When Pete Thorne’s grandmother turned 100, it ended up sparking a project that has brought profound happiness to the lives of dog owners.
“Last year my grandmother turned 100 (now 101!), and I became interested in photographing older subjects after a trip to Halifax to photograph her birthday party,” says the 35-year-old photographer, who’s based in Toronto, Canada.
“It occurred to me, while I was thinking of what kind of older subject I would like to work with, that I should photograph old dogs as they are generally overlooked by photographers in favour of cute puppies.
“With this idea in mind I set up a small studio and brought in a friend’s dog (Sprout!) who was all grey. I decided to photograph Sprout against a grey backdrop, and the results looked fantastic, more similar to a painting than a photo. Afterwards, I put up a few posters advertising the project just to see if anybody else would be interested in participating. I’ve been flooded with responses ever since.”
As Thorne soon discovered when he embarked on the Old Faithful Photo Project, photographing old dogs comes with a whole different set of challenges to photographing puppies.
“I usually request that the owner bring their dog’s favourite treats and toys to help focus their attention,” he explains. “This doesn’t always work as a lot of these old doggies are blind or deaf, possibly both. I found that the trick is to direct the owner; then the dog will follow.
“It can be quite a comical scene. I’ll be low on the ground firing off shots from my camera while the owner is crawling around on the floor with me trying to get the dog pointed in the right direction. I tend to shoot in small sessions as I don’t want to stress any of the old dogs, and I know when I’ve got the shot that I want.
“I end up with a few different looks for each dog. Each of these looks projects a different element of that dog’s personality and so it helps to get a good bio or testimonial from the owners so that I can choose the image that best suits their personality, as stated in the bio written by their owner.
“Those testimonials, often quite touching and humorous, have inadvertently become a big part of the project. I now encourage participants to submit something written about their dog when they contact me about participating in the project.”
Thorne’s photos of old dogs have become prized possessions for their owners, but he admits he had no idea how meaningful the project would become when he took it on.
“To be honest, I was a little naive coming into the project… I thought I would simply photograph some old dogs, choose the ones that look like caricatures of old guys and gals, and that would be it. It wasn’t until I started hearing about dogs that I had photographed passing away and having their owners notify me, telling me about their loss, that I realised just how significant [the photos are] and how close people become with their pets.
“A lot of the stories of these dogs involve rescuing them from pet-mills, foreign countries, and from threats of being put down, so I think the key to a longer and more substantial canine life really just comes down to the love and caring that these old doggies receive from their parents.
“I guess I understand why people would want a younger dog — they get more time with it and they’re most likely less expensive in terms of health care. But I think it’s really noble of some of these owners who have rescued or adopted older dogs, to finally be able to give them the affection and care that they deserve. Perhaps that helps lengthen, as well as improve, their lives.”
Of course, it’s a project that’s tinged with sadness, as so many of Thorne’s subjects are near the end of their lives.
“Sure, there is a bittersweet element,” he acknowledges, “but its rewarding to me — and the owners are so grateful to get a nice portrait of their loved ones before it’s too late.”
Since our interview, Thorne has accepted a book offer for the Old Faithful Photo Project from HarperCollins. You can follow the book’s progress — and meet more beautiful old dogs — at facebook.com/oldfaithfulphoto.