If you lie down with dogs, the saying goes, you will get up with fleas. Bill Owen lies down with dogs and gets up with photographs.
Here is Bill on a recent Sunday: Camera in hand, he is writhing around on the floor of Dog Paws ‘n Cat Claws, a pet day-care facility in Arlington. He is in black jeans, a black T-shirt and stocking feet. Precious, a 12-year-old golden retriever-Brittany spaniel mix from Fairfax City, is having her portrait taken.
Since most dogs do not understand the concept of glamour photography, this is somewhat challenging. Bill takes those dog-floating-in-white-space photographs, and so there is a lot of canine butt-pushing going on to get Precious properly situated. Owners Bob and Mary Jane Crain are also in their stocking feet, lest they scuff up the seamless white paper background Bill has unspooled underneath Precious.
Sliding a dog like a curling stone across a slick paper surface has the perverse effect of making the dog want to come to you — and out of Bill’s range. He fires away on his Nikon as Precious pinballs between her owners. Finally, after about 20 minutes, Bill thinks he has enough to choose from.
“This is all about taking advantage of what’s presented to you,” Bill says. “It’s 100 percent intuitive. I’m not going through any thinking. I’m not making any decisions here. It’s just happening. If anything, I’m trying not to think.”
I ask the Crains what sort of dog Precious is. “She loves people,” Mary Jane says. “She really craves that attention.”
“Her entire life she’s been afraid of objects,” Bob says. “For example, she won’t push a door open with her nose.”
I ponder this as Bill’s assistant double-checks that all the paperwork has been completed. Mary Jane has signed a model release, and the Crains have paid $90 for two 8-by-10 prints. (Bill is donating 20 percent of his fee this weekend to Homeward Trails Animal Rescue.)
Bill has edited 90 or so shots down to 20 for the Crains to look at. As the couple crowds around Bill’s computer, Precious flops down on the floor behind them. In one photo, Bill has snapped her flopped down on the floor.
“That captures her the way she looks a lot at home,” Bob says.
Choosing the final two shots is as much about what they don’t like as what they do.
“Her paws are too prominent to me,” says Bob about one photo. “Too much tongue?” he wonders about another.
A little tongue goes a long way in a dog, and when it seems that each photo looks as if a length of Laffy Taffy is extending from the mouth, the challenge becomes finding a photo where the tongue isn’t the main attraction.
Professional dog photographer is just the latest chapter in Bill’s life. He’s 66 and has done a lot of things: sold Mazdas in California. Made fashion accessories. Peddled macrame plant hangers. (“I think we were the first in the country to mass-produce them, me and some buddies of mine,” he says. “We put them in 279 Zayres back in ’73, ’74.”) Sold vitamins. Worked as a freelance legal secretary. The Kensington resident put up his pet photo Web site in 2002 and decided to go full time last fall.
I ask the Crains why they decided to bring Precious by for a portrait. “She’s older,” Mary Jane says. “It’s important to have something to remember her by.”
That’s the same reason the next customer, Sharon Williams, brought her dog, Jackson. The 11-year-old miniature schnauzer just got over a serious illness. “We thought we were going to lose him,” Sharon says. “There’s a lot of sentimentality there.” As for Jackson: “He’s gentle and he’s stoic. He’s definitely not a showoff dog.”
Sharon takes off her boots and joins Jackson on the paper, coaxing him into various positions as Bill trips the shutter again and again.
“A dog is just a beautiful, permanent 2-year-old,” Bill tells me later. “You always know where you stand with a dog.”
Be careful where you stand, actually. The excitement of the photo session is too much for some of the dogs to bear.