My Minnesota: Photographer Sarah Ernhart knows to get on pet's level

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2014 - 7:28 PM

A photographer’s dream: The subjects are always cute, never complain that you didn’t get their best side, and aren’t likely to wince in 10 years over their hairstyles. Sarah Ernhart takes pictures of pets.

“People think it means you get to play with puppies all day, but that’s not the case” — ­particularly when the dog’s age means the pictures might be their last. She offers something she calls Joy Sessions for elderly or terminally ill pets. That sounds difficult.

“It can be. It’s an emotional time for the owners. I’m focused on getting the images, but it gets pretty tough. Some people afterward get the images, and they’re not ready to look at them, but then they’ll tell me they look at the images every single day, and it helps. People have pictures of their pets, but you’re probably not in them ­— so capturing the relationship and embrace helps with the grieving.”

Most people’s pictures are taken from human level, looking down at a dog who’s looking up. Any advice for novices? “Get down on their level to see the things they enjoy doing! They all have their quirks and things they like. Dogs are pretty bribable. Cats, less so. They do their own thing,” she laughs. “They may or may not care about you.”

They’re still easier than some other clients. “I’ve had rabbits, ferrets, sugar gliders, chickens.” Hold on — chickens?

“I’m doing a farm animal project. I grew up on a farm by Park Rapids and loved all kinds of animals. I want to photograph them in a studio setting.” No, she’s not bringing a cow up in the freight elevator to her studio. She goes to the farm, and it’s not always for Bossie Cow. “There are so many cool animals out there — llamas, alpacas, heritage-breed chickens. Those aren’t your standard overweight white chickens, they’re the original old breeds.” Artisanal ­hipster chickens, then.

People who grow up on farms can be practical about animals. You treat them well, care for them, but then it’s off to market. When you look at the subject, do you see a commodity, or is there someone there?

“Oh yeah. It was hard for me as a kid. I didn’t want to know if dinner was something I’d been playing with. When I started this, I didn’t want to do anything that would be eaten. But it’s a big part of our culture and the livelihoods of the farmers.”

With no shortage of animals around, pets or otherwise, can you see yourself doing this forever?

“You have to get down to photograph the pet on their level and get up again,” she says with a chuckle. “If my legs and back hold out, I’ll do it as long as I can.

James Lileks

 

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