always have to have lots of yummy treats to pay the animals and keep them happy and motivated. Squeaky toys or things that make funny sounds (you included) are also really helpful, especially for controlling their eyeline and getting ears to perk up. I’ve learned to shoot one handed so I can have a toy in the other at all times.
LK: How did you become known among celebrities and begin photographing them and their pets?
Grace Chon: I’m involved with a lot of rescue groups in Los Angeles, and some hold a lot of star studded fundraising events. A celebrity happened to see my work at one of these events and she contacted me for a shoot. I just randomly got a phone call one day and there was this movie star on the other end of the line, asking to set something up! Photographing Perez Hilton’s dog in 2009 was significant because of his huge web presence. I got a lot of new clients from that, celebrities included. I guess things spread by word of month after that. Once I had privately commissioned shoots with celebrities under my belt, magazines came calling looking for similar work.
LK: Are there artists who have inspired your work, both in the past and now?
Grace Chon: I’ve always been a huge fan of William Eggleston. I love his saturated colors, his composition, and his subject matter. He has an incredible way of elevating seemingly mundane moments and showing them in a new perspective. Dog photography in 2008 was really, really ugly. Think horrible studio shots with bad lighting and props. When I started photographing dogs 6 years ago, people thought I was crazy, but I wanted to elevate the subject matter and show a different, more beautiful side. I also love Elliot Erwitt. His dog images are so playful and spontaneous and brilliant.
LK: Are you currently working on any special projects?
Grace Chon: I’m working right now on a collection of images called “Daily Dog Smile.” Nothing makes me happier than seeing a dog happy. Smiling dogs are contagious – unless you’re missing a heart beat it’s hard not to feel like smiling right back! I have documented hundreds of dogs in all states of glorious bliss, ranging from mysterious Mona Lisa smiles to full on laughter. You can view some of these images at www.dailydogsmile.tumblr.com and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/dailydogsmile
LK: What advice would you give to young and/or aspiring professional photographers as they develop their careers?
Grace Chon: I wrote this on my pet photography business blog 3 years ago after reflecting on my 3 years as a pet photographer. I think there are some good nuggets of advice in the post.
1) Dream Big.
As preposterous and foolish you may feel, dream big! I found that old blog post from 2007 so hilarious because now in 2011, I didn’t even remember WRITING IT! It was complete happenstance that I came upon it, and I had to laugh at myself for being so silly, so naïve, for dreaming so big when I didn’t even have my freaking camera yet! Yes, I’m admitting this now: I guess I dreamed of being a full time pet photographer before I even knew how to operate a digital SLR. But something in my heart must have known something my head wouldn’t admit. Because while I wrote that blog post as a complete joke, now I realize deep down there was some truth to it.
2) Be YOU.
This is fairly obvious. Just. Be. You! You have your own unique vision and story to tell. Personal vision and style is something that’s always evolving, but if you don’t know what yours is, whose story are you telling? And sincerity is super important, which comes along with being authentically YOU. I think people can smell insincerity a mile away. It reeks. Desperation is a stinky cologne.
3) Inspiration Everywhere (but here).
If you’re a pet photographer, my biggest piece of advice is stop looking at other pet photographers’ work! (Says the pet photographer writing this on her own blog). These days, it’s hard for me to look at a pet photographer’s portfolio without identifying inspiration (or sadly, straight up copying) from other people. And with all this emulation and copying, what has happened is that everyone’s work is just starting to look the same. I encourage you to find other means of inspiration if you’re feeling stuck or want to evolve your own personal style.
4) R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to you.
One of the BIGGEST pieces of advice I can give you is to respect your fellow photographers, especially those in your own town. Ever since I started my business, one of my goals has been to be as respectful as possible to my colleagues. I won’t try to squeeze my way into an event if I know another pet photographer is already committed to be there. I won’t reach out to a business if I know they already are in relationship with someone else. I won’t try to build relationships with talent or celebrities that I know are working with someone else. I won’t change my business practices just to blatantly out-compete someone else. I won’t email another photographer pretending to be a student on the east coast so I can spy and get information. This is just obvious and common courtesy, but sadly these aforementioned examples are NOT made up.
5) Integrity. It’s not an STD.
I think integrity and respect are like peanut butter and jelly. They always go together, and they make each other better. If you maintain your integrity, you’re respecting yourself. If you act with integrity, you’re respecting others. The way people behave, it’s as if integrity needs to be avoided like gonorrhea. You are born with your integrity, and nobody can give it away but you. Stay an integrity virgin people! Practice Safe Integrity.
6) Have an Attitude of Gratitude.
Thanks to the interwebs, it only takes a click of a mouse to look at the work of those you admire and feel like complete poop. Trust me, I’ve been there. When I was in ad school, my friend was a rockstar art director. Every idea he had and layout he created made you simultaneously want to bow down in reverence of his skills, and punch him in the face. He was the bar I was always striving to reach and the person I most wanted to be like. But every time I felt I slightly caught up to him, he was already 20 steps ahead being even awesomer. I look back now and wish I never did this to myself. And as I look at the careers of photographers I admire, I have to pinch myself as a reminder to stop doing it all over again. How can you possibly live your best life when you’re comparing yourself to someone else, trying so hard to catch up to them?
7) Stay Humble.
This is the last piece of advice I had on my list in 2009 and it’s still so important to me. Stay humble and thankful for everything you’ve accomplished now and everything you may accomplish tomorrow. No man is an island and someone in your life, whether it’s your encouraging friends, your supportive spouse, or your loving God up above, helped you get where you are now and will be by your side as you continue on your path tomorrow.