Art We Heart: We Talk to Pet Photographer Andy Stolarek
When I first heard about Andy Stolarek and Furtographs, I have to admit I was insanely jealous. "He gets to hang with animals all day? And create art? And get paid to do it? SHUT UP!" How does a person win the employment lottery (not to mention the TALENT lottery, all my cats end up looking like cyborgs -- glowing eyes and all -- in the pictures I take), and get to do this sort of work for a living?
Jealousy aside, I recently sat down with Andy, the charming owner and photographer at Furtographs Pet Portraiture, to get the inside scoop on the kibbles and bits of the pet photography business.
Catster: How did you get started in photography?
Andy Stolarek: I've pretty much had a camera with me my whole life, but I was never trained or thought there would ever be a career in it. My degree is in fine art [from California Institute of the Arts], mostly installation art, and musical performance. When I graduated I got a job at a well-respected photography gallery and that's when I became obsessed with photography.
So what got you interested in taking pictures of pets?
I was on a drive to San Francisco, and when we got off the freeway there was a huge sign that said, "CAT SHOW," and had an arrow pointing. So of course I had to go! Have you ever been to one of those?
Oh yeah, that is a wild world!
Yeah! I had no idea this whole culture existed. So for the next two or three years, I found a cat show every weekend and started to document.
What interested you about cat shows?
It really wasn't about the "nice cat sitting there by herself," it was more about the world, the arena of it. There were so many gorgeous, amazing, interesting cats.
And the cat shows evolved into Furtographs.
Yeah. At one point I shot a breeder's cats with my lighting, which is very simple, and they turned out really well. Then I started taking pictures of my friend's pets and I started to see a very specific style emerge, [a style] I learned from the National Portrait Gallery in London.
What's that style?
It's a stare with the subject's eyes looking off to the side, a really complicated picture that seems really simple. I was interested in seeing how I could take that feeling in those oil paintings and project it onto an animal that is quiet and doesn't talk, but has a total personality.
So what is your goal when taking animal portraits?
I glamorize animals, but in their natural state. I try to shoot them without collars or leashes, they're always "nude." I kind of want to strip away human emotion, but still be a character.
That's so interesting that you say "strip away" because your photographs feel very dramatic. Like you caught the cats mid-sentence.
I try to get inside their brain a little bit and get them. They are a blank canvas, the viewer sort of creates their own story.
You see what you want to see.
Of course, there are the ones with the tongue out or eyes open and shut, those are the funny and quirky ones, but I think the strongest ones are the ones are the simplest, just the cat ... being a cat.
Is it harder to work with cats than dogs?
Much harder. With dogs, they are used to being in different environments, but with cats -- especially if they're indoor cats -- they're used to being in their home. So when they come to the studio, they typically travel for only "bad" reasons, you know?
Yes, the vet.
Exactly. So when a cat comes into the studio, or even when I do an in-home session, there's a lot of chaos and a lot of distractions and new smells. They [start off] looking very startled.
So what are your tricks to taking pictures of cats?
Patience. The owner has to be a lot more present. They have to be sitting right next to the ottoman that we shoot their cat on, just so the cat has the presence of safety. And then we use a lot of wands and sticks and shiny things [to draw their gaze]. We make a lot of noises! With dogs you can use treats and stuff, but not cats. In weird environments, they're just not hungry.
Any really challenging shoots?
Yeah, one time I shot this client's two Russian Blues in their very expensive home. When I got there they were walking around so calmly and I thought, "This is going to be a piece of cake." But the second I set up the studio, they knew something was up and they just RAN in two different directions. One wedged himself behind a TV built into the wall, so we had to dismantle the TV to get him out. And as we shot they knocked over some valuable porcelain statues. We ended up getting some good shots when they calmed down, but it was really difficult.
I don't have too many horror stories, but [stuff] happens.
So even with all that you get great photos! You were selected as one of "The Best of LA" in LA Magazine, right?
Yeah. Somebody called me and said they wanted to book a session because, "I saw you in Best of LA!" and I was like, "Oh, I didn't even know that happened!"
Have you gotten any celebrities or big names knocking on your door from that?
I've had a fair amount.
Can you tell us who?
I don't know if I'm allowed to say but ... Amanda Seyfried, Jim Parsons -- oh! David Faustino. Bud Bundy from Married…with Children. He was terrific. I did an in-home session with Roma Downey ...
Do you have any pets of your own?
Yes. One cat. Penny.
What's Penny like?
She's an Abyssinian rescue. When we first met her, she had warning symbols on her cage, notes that said, "DON'T STICK FINGERS IN CAGE" and all this horrifying stuff. And when we took her out of her cage with the vet, she was walking in circles and hissing the whole time.
But when we got home, she just waltzed out of the cage and hung out with us. She's bizarre, she loves just staring at dead tree branches that are outside, she loves hummingbirds. People say Abyssinians aren't friendly, but it's a lie, she's a lap cat. She'll just lie right here on my shoulder forever. She's so comical, and I think that's what's so exciting about having a pet in general. It brings such joy.
Yeah, she makes me laugh at least once a day, which is pretty great.
At the end of the day, why do you think what you do is important?
I was thinking about this the other day, thinking that I should have maybe had a career that made more of a difference, but that's really what this is. It's capturing a moment with, essentially, someone's child. Blending art with your family, capturing the essence of beauty in these creatures.
It's very personal.
And when pets pass away, I get emails all the time from people who are grateful that they had that time to capture Gracie or Fluffy in such a beautiful way. I get those emails and I'm like, "This is the reason that I do this." It's celebrating life.
If you are interested having your pet's Furtograph taken, or would like session information, contact Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org. BONUS: Mention Catster and receive an extra set of prints free!
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