New David Jensen book celebrates pets with professional photographs

Mike Dunham

David Jensen is among the lucky who have been able to combine two passions -- a love of photography and a love of animals -- into a livelihood. For most of the past 25 years he's pursued "petography," clicking on hounds, felines, birds, lizards and other domesticated critters.

Now he's assembled hundreds of his photos into a book, "It's Important to Paws" (, $49.95), which comes out this week. Though primarily a photo book, it also includes, in the words of the subtitle, "lessons learned from animal companions; scenes, sentiments and considerable nonsense according to dogs and cats."

And horses, parrots, ferrets and at least one turtle.

(His business, David Jensen Photography, also does photos of people -- but they're not the focus of the book.)

Jensen was born in Fairbanks in 1957. His parents moved to Anchorage where he majored in journalism and public communications at UAA. He'd long had a "mild interest in photography," he said. But the petography idea emerged when he got married and his wife, Carol, brought along an aging collie, Schyler.

"He was my wife's four-legged soulmate," Jensen said. "We knew he wasn't going to be around much longer so we wanted to get a professional photo of him."

After failing to talk a photographer into coming to the house, they arranged to bring Schyler to a studio. "I didn't see much connection between dog and photographer. I knew I loved dogs, and it struck me that I wasn't the only person in the world who wanted a good picture of their pet."

He added photography classes with the late Sam Kimura to his college schedule and, in 1989, took out a small ad. He had his first customer within a couple of days. But petography remained a side-business run out of his house. Day jobs included a stint as public affairs director for Alaska Pacific University.

In time the business became his full-time job and he purchased the property at 9130 Elim St. where he maintains his studio.

The first impression dogs are likely to have when their owner drives them up to an unfamiliar storefront is that they're going to the vet, Jensen said. "So I approach all of my subjects at their own level. I've never met a dog that came into the studio standing up. I'm either on all fours or sitting with my butt right on the ground. Give them their space, let them come to you. That's part of making them feel relaxed."

The beef jerky he keeps in a pocket helps them like him, too, he said.

Making sure the dog is happy is a big part of the job, but calming down the people who are with them is even more important, he said. "Dogs are exceptionally empathic. If they read any stress whatever, they'll draw that in."

You don't see much stress in the "Paws" book. Other expressions abound: attention, adoration, evaluation, concentration, pets at rest, pets at play, pets nosing around other pets or props. Several show the animals interacting with their owners.

A few include costumes and poses, including a replication of the famous painting of dogs playing poker. But, Jensen said, "I usually don't dress the dogs. I like them how they are."

The most astonishing pictures may be the group shots. In one frame he managed to get 13 puppies to look at the camera at the same time. Another shows 23 alert dogs in, on or around a Subaru station wagon; a 24th has his back to the camera watching a nearby duck.

"Subaru is one of the best companies for designing cars for dogs or dog owners," he said. The company has featured the photo in its advertising.

None of the dogs has been photoshopped into the frame, he said, though he uses computer programs to tweak colors or remove blemishes, standard operating procedure for most commercial photographers.

"The way those pictures really happen is that there are a lot of people helping me, for 20 dogs maybe 15 people; they're just off camera."

Jensen, who is also a musician (he met his wife when they were both in pep band), compares his situation in a group photo to being a music director. "I cue all the people around me who are helping. I tell everybody what I'd like them to do, what my plan is. They put the dogs in place where I want them to be. I organize it, make my noises and start talking to the dogs. When I click the shutter it's like the stinger in a Sousa march."

Cats and cockatiels may require different approaches. Ferrets are particularly tricky. "They're very fast, frisky, animated and curious about everything," he writes in the book. "So far, I haven't met one that responded to the words 'Sit!' or 'Stay!'"

In 1989 Jensen began his long-running series of shelter animals portraits in the Daily News. Each featured a pet up for adoption. "At first my idea was that it would promote the business," he said. "But after a while I realized it was not about that at all. People often go to the shelter and see so many rescue animals looking at them that they can't decide. They leave without adopting anything. The photos help focus them and take the fear out of the equation."

Jensen guesses that over the years some 2,000 animals have been adopted as a result of the project. He continues to provide free photos for animal rescue and welfare groups. "Every Thursday is my pro bono day," he said.

The book is "kind of a pinnacle event for me," he said. "I adore dogs probably more than I like people and I think my work is trying to improve the connection and understanding between people and animals that are part of their lives. A lot of times that emerges as a humorous perspective, a softer side that may come across as a little bit sappy.

"But I want people to know that it's important to breathe, to take time, to bond. That's the double meaning of the title" -- time to "paws"/"pause."

The moments when a human can share the peace and pleasure of experiencing and accepting the world with his or her pet are among the most fulfilling, happiest, healthiest things that can happen, Jensen said.

"I love every time I'm able to do that. It's a real sense of accomplishment, I think, to say I'm enjoying life."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.