Jesse Freidin’s interest in photography began at a very early age. “At six or seven, I was introduced to the power of the camera,” he says. “It was a way to be an observer, a kind of voyeur.” His parents had an original Polaroid camera, he recalls, and he began taking pictures of his friends. He also became enthralled with the process of photography. Today, he’s a highly sought-after fine-art dog photographer whose work is included in over 100 private collections. He is actively commissioned to photograph people and their beloved canines in cities throughout the U.S.
Although he was a literature major, Freidin took pictures throughout his college days and became addicted to collecting cameras and shooting portraits. After graduation, he moved to San Francisco. “I needed a job, so I got work at a doggie daycare facility,” he says, admitting that at that time, he didn’t know much about dogs. “Working at the doggie daycare was a crash course in what dogs mean to people. Once I started working in the dog world, I really understood this relationship.” Freidin also notes that although he didn’t grow up with dogs, he always had a mysterious connection with them. (Not surprisingly, Freidin has a dog of his own, a 12-year-old Boston terrier named Pancake.)
Eventually, he became an apprentice at a portrait studio in San Francisco. Looking back, he says, “Once those two worlds came together, it was a recipe for my photographic specialty.” And although he’s primarily self-taught in photography, he maintains, “Being an apprentice at that portrait studio in San Francisco was my education.” He worked very hard at the portrait studio for a year. “I was the first one in the door and the last one to leave at night,” he says. “I was mentored by three wonderful photographers, and it was the best education I could have imagined.” He learned how to talk to clients, how to build his business and about “the ins and outs of not only being an artist, but how to run a studio.” Perhaps even more than attending school for photography, this handson experience as an apprentice gave Freidin the necessary tools for success.
How did he get his name out there as a dog photographer? “At first, I thought pet photography was something that I would never want to do,” he says. He became a professional photographer nearly 10 years ago, and he noticed that most of the photographs of dogs back then were “cheesy in a silly, colorful way.” Because he came from a fine-art portrait background, Freidin decided that he would approach his business differently. To build his portfolio, he began photographing his friends’ dogs. “It was a great way to test the waters and to begin establishing my style.” He put up a website and started going to dog-related events and networking in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I jumped on any opportunity I could find to set up a table and show my work,” he says. “It was an excellent way to not only market myself, but more importantly, to get to know the dog and art communities better. I really believe that in-person marketing is the best approach, even today.” His business built slowly but steadily from that point on. “I feel grateful that I’ve gotten this far. It hasn’t been easy, but I love my job.”
The majority of Freidin’s images are black-and-white, and he says that he shoots mostly film. He bought his first digital camera just a year or two ago, and although he sometimes shoots digitally, he still prefers film cameras. He acknowledges that shooting with today’s digital cameras in color can be wonderful in a lot of ways, but black-and-white imaging is a major part of why he loves photography. “It’s so hands-on, and it’s just the way my mind thinks.” He adds that a lot of clients come to him because they like that look. However, he will shoot color on occasion. “If a client comes to me and has a great idea about a color image, then of course, I’ll shoot color. Every project is different.”
He shoots mostly with a Contax 645 medium-format camera, as well as a Hasselblad 500 with an 80mm lens. “I started out with a Hasselblad and totally manual settings,” he explains. Occasionally, he uses the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, a full-frame digital camera, with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L lens. Freidin prefers fixed focallength lenses to zoom lenses. “I’m not a gearhead,” he laughs, adding that he likes to keep things simple. He says that 90 percent of the work on his website was shot with film.
Freidin no longer processes and prints his images in a traditional darkroom because of the increased cost of chemicals and paper, and the difficulty in getting access to the supplies he needs. “I was hesitant to switch to digital output, but I’ve been working with a great printer in the local area,” he says. He likes to control the quality of his final product. He scans the negatives in his studio and then uses Adobe Photoshop to control contrast and make subtle changes before submitting the files to the printer for output. “All of my prints are made on beautiful archival paper, and I’m really satisfied with the outcome. I’m just doing what I would do in a darkroom,” he says. “I bring the finished prints back to the studio, cut my own mats and sign each piece.”
Freidin describes his photographic style as that of a storyteller. “Clients commission me because they want someone to tell their story for them.” He says that people want more than a simple image of their dog. “If they want an ordinary photo, they can hire anybody,” he continues. “But they come to me because they want someone to go deeper into that relationship.” He loves observing the bond between people and their dogs, and he enjoys showing clients how beautiful this relationship is. “The way I tell a story is that I really get to know my clients and their animals before we start photographing them,” he states. It’s also very important that his clients open up to him emotionally. “My job as an artist is to tell people what’s happening in their lives. I think that’s the job of any portrait artist.”