The man who's shot some of film and TV's biggest names talks about dogs, adoption, and fun shoots.
The slate of celebrities photographed by Alan Weissman is a mile long — Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, Diane Keaton, just to name a few.
Now add pets to the list.
Don’t be surprised if you are greeted by barking and panting from Alan’s two canines, Lulu and Lefite, when approaching the walkway to his studio in the Studio City hills. If we could bark, we’d understand what they were telling us about their owner’s artistry in photography. But pictures are worth thousands of words, so check out his website –- it’s rare that you find someone with this much talent for photographing pets.
Dogster: I know you’ve always been a big dog lover and a supporter of adopting and rescuing pets. When did this all start?
I remember being a kid and adopting my first dog for only $8. Can you believe it? I have had about eight dogs, if not more, and they all have been adopted. When I was a kid in Brooklyn sometimes dogs would just roam the streets looking for food. I used to hide them in my house or garage or basement and my parents would never know. I would get busted from time to time when a dog would start barking or yelping in the middle of the night. Eventually they had to adopt one for me, but I still snuck them in on cold winter nights.
Years back, I was ready to adopt a dog and went down to the adoption center. I saw this beautiful Golden Retriever and wanted to take him home for the weekend before committing to adopting him long-term. The woman running the center told me how strict their rules were. They required checking the adopter’s home and getting an official approval before releasing any pets, as most shelters do today.
She took a liking to me, seeing how much I cared for dogs, and let me take him home for the weekend. I took Rex home, and after he snapped at me once (imagine a big 70-pound Golden), I knew it was love at first bite. Needless to say, I didn’t return him.
I remember Rex! He was wonderful.
He really was a special dog. He used to come to work with me every day at the studio and I taught him all of these fun tricks he would perform for my clients. For example, at my studio, which was two stories, I used to leave a roll of film or mail at the bottom of the steps, and Rex would retrieve them and deliver them straight onto the clients’ laps when I called him. Once we accidentally left a light bulb in the spot where he normally picks up his “deliveries” and he brought up a light bulb and dropped it in front of the client, with his tail wagging, shards of glass were all over the floor. It was pretty hilarious.
How did Lulu and Lafite enter your life? Fun coincidence about you having a dog named Lulu after my beloved Collie, Lulu.
Lafite I adopted from Cesar Millan. At this point, Rex had gotten pretty old and I didn’t want to put him down. Cesar, whom I had photographed many times, suggested that it was time to let him go and consider rescuing another dog. I told him I wasn’t ready and that when I stopped grieving for Rex, I would think about adopting a new dog.
A few days later, he called me and said he wanted me to come down to the Dog Psychology Center and just meet a dog. He wouldn’t tell me what kind, but did say that I was a good match for this dog because I have calm, assertive energy.
Walking into a compound full of 40 dogs from Cesar’s pack, a mixture of Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, and other breeds, was an intimidating experience. There were dogs everywhere, jumping up and down, while I had to refrain from making eye contact so as not to aggravate any of them.
Suddenly, a dog grabbed my hand. I told Cesar that one of the dogs either bit me or licked me. He just said to me, “Your dog just picked you.” After putting the pack away, he came back with this curly-haired dog that looked like a sheep, but was a Standard Poodle desperately in need of a haircut. I always wanted a Standard Poodle and never told Cesar. That’s how we got Lafite, my new best friend, who does lots of the tricks Rex did and is at my side at every photo shoot.
I started a project called Helping Hands with Melanie and the Bark Avenue Foundation. The idea was to photograph people’s hands as they hold “doggie models,” who were rescues. Lulu was found in downtown L.A. The owners of a food truck always fed her, but couldn’t catch her because she was living under a building. They called to report a dog in need of a home since they would be changing their route and wouldn’t be able to feed her anymore.
At the photo shoot, when I met little Lulu, I called my wife and told her I’d be bringing home a four-legged guest for dinner. I wanted to foster Lulu for a brief time until we found her a permanent home.
Lulu had no dog skills or people skills, but during her time with us, nursing her back to health, she had kennel cough. We took her to puppy classes to socialize her and posted her picture on Facebook to find her new home. As calls started coming in, we decided to keep her.
I remember what a fun time we had when you did my photo shoot with my Collie Lulu (daughter to Lassie VIII and a Ralph Lauren model for their kids’ Polo Collection). Lulu was a natural ham for the camera. Outside of her, what dogs have been the easiest to “direct?”
The ones who have their owners teach them to sit, come and stay. It’s important to consistently reinforce the desired behavior. One should never give them a treat or food unless they perform at least one of the above. When dog knows those three commands, you can control them. The only dogs that are easy to photograph are ones that are trained.
Are there any funny stories or moments that happened when photographing celebs with their dogs?
I had one client come by with this beautiful black Lab. He was at least 90 pounds and had a shiny beautiful coat. He had just come back from the groomer and before the session he started to play with Lafite, chasing each other around the deck.
Moments later, we realized the Lab had disappeared. We couldn’t find him anywhere! On our deck, we have a huge pot from Bali that my wife filled with water and water lilies. All of sudden, we see the dog with his head sticking up from that exact pot, to his owner’s and our surprise! He jumped out and started shaking of the water, which got everywhere. The pot wasn’t much bigger than the dog and he smashed all the flowers … all before the shoot could even start. He was a dirty mess for the shoot.
There’s an impressive picture of Cesar Millan and his pack of dogs. Give us a little behind-the-scenes info on it.
I photographed him with his pack several times. The first time, we traveled to Malibu at 6 a.m., which they used during opening of the show. It was the most beautiful, foggy day and we had probably 20 dogs in tow. I’d done studio shoots with Cesar, but not with all these dogs! All of the dogs were off-leash and Cesar just walked with a staff, maintaining complete control over them. At one point, a group of horses passed by and Cesar was able to have his pack stand in line, letting the horses pass in peace. Pretty exciting and impressive. Most people who bring their dogs here can’t even get them to sit! After we went to the beach and did another soot playing in the ocean. Lots of beautiful images that day for his books, CDs and videos.
What did you do to get all of the dogs to behave?
I don’t know. He’s the Dog Whisperer!
You’ve photographed just about every major star in Hollywood. Is there any particular one you were intimidated by or in awe of? Why?
Merv Griffin was great. He loves his dogs and they were so much fun to photograph. Mike Tyson was great too because he fell in love with Lafite and I was able to photograph them together. I was a bit concerned how Mike and I were going to bond before the shoot to get the connection I try to get in all my pictures. As soon as they fell in love it was easy for me. We talked about animals and he told me all about the big cats he used to own. I would of love to have photographed them.
There’s a special glow that radiates in the faces of the people you photograph — and even for the animals! What’s your secret?
My sense of humor. Dogs think I am funny and some people do as well.
Cheeky answer! You mean like when I asked you what the difference was between photographing people and dogs? And you
People spit out the biscuits!