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Pet photographer snaps as subjects bark and meow

Michael Joseph, traveling photographer, earns a living getting your pets to sit still enough to sparkle in portraits.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2002


Michael Joseph, traveling photographer, earns a living getting your pets to sit still enough to sparkle in portraits.

TAMPA -- Anthony Fulginiti and Erica Esterrich sat erect, smiling at the camera, their 1-year-old perched between them.

The youngster wore his favorite bandana, the one with the dollar bill design. It had been a good day -- Lucky Charms for breakfast and a ride in the car.

But now he was restless. His ears were perked, his eyes darting. The bright lights and the strangers clearly freaked him out.

In all the chaos, he froze, giving photographer Michael Joseph the millisecond he needed to capture the moment for posterity. Joseph fired the camera. A bright flash exploded, and Kryptonite, the 1-year-old chihuahua mix, was off and running circles.

Just another day in the world of pet photography.

Joseph, owner of Pet Portraits by Michael, has traveled the country for 17 years taking pictures of folks and their beloved companions.

He and fiancee Karen Brown arrived Friday at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay for a weekend of pet portraits. They charged a $15 sitting fee for the event, which went to benefit the charity.

Taking portraits of pets presents many of the same difficulties as taking portraits of children. Both squirm. Both wriggle. Some bark. Some bite. Most try to run away.

Only the touch of a professional -- plus his tricks -- can rein in either species.

Joseph possesses an amazing repertoire of barks, growls and meows, which he uses to persuade animals to glance at his camera.

He also keeps a bag of Alpo dog treats hanging from his tripod, in case things get drastic.

He has photographed dogs, cats, pigs, parrots, ferrets and Egyptian goats.

By Friday afternoon, his weekend was booked solid with more than 100 appointments.

Joseph wasn't surprised.

"It's developed into a real niche. People eat it up," he said, estimating that most customers range from their late 20s to early 50s. "These animals are like children to many of these people."

Donna Cohen, a University of South Florida professor of aging and mental health, says the connection can go even deeper.

"Across a life span, having pets gives a certain amount of comfort, love and meaning to life," Cohen said. "A (pet) portrait is a wonderful idea. It's memorializing the relationship. It really captures something very special."

Most dog owners Friday said they planned to use the photos for Christmas cards, wallet-sized mementos or decoration for the living room.

Joseph said he just planned to crash at the end of the day. It's tough work being the Olan Mills of the animal kingdom.

Consider Friday's 40-minute session with Peggy Pulliam and her four dogs -- two Irish setters, a long-haired dachshund and a poodle.

After several attempts, and several Alpo treats, Joseph got through the group shot. He was working on a portrait of the two setters when Chip, the poodle, squatted behind the tripod to answer nature's call.

A short break to scoop the waste into a plastic bag and spray some air freshener, then the session moved on.

Another day, another photo shoot.

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