Annie Leibovitz for pets

Cockatiels, cougars and a half-naked Henry Kissinger: It’s all in a day’s work for pet photogapher Jim Dratfield.

If you’re looking for the perfect photograph to capture the spirit of your beloved pet, the person to turn to is Jim Dratfield, owner of Petography. For the past 26 years, Dratfield has attracted an elite clientele, including Jennifer Aniston, Elton John, Billy Joel and not-so-famous animal lovers, all of whom share a common passion for their pets.

Dratfield, a Carmel resident whose work is often featured at horse shows at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, travels across the country, taking fine art photos of pets, often with their owners. “The most rewarding part of the job for me,” he says, “is when a client tells me that I’ve captured their animal’s soul.

“A person can take a good photograph, but to really capture the personality of a pet — as the owner sees it — is a real challenge. I like to do it with both humor and poignancy.”

Though Dratfield says he’s always loved photography, it was not his first career. Growing up in a theatrical family in Princeton, New Jersey, he started acting at the age of 6 and left college to pursue his dreams of being on film and stage. After a successful run in the Broadway revival of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1980), in which he prophetically played the role of the son who oddly enough runs off to become a photographer, Dratfield moved to Los Angeles. He soon landed the recurring role of Bud Keiser, an obnoxious paramedic, in the critically acclaimed NBC series “St. Elsewhere.” 

His photography career dates from 1993 and was inspired at a time when he was creating a promotional mailing to send out to casting directors. “I was playing around with my camera and sending out pictures that I had shot of me and my dog, an Akita named Kuma.” 

“I looked at the photos and began to wonder if there was a market for fine art pet photography. At that time, I didn’t really see anyone doing that and so I started playing around with the medium,” he says.  

As luck would have it, one of the restaurants Dratfield was waiting tables at in New York City let him mount his pet photos on the walls. He sold his first photo there and also met a literary agent who helped him get his first book published in 1995. Called “The Quotable Canine,” it was released by Doubleday and featured a compendium of sepia-toned dog portraits and classic quotes. The book was included in the holiday best bets lists of a number of publications, including Good Housekeeping, People, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and others. 

The companion book, “The Quotable Feline,” was released by Alfred A. Knopf for the 1996-97 holiday season and received an equal amount of accolades. To date, Dratfield has published 12 books, the latest being “The Love of a Lab,” which first came out in hardback in 2016 and is now available in paperback.

Dratfield’s fine art pet photographs are in high demand theses days. He is often called upon to photograph everything from dogs, cats and horses to rabbits, hedgehogs, monkeys and cockatiels. He says the most unusual shoot he’s ever done was a Solomon Islands skink, a lizard to which he nearly lost a finger. 

The scariest job was for a woman in Florida who owned an animal sanctuary. “She had two cheetahs and there was no partition between me and them. I got some nice photographs and thankfully nothing bad happened. But three weeks later, I was watching the national news and found out the owner had been attacked by those very cheetahs and received 35 puncture wounds,” Dratfield says.

The funniest shoot he ever did was for Henry Kissinger. “He wasn’t present when I started the shoot, but his wife (Nancy) and mother were there. I was photographing their black lab, Amelia, in the backyard and all of a sudden the door swings wide open and out walks Henry Kissinger with no shirt on and his pants falling down,” he says.

“So there was a half-naked Henry Kissinger making animal noises to his dog while his mother was standing over his shoulder. It was quite the sight, and I wish I had videotape of that.”

Dratfield also photographed actress Laura Dern’s dog, a Rottweiler named Cory, who was sick with cancer. “Laura didn’t know if she wanted to do the shoot, but she said to come by and we would see how her dog was feeling. The day I came to her house the dog was looking great and Laura was hoping that the cancer was in remission.  The dog was happy and I got some wonderful shots.” While he didn’t hear back from her right away, Dern later called Dratfield after Cory died to say how grateful she was that he had captured her dog’s personality and memorialized him. 

Dratfield photographed Barbara Walter’s dog, a Javanese named Cha Cha, after she narrated a profile of him for ABC’s “20/20.” When he heard that she loved his photos, he wrote Walters a note and offered to photograph her dog for free. “Not only did she insist on paying for it, but she brought some of Cha Cha’s photos to ‘The View’ and talked about me on the show,” Dratfield says.

He notes that while he photographs many celebrities and their pets, his clientele is diverse. “To me, it’s just about the love of your pet — if you love your pet, then I’m the guy to photograph him or her for you.”

Dratfield says the shoot that moved him the most was for an Arizona resident who had saved an abused dog whose previous owner had thrown sulfuric acid on him. “They had taken fur from one part of this dog’s body and sutured it onto his head. When you first saw him it was horrifying and sad, but the new owner had given the dog so much love that the dog was just so happy. It proved to me that beauty is really more than fur deep when it comes to animals.” 

When asked what he does to get that perfect photo of a pet, Dratfield says, “A lot of it is patience. I wait it out.”  He adds, “When people ask how long a photo shoot is going to be, I say I respect animals for being animals and don’t ask them to be models. So I work at their speed. Sometimes I have to sit there for half an hour just to get the animal acclimated, but eventually I get the photo.

“It often comes down to finding that certain sound, word, treat or toy that an animal will respond to. There’s always something that works, but every animal is different,” Dratfield adds. “Another thing that’s good is to put an animal up on a chair. They might not jump off right away and you might get that extra second to get that perfect photograph of them.

“I like to photograph animals in their own homes — both inside and outdoors  — because that’s where they’re most comfortable. I think that it’s more interesting and personal for the client if I can capture environmental aspects of their home and incorporate it in the photo shoot. I also encourage the owners to be in some of the shots with their animals because the bond is so strong.”

In addition to his commissioned photography and books, Dratfield sells greeting cards, posters and calendars. He also exhibits his work at art galleries across the country. Locally, he has shown at the Oak & Oil gallery in Katonah and the Garrison Art Center. In addition, 40 of his equine photos are currently on display at the West Street Grill in Litchfield. 

In addition to the American Gold Cup at Old Salem farm, Dratfield shows his work and autographs books at The Hampton Classic in Bridgehampton. He’ll once again be at the Spring Horse Shows at Old Salem Farm in May.

When he’s not photographing other people’s animals, Dratfield enjoys spending time with his own pets, a black Lab named Sawyer, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon named Maeve and a rescue cat name Nico, who also serve as muses for this John Singer Sargent of pets.

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