Randal Ford believes that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. An accomplished portraitist with commissions from the largest agencies and brands, Ford has changed tack with his series Animal Kingdom. Panthers, owls and cows all captured against monochrome studio backdrops that draw out their distinct personalities. The paradoxically unnatural setting focuses the gaze of his animal subjects; places it firmly on us. Are we looking at these beasts, or they us? The portraits will be released in his upcoming art book in 2018.
For Polarr, I chatted with Randal about his process, the challenges and rewards of photographing animals, and how he learned that “fox snacks” can be the key to a great shoot.
EvH: When a lot of people think about photography and animals, they picture wildlife photography, which doesn’t exactly capture what you do, because these images were taken in-studio. Can you share a little about why and how you became interested in photographing exotic animals in-studio, especially since this seems like a bit of a departure from your other work?
RF: I’m a portrait photographer. Portraiture is a common thread throughout all my work and a passion I’ve always had. When I first got into photography over 10 years ago, I was shooting portraits of people on bright colored backgrounds (in the photo world we just call those backgrounds seamless.) Renowned designer DJ Stout, of Pentagram Austin, approached me about a new project. He wanted me to create portraits of Dairy Cows on bright colored backgrounds like the portraits of people I was doing on seamless. He wanted to do this not only to create an interesting visual but to showcase the personality of the cow.
And so we created a series of portraits dairy cows that were visually interesting but more importantly, a personification or a likeness of the cow. The images and idea really stuck and were well received in the design and art world.
Snowy Owl №1
Photographer Notes: Poppy’s gorgeous yellow irises were a focal point for her portraits. Owls are one of the most expressive animals I’ve photographed. Their eyes tell a story unlike any other creature. I wanted to show three likenesses of her: one of intensity, one of humor, and one more contemplative. Poppy cooperated and was a fantastic model. She is currently traveling the world with her owner working to educate the world about Owls and other birds of prey. Also to note: people always ask, is Poppy the bird in Harry Potter, you know Hedwig? I’m sorry to disappoint my friends, but she is not.
So that was the start of photographing animals in studio and slowly over time I photographed more and more animals in studio. The reason for studio and the simple off white background is to create a portrait that speaks. I want to create a personification of the animal. I want to showcase their personality in order to connect with the viewer. In a way, it’s definitely an anthropomorphism of the subject. We like to apply human emotions or traits to animals, in the most obvious sense to our pet dogs and cats. This can be compelling and allow us to connect with the animal. But with some images, those emotions we ‘see’ are different from person to person. For example, some people may look at a Tiger portrait and say that Tiger looks fierce. But then another person may say that Tiger looks sad. Are these the personality of the animals or our emotions? Or a mix of both?
Black Wolf №1
Photographer notes: Geronimo was no dog. I love dogs and am around them all time. And when I see pictures of wolves, I associate them with dogs. But when I saw Geronimo in person, I knew instantly he was a wolf and not a dog. The way wolves move and their sleek figure is an instant give away. I could tell he was more predatorial, more primal, and more instinctual than any dog. Wolves don’t walk, they prance. And Geronimo did just that. He danced around the studio, sniffing us all briefly and posed for us for only a few minutes and then he was ready to leave.
EvH: A goal of these is to help create an emotional connection between the viewer and other living beings. Can you talk more about design or stylistic choices you might make to help create this connection?
RF: For thousands of years, we as humans have been depicting animals in artwork. That’s a testament to the importance of our connection with nature, specifically animals. Similar to what I mentioned above I want to personify the animals so that we can connect with them on an emotional level. In other words, personification or creating a portrait of the animal can be entertaining for the viewer. It can elicit humor, a feeling of power, or a sense of awe for the animals magnificence. And for me that’s what artwork is about — eliciting a feeling, en emotion, something speaking to your heart and soul.
Highland Cow №2
Photographer Notes: Eleanor, the perfect example that imperfect can be oh-so-perfect. Unlike her Highland girlfriends, she has short and messy hair, a dark sandy coat, and short asymmetrical horns. But what’s so perfect about Eleanor is that she owns it. She’s comfortable in her own hide and that self-confidence clearly shines through in this portrait. Per their name, they are originally from the Highlands of Scotland.
From an aesthetic perspective, I believe in the power of simplicity and for these portraits it’s fitting for them to have a simple, clean, background that allows the subject to be the hero. The simplicity of lighting and background removes all distraction so the viewer can totally connect and engage with the animals.
EvH: What are some of the challenges, logistically, technically, creatively, or otherwise, of having an animal subject?
RF: Working in a studio with an animal presents unique challenges. It depends on the animal but overall the process of photographing any animal under controlled conditions is not easy. And there are simply some animals that I’ll never be able to photograph under controlled conditions.
Photographer Notes: Eloise had us all mesmerized by her sheer size. But equally as powerful, was the serene nature of her personality. She moved softly with great care and tact. Despite her size, she could sense if she was about to step on something even an inch wide and adjust her stride. I’ve photographed many animals and I rarely have the chance to touch the animal I’m working with because of safety or comfort level of the animal. But in this instance, I was able to put my hand on Eloise’s shoulder and feel the wonderfully unique texture of her skin and wrinkles. I closed my eyes as I felt the rise and fall of her breath and felt an amazing sense of gratitude come over me. An amazing moment.
And of course, it all depends on the animal. Some animals I could photograph all day. For example, the Bengal Tiger I worked with in Los Angeles was so docile and well trained that we could have spent 8 hours with her. On the flipside, I spent 5 minutes with the Black Wolf and was lucky to have one good shot. Most birds are fairly easy to work unless of course they fly away! Cows, which I’ve worked a lot with just depends on their temperament. Most baby animals are very challenging because they move so quickly and never stay still. I will say that I’ve had the most challenges with foxes, wolves, and…. domestic cats, naturally!
Chimpanzee Portrait №1
Photographer Notes: Compared to his brother, Amari was a bit more calm and relaxed on set. I thought it would be interesting to further anthropomorphize him by placing Amari in very human position. He was agreeable and was happy to pose for us. This shot in particular was inspired by the famous Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Throughout the shoot, Amari would run around, dance, and then jump into my arms for a hug. A funky monkey no doubt. At the end of the shoot, he played the bongos on my head.
EvH: What are some of the things you consciously do to create the conditions for a great portrait?
RF: In order to create the portraits in my aesthetic, you need to have a clean background and strobe lighting sources that shape the animal and increases the chance of capturing the best pose and expression. I use fast Broncolor strobes that have a very short flash duration which means they can freeze action very effectively. The worst thing would be to have an amazing pose or expression that is not sharp because the animal was moving around and your strobes didn’t freeze the action. I also use dSLR cameras for their fast autofocus and flexibility. Medium format is nice for people but too sluggish for working with fast animals.
And finally, I personally have to be on point and ready to shoot because sometimes an animal just gives you a split second that perfect expression. And if I’m not ready or not paying close attention, that shot could be lost for good.
African Crane №1
Photographer notes: She liked to dance, once the lights came on Penelope owned the shoot. Birds are one of my favorite subjects and Penelope had the whole crew’s attention with her elegance and majesty. I wanted to show different tones of gray and the texture of her feathers by highlighting her with directional lighting. She was truly a royal subject.
EvH: During your research phase, how do you ensure that the animals you photograph are treated well?
RF: Because the animals I photograph are captive, this is something I take very seriously. For the more exotic animals, I’m typically working with trainers in Los Angeles. I have relationships with these trainers and know from personal experience and their reputation that they treat their animals with the utmost respect, dignity, and compassion. For commercial assignments, we will typically have a humane society rep as another eye on the animals.
For the rural animals like cows, horses, and chickens, I typically work with show animals that are used to being around cameras, flashes, and people. Prior to a shoot, I always have a conversation with the animal’s owner or trainer to discuss the process and any challenges that may arise. This is also a chance for me to get a sense of that person and how they interact with their animals.
Bengal Tiger №1
Photographer notes: Shika was my first large cat to photograph in studio. Large cats in studio are an experience unlike anything else. The combination of power and grace is tangible. They command respect and one wrong move can make things escalate quickly. I remember distinctly when Shika’s trainers removed her leash and asked her to walk to the mark. The way she walked was so graceful, and stunningly beautiful. But I was in the middle, at her mercy. The feeling that I could be prey was chilling. She received fresh, uncooked meat as her reward between takes. I only work with trainers who show a great amount of respect for the animals and are incredibly thoughtful with their care. Shika’s owners not only treat her with dignity but also love. It was obvious there’s an ongoing relationship of trust and appreciation.
EvH: Is there any particular image from the series that you feel particularly lucky to have gotten, either because it was tough to get, or required some extra creativity, or because it turned out differently from how you imagined?
RF: Many times I’ll go into a session with animal with a specific idea of what I want to capture and then walk away with something totally different and unexpected. While my process is very controlled, I also have to be flexible to what the animal is doing or what the animal looks like once I see them in person. For example, this shot of the Longhorn was totally unexpected. I had created some straight on portraits of him but then set my camera down and walked around him to just observe. And what I noticed when I got to the side was that at a certain angle his horns perfectly covered his eyes making for a unique perspective.
Photographer Notes: Maverick had mighty horns. He had a set much curvier that most steers. And they were so perfectly symmetrical that I really focused on their shape when composing my frames. Maverick is a Fort Worth native and you can find him hanging out near the stockyards year round keeping the peace.
And there are definitely some animals where I feel lucky to have captured anything worth keeping. Two of those being the arctic fox and black wolf. Neither were aggressive or overly timid but they just barely stopped moving. The wolf pranced around the studio exploring every single smell so it was difficult to get his attention. Similarly, the fox was curious but was also not very food driven so it was tough to ‘bribe’ him with fox snacks for a look at the camera (Fox snacks being almonds and fruit during our session.)
Ayam Cemani Rooster Black Collection
Photographer notes: Krishna is real. No Photoshop. Ayam Cemani’s are amazing. They’re all black, cone, beak, feathers, and even meat. It looked almost unreal from the online images I saw. Ayam’s have only been allowed in the states for 2 years so it was difficult to find an owner. I finally found a small farm of exotic chickens and journeyed to capture a portrait of Krishna. Krishna puffed up his feathers and simultaneously stood up.
There are some things we can learn from animals — they follow their instincts … always. And they live in the present moment. As a society, we are constantly distracted by technology and the busyness and hectic-ness of life. It’s very difficult for us to be present and in the moment. If you are not present and living in the moment, maybe it’s hard to follow your instincts.
Highland Cow №1
Photographer Notes: What a Gertrude. Similar to a Yak, Highland Cows have long, beautiful shaggy hair. Per their name, they are originally from the Highlands of Scotland. Most Highlands are redheads but Gertrude was a blonde beauty. I loved how her locks covered up her eyes, and in this frame I selected, she tilted her head slightly as if she was telling me something. My affinity for cows definitely holds true with these beautiful highlands and this portrait of pretty Gertrude is hanging in my house.