A Dog Photographer Who Travels the World Tells All
While the rest of us chums are chained to our desks, photographer Elias Weiss Friedman is out and about, jet-setting here and there to snap photographs of the most photogenic dogs on the planet. In his wildly successful blog, The Dogist — which was inspired by other man-on-the-street projects, including The Sartorialist and Humans of New York — Friedman captures a different, rarely explored side of cities near and far, one seen through the lens of pooches. To say he’s been successful is an understatement: At nearly four years old, The Dogist has close to 3 million followers on Instagram and has already spawned two books, The Dogist and The Dogist Puppies. (The latter just came out in September, making it a great gift for pet owners.)
Friedman doesn't have a dog himself. "That’s part of the reason I started the blog: I miss having a dog," he says. "But it's like having a kid. I don't think it would be fair to have a dog in my New York apartment and be gone a lot of the time."
Is photographing dogs really all slobbery kisses and games of fetch? TPG tracked down Friedman and got him to spill.
How many dogs do you get to hang out with a week?
In a good week, let’s say at least 30 dogs. I don’t know what the average person’s DPW is — that’s, uh, dogs per week — but I make it feel like people get to meet more dogs. That's what Dogist is about: Experiencing little glimpses of dog-dom.
How’d you become so obsessed with dogs?
When I was a kid, I came home from Disney World and my parents got me and siblings a dog: Ruby, a black lab puppy. We’d always campaigned for a dog, and my aunt is a vet, so we always had dogs from a young age and we were always into animals. But Ruby was especially beautiful — she was a little fat and portly, and she loved food. She was a big, strong personality.
Was Ruby the first dog you ever photographed?
Probably. I was developing photos in the dark room of our house, and dogs are much easier subjects than people, especially if you're a shy kid like I was. She was a black dog, and black is harder to photograph, but I still have a picture of her sitting in a frame in my room.
How do you find the dogs you photograph today?
It skews heavily toward walking on the street, impromptu. I'm looking for something that stands out. It could be an Afghan hound that looks like something you’d never see, or it can be a little white puppy dog you’ve seen a million times, but this time, he’s wearing a bowtie. You kind of know it when you see it.
You’re based in New York City, but you travel all over the world. How are the dogs different from place to place?
New York certainly has a worldwide appeal to it. It’s easy for me to work here — there’s a huge diversity of dogs, so there's never of shortage of interesting animals. Down south, you meet bigger dogs — blood hounds and coon hounds. Not so many French bulldogs in Texas, because it's hot. Then, in a place like Croatia, there are little terrier dogs, not big Newfoundlands. The dogs there wander around like the whole town is theirs. They’re not strays — they have a collar and a name — but they're just given free roam. You’re out in the cafes, and there’s this little yellow dog running around like he owns the place, and he kind of does. That’s something you’d never see in New York. It’s a cool example of dogs living independently.
How do you choose where you go?
I try to travel as much as possible. Basically, I love adventure and I can go anywhere there are dogs, which is basically everywhere. I’ve hit up probably 60 to 70 major cities and small towns around the world looking for dogs. Every place ends up being different and it enhances my experience.
Do you think that a destination’s dog residents offer a deeper glimpse into the character of its human residents?
Yes! I’ve gotten so used to thinking about my travels and cultural experiences through the lens of people's dogs, which is an incredible statement. I feel lucky. In general, dog people are pretty awesome, and dog people are an interesting bunch. And that’s so nice: being amongst people who are generally agreeable and funny.
What's the dog-friendliest city you've visited?
San Francisco is always up there in the most dog-friendly cities. The stat I always hear is that they have more dogs than children, which I believe. San Francisco is a city with a ton of young people that love dogs and the outdoors, so life as a dog in the Bay Area must be pretty amazing, especially if you like hiking and the beach. It's all just a tennis ball's throw away.
How do you balance seeing and absorbing a new city with scouting for dogs? Are you ever able to truly wander without stopping to pet every pup?
I'm always on dog-watch, but that never stops me from seeing the sights in a new city. Oftentimes the places I want to go, like popular landmarks, are where people are bringing their dogs anyway, so it actually works out perfectly.
How often are you in the same place more than once?
I've visited L.A. and San Francisco more than other cities, and in Europe I've photographed Paris twice, Munich twice and Amsterdam twice. I always enjoy European travel and am always looking for an excuse to go back. The dog culture in Europe can be fascinating considering so many breeds originated from there.
What does your dog-photographing uniform consist of?
Knee pads: I wear them under my pants, so that I don’t look like a doofus. I think as a photographer, you want to be more low key and discreet. The tennis ball goes in the right pocket of my cargo pants. Left pocket, treats. Anther front pocket is business cards, and the back pocket is lens wipes for dog slobber. Very critical. The shoes are a little more boring, but for me, they have to be boots that won't get destroyed. I’m like a human tripod when I’m working — I drag my toe on the ground.
Does your gear present any challenges when it comes to packing?
One time I wore my cargo pants through security and the bomb dog alerted to the tennis ball in my pocket (which is essentially what they're trained to look for — their toy). I explained myself but nonetheless had to go through extra screening to make sure the dog was indeed just noticing my tennis ball, which probably smelled like the one he trains with.
What’s your favorite dog you’ve photographed? Of all time? Of just this week?
That’s a hard question; I get it a lot. My answers always change. There’s this dog Cheeto — he’s this Labrador in San Francisco and he has no eyes, but when I saw him, he was at this lake or pond and he was catching a tennis ball like any other retriever would. He just knew how to find the ball because of the ground and the smell. He wasn't bothered at all. That was a cool thing to see. And yesterday, I met a boxer-pitbull named Lloyd. He was a Hurricane Harvey rescue, and he had a funny quote: “Today was his first day at the dog park. He made three friends and kept two. Zero hump incidents.” And the Thanksgiving one was really funny, with one of my family’s dogs, Tuggy, which is just a snapshot of our holiday. Oh, and then there was this pug from Russia. And another Hurricane Harvey rescue dog.
What is it about dogs that you love so much? Apart from the adorable factor, obviously.
Every photo of a dog is candid. It’s not like when you put the camera up to a person, and 100 percent of the time they're going to smile, whether or not they're happy. With a dog, it's written on their face — that dog is scared, that dog really wanted that ball. It’s real and refreshing. Dogs are honest. Plus it’s like, you know, they’re all so good.
Where are you headed next?
I'm probably going to do Australia soon: Melbourne and Sydney, and then the rest is a little less obvious.
There are dingos in Australia — please tell us you plan to photograph a few.
I haven't made any appointments with wild dogs yet; they're very busy creatures. But I'll have my assistant get on it at once.
Portrait of The Dogist, Elias Weiss Friedman by Ted Lim