Q&A: Photographer Julia Sumpter and Her Dog Portrait Series
How one classically trained photojournalist is using dog portraiture to highlight the good in these dark times
*photography by Julia Sumpter
The bond between a dog and its owner is something so unique and pure it can be difficult to describe—a connection rivaled only by what can be found between two humans. Though even then we’d be willing to bet a great deal of folks would choose a pooch over another person as eternal companion should they find themselves stuck on a deserted island. Because dogs are good. Plain and simple. And so is Mother Nature.
Documenting this enduring relationship between dog, owner, and the great outdoors, is Seattle-based photographer Julia Sumpter, and her ongoing portrait series A Hound Dog. As a classically trained photojournalist and lifelong dog lover, Sumpter has a rare eye for capturing dogs in their most earnest moments of being.
As dog lovers ourselves, we felt immediately drawn to learn more about, and to share the project. It's not the most deep, or intense project by any means, but as Sumpter herself explains in the following exerpt from a recent phone conversation, A Hound Dog is about more than just pretty pictures of Good Dogs.
You're trained as a photojournalist, but now find yourself making dog portraits? Tells us about that.
I’ve been interested in hard news and classical newspaper and print photojournalism since I was a teenager—I got my first camera at 16. In journalism school, I would have completely scoffed at the idea of taking images of dogs, because the concept is such a fluff one (no pun intended). But now that I’m an adult and I’ve worked at and contributed to newspapers and magazines and online media, I think these images are just as important as anything else.
These dogs mean everything to their owners, and these dogs adore them back. It’s nothing to be trivialized—love and positivity deserve a seat at the table in terms of media representation as much as conflict does. So, if I can use my training and skillset and profile loving relationships and things that make people smile, then I’m happy with that.
How did the project start?
The first time I shot for this project I had driven from Seattle to Cannon Beach, Oregon with the intent of just siting in the sand—I’m from Missouri, a woefully landlocked state, and had just moved to Seattle—and I got about two pages into my book before I realized there were just tons of dogs there, having the absolute time of their lives. Going after tennis balls, digging in the sand, chomping on sticks, eating beach grass—they were just so excited. So I started taking photos.
I didn’t start out the day with the intent of photographing dogs but I made my best images still to this day because those dogs were just so happy. I got probably seven that are my most favorite images I’ve ever taken, on that first day.
Is there a specific feeling you try to capture in your portraits?
With each dog that I photograph there are typically a few frames of them running around like a maniac and then a couple of quieter moments when they, like, stop and sniff the air or hear something in the distance and just take in what’s around them. And those are the moments I like most. In that moment they are completely present and engaged with nature. And that’s something I really admire about dogs.
Even if I’m hiking or doing something outdoors I’m always distracted by something. It’s something I never experience that purely myself, so I like to live vicariously through them. Ha.
"The country is a scary and disheartening place right now and it’s important to find and appreciate the little things that are good."
How do you go about approaching strangers, and their dogs?
I try to be conscious of vibes, you know. When approaching a stranger—which is always anxiety inducing—I try to feel out the dogs willingness to participate and the owner’s willingness to participate, because I require some level of patience from both parties. And if I sense that either party may not be up for it I thank them for their time then bounce after making two crappy frames. Haha. But usually I’ll only shoot 10-15 frames per dog. I try to keep most interactions under five minutes.
At the end I’ll ask the owner for their email address because I want to give them something in return for giving me something. Plus no one is going to care more about that image than the owner. When people are really really excited [to receive the resulting image] it makes me feel really great because I know that at least the image will be, like, their iPhone background for a week or something. Haha.
Every time I leave someone I’ve photographed I’m smiling, and they’re smiling as well, because people love to talk about their dogs. People are always pretty happy to give five minutes of their time for someone to swoon over their dog.
What do you shoot with?
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II with a 50mm f/1.2 lens, which is really good, as long as they’re being still. I’m not the most technically sound photographer but I think that my strength is that I relate well to dogs and can for the most part predict what they’re gonna do.
I have an easier time understanding how to get a dog to look the direction I want than I do trying to get people to do what I want.
So, why does A Hound Dog matter?
The country is a scary and disheartening place to be right now and it’s important to take an extra second to find and appreciate the little things that are good, and that can help you move forward through your day. You know, sometimes it can be hard to find positive motivation and you can feel like there isn’t anything good in the world—especially in this political, societal, and cultural climate. And dogs are good. I’m never not happy after I’ve interacted with a dog.
The moment on the street when I make eye contact with a dog, smile at the dog, and the dog starts moving towards me, pulling its leash to get over to me—I’m never more complemented that I am in that moment.
[A Hound Dog] is a really rewarding personal project, because it gives me the positive ammunition to continue appreciating good things.