Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
For Donna Wolfe, 2015 was a very bad year. On the same day in July that she learned she had breast cancer, she was forced to put down Spenser, her beloved Affenpinscher, who was succumbing to renal disease. For that year's holiday card, Wolfe and her husband, Doug, wanted to express optimism for the future while acknowledging their loss. Wolfe sought counsel from Margaret Bryant, owner of an eponymous dog photography studio, in Dallas.
Bryant produced a trifold card. On the front, the Wolfes are waving and walking away from the camera. Donna carries a framed photo of Spenser; their two surviving dogs trot behind. Inside, the couple, now in formalwear, raise a champagne toast. The dogs, too, have changed into tuxes. Spenser's photo is propped alongside. On the back: a mélange of Spenser photos taken by Bryant over the years.
"We've done Christmas cards with Margaret every year for 12 years, but that year was the most meaningful," Wolfe says. She also commissions annual portraits of her pets and has turned one hall of her home into a gallery, known as the Dog Walk. Bryant "is so creative and so patient," Wolfe says. "There are times we've brought in the dogs and they've misbehaved like crazy. Yet somehow she makes something great."
Bryant, an award-winning dog photographer who wrote a book on the topic, has developed an arsenal of tricks and tactics for coaxing her subjects to do things that don't come naturally, like stand on a fire hydrant or recline with cucumbers on their eyes or dress like an auto mechanic posing on jacks. They don any number of costumes, from magicians' capes to Santa suits.
Bryant says people often think her photos are faked--and, yes, she sometimes uses Photoshop because there is no other way to capture a dog throwing a snowball, for example. But "I actually get the dogs to do a good number of these things," she says. Often the incentive is food. So, for a shot of two Weimaraners playing chess, Bryant laid a morsel on the board near one so he would gaze at it intently, as though considering his next move.
Margaret Bryant Pet Photography has been a Dallas staple for two decades. Even in an age of smartphones, Bryant, who works with a dog wrangler to maintain order while she's behind the camera, shoots hundreds of dogs (and the occasional cat or horse) each year for clients, who come from as far off as Oklahoma City.
People-treating-pets-like-family is a cliché in the animal industry. Bryant's customer demographics bear it out. Her clients are almost all unmarried women, young couples, and empty nesters. Scarcely anyone with children invests in pet photography.
Her most popular package is a $400 photo session that includes a $100 credit toward purchases, which range from fine art portraits and storybooks to notecards. The process begins with a consultation in which Bryant invites client and dog into her studio. She talks to the client about her pet. She ignores the dog.
"Do you know how to greet a dog?" Bryant asks. "You don't greet a dog. You let him sniff around and get comfortable with the place. He will eventually come over to say hello and then he will lay down. That's when you know he is ready to go."
An early passion, a late career
Bryant, who grew up in Kingston, New York, procured her first camera at age 8. In high school, she graduated to a 35-millimeter model and commandeered her parents' spare bathroom for a darkroom. Bryant considered making photography a career but concluded, "I didn't have the chops."
She did have chops for broadcast engineering, though. In 1977 she received her FCC First Class RadioTelephone Operator license. For the next 30 years Bryant built radio studios. Working with architects she designed the layout, the furniture, and the wiring. As far as Bryant knows, during that period she was the only woman doing it. "I really stood out," she says. "I became known as the broad in broadcasting."
In 1994, Bryant fetched up in Dallas, but by then she was growing tired of the industry. So she cast around for something more fulfilling. It was around this time that she and Chloe took up flyball.
Chloe was Bryant's border collie-Australian-shepherd mix. Flyball is a kind of relay-race for dogs. Bryant photographed the races, a challenge because they were fast and poorly lit. When dog owners on the sidelines asked if she could shoot their contestants as well, Bryant obliged--for $40.
Although "it was a business in name only," Bryant had the bug again. She brushed up on her skills with the help of a local photographer and took a business class offered by the Professional Photographers of America. Deciding that a storefront would be extravagant, she set up a studio in her home, clearing out the living room furniture on Saturdays for shoots. Bryant didn't quit her radio job until 2006, when she was 50. "I made sure I had enough money socked away that I did not have to make a cent on photography for a couple of years," she says.
13 ways of looking at a Weimaraner
When Bryant got started, pet photographers were uncommon outside of pet stores. Now they're everywhere--and rapidly being replaced by phone cameras. So she is always looking for ways to be different. Having started with straightforward portraiture, she now seeks opportunities to anthropomorphize. "Whenever an idea strikes for something dogs could be doing, I write it down and try to acquire the props," she says.
Many of those photos can be found in the calendars Bryant has produced as a fundraiser for Weimaraner Rescue of Texas. Weimaraners, of course, are among the most soulful models, as demonstrated by William Wegman's celebrated pets. Even so, Bryant felt the pressure to devise 140 different photo scenarios (13 shots for January-to-January plus the cover over 10 years). She started off basic, posing dogs against bold colored backgrounds. Over time she got wilder, casting her subjects as everything from a superhero to an orchestra conductor to a chef decked out with apron, toque, and whisk.
Bryant enjoys the challenge: the calendars allow her to indulge her creative side. So do the holiday cards, which are among her most popular items. Typically she works with the client to devise a narrative. For Dallas resident Amy Dreyfuss, one year it was a variation on "Twas the Night Before Christmas" starring her Portuguese Water Dogs, Riley and Tucker.
Bryant has also made house calls for Dreyfuss, photographing Riley and Tucker on a raft in the pool, complete with margaritas. For her client's 2019 cards, she is working on a way to incorporate 2-week-old Baxter, even though Dreyfuss hasn't yet brought the puppy home and so couldn't include him in the photo shoot.
Dreyfuss marvels at Bryant's ability to coax specific behaviors, particularly from puppies. "It's wonderful all that goes on to get the dogs to do exactly what she wants," Dreyfuss says. "I sometimes say someone should be taking pictures of Margaret taking pictures."
But Bryant cautions that she's not a miracle worker. Some dogs are up for anything; others, not so much. She virtually always gets good material but can't promise a shot where Fido appears to do the Cha Cha. "The trickiest part of being a dog photographer," she says, "is managing human expectations."