Mark Sherman is smart about relating to his clients. “You don’t get in their face,” he says. “You talk to them for a while.” He finds this approach works well, and says, “They see me as a friend. I’m totally on their level.”
Well, he’s not literally on his clients’ level, since few of them stand more than three feet tall and he is more like six feet. But he is completely in tune with the cats and dogs he photographs, and also with the occasional mouse, homing pigeon, or horse.
Using sophisticated camera equipment, props, and an assistant, he has the technique for capturing pets’ personalities down, but now he is upping the ante. Sherman, until recently a staff photographer with the Trenton Times, is now devoting all of his time to Lawrenceville-based Mark Sherman Photography (http://markshermanphoto.com), and is adding humans to the pet portraits he has been taking for decades.
“I want to capture the family, and pets are part of the family,” he says. “If I were sitting for a family portrait, I’d want to include my cats and dogs.” He is not alone in this sentiment. A postcard from the mid-1890s, part of a South Carolina-based traveling exhibit, “Pets in America” (www.petsinamerica.org), shows a mother and her six children arranged as a triangle for a formal portrait. At the top, panting away, is a Benji-like dog.
While domestic animals have been a part of family life in America for over a century, increasing affluence has elevated their status in the 21st century. At the same time, a broadening of the definition of family has made it widely acceptable to include pets in outings, trips to stores, restaurants, and friends’ houses — and in the professional portraits that chronicle a family’s life.
Sherman is well-positioned to serve the growing cadre of Americans who see Tigger or Max (the most popular U.S. pet names according to website www.bowwow.com) as integral members of the family. He has been a professional photographer since he shot a photograph of a Dr. Strangelove look-alike politician at a pro-war rally in New York City in the late-1960s and sold it to the Village Voice. A freelance photographer, and then a staff photographer, but one who always maintained a solo business on the side, he has been attracted to animals as subjects for nearly four decades.
He has made trips to Africa, which he calls “valhalla” for an animal photographer, and has also traveled to the Galapagos and to the Arctic to capture animals in the wild.
Closer to home, in the mid-1980s he sold the New York Times on the story of West Trenton veterinarian and homing pigeon racer Dr. John Kazmierczak (www.westtrentonanimalhosp.com). He went along on a club event where large cages of birds were trucked out into the countryside. He knew that at the release point the doors would open and the pigeons would shoot out. “But there was no way of knowing which way they would fly,” he recounts. “I rigged up five motorized cameras so that I could capture them no matter which way they went.”
Getting the essence of the pet/family relationship is a snap in contrast, but is never easy. “I think of scenarios in advance,” says Sherman. When he arrives at the clients’ home — or at an outdoor locale of their choice — he spends time just observing the client, and its humans. This can be especially important with cats.
“They’re creatures of habit,” he says. They also tend to be major prima donnas, with important business to attend to — the morning nap, the mid-day milk break, the ritual couch shredding. Cats, he finds, are generally best photographed indoors. Like small children, they also respond well to props. In his photo gallery, on view at his website, there is a picture of a blissful cat rubbing against a Christmas stocking overflowing with catnip-stuffed mice. In another portrait, a cat looks through a goldfish bowl, one paw cunningly poking out in front.
Dogs are generally more into the whole photo sitting thing. Indoors, outdoors, it doesn’t matter. They are eager to please in any setting. But that doesn’t make a great portrait as easy as, say, reducing a slipper to ribbons. For one of his photographs, Sherman captured a couple in a their convertible, their Jack Russell terrier, sporting a red bandana, between them. Sherman got the shot just right by positioning the pooch on his assistant’s stomach. She moved up or down at his direction until he had the dog at just the right height, its head even with those of its humans, and its reflection captured perfectly in the car’s trunk.
At the moment Sherman is busy plotting a much more difficult assignment. He has been commissioned to create a family portrait that is to include a man, his wife, and their dog and horse. The height differential is keeping him up at night. Well before the scheduled shoot, he is working out the arrangement in his head. “I’ll probably take a table along,” he says, weighing the possibility of boosting up the pooch — “and the wife, too, if she’s really short,” he jokes.
Sherman, who shares his five-bedroom home with his wife, Maryanne, and their pets, two chocolate Labs and two Japanese bobtail cats, grew up petless in New York City. His father was a printer and his mother, “must have been some sort of bookkeeper,” he says. The confusion over his mother’s work comes from the fact that she carried around, “an enormous machine, sort of like an adding machine.” He thinks it was called a comptometer, but isn’t sure.
He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Hunter College in 1966. The Vietnam War was well underway at that time, and, in danger of being drafted, he joined the Marines. “I thought I would rather go with a group that knew what they were doing,” he says. He soon regretted his decision. “It was my first experience with complete and total mind control,” he recalls. “It was worse than anything Orwell wrote.” He was relieved when he sustained a back injury during basic training and was discharged.
Back in civilian life, he wrote for ad agencies before landing a stultifying job writing catalog copy for Ethan Allen, the furniture maker. But good things can come from even the worst job, and he came away from his catalog writing gig with both a wife and a passion for photography.
“They had an on-site studio,” he says. “I watched the photographer work with an old 8-by-10 camera, and became very interested in photography. I got a camera from someplace and started in on street photography.” There was lots going on in the streets of New York in the late-1960s, including frequent anti-war, and pro-war, demonstrations. Sherman really thought that the photo of the pro-war demonstration that he sold to the Village Voice had launched him. He went to the newspaper’s offices the next day, eager for assignments. There he was told that his shot had only been used because the staff photographer had been unable to cover the rally. It was a blow, but it did not deter him.
Sherman soon left his catalog job. He and his bride moved into a $75-a-month walk-up apartment in the Bronx, and he drove a taxi for five years while he built up a freelance photography business. By 1975 he was established enough to park the taxi and join two other photographers in renting a studio. He worked for a number of clients, including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Examiner, Fortune magazine, IBM, and ABC TV.
Sherman then went to work for news service UPI, but was soon lured away to rival AP. By that time he was living in New Jersey. He had moved because his wife, who specializes in writing for the insurance industry, had been lured away herself, from AIG to INA. “INA’s offices were in Philadelphia,” he says, “and I was working in New York.” The couple decided on a domicile that would suit both of their careers by “taking out a map.” They determined that Ewing was just about half-way between the two cities, and moved there, thinking they had landed in space-heaven when they rented a three-bedroom townhouse after so many years of New York City apartment living.
The New Jersey move soon provided more than bigger rooms and more spacious closets. Maryanne, finding corporate life too constraining, took an office on Lenox Drive and struck out on her own as a freelance insurance writer (www.shermanthinktank.com). Meanwhile, in 1987, Sherman got an offer of a full-time staff job at the Trenton Times. Photography is a notoriously competitive industry, with far more talented people than staff positions. He accepted the job offer, and spent the next 19-plus years covering all manner of events in central New Jersey.
“We worked shifts,” he says. “You would cover anything that came up on your shift.” It could be a fire, a championship basketball game, a street fair, a murder. He photographed it all. Like most newspaper staff photographers, he also shot random scenes when nothing big was happening. While walking about looking for subjects, he found himself gravitating toward animals, so much so in fact that an editor once snapped at him, saying “Squirrels don’t buy newspapers, you know!”
Sherman liked working at the Trenton Times, but also decided early on that it was a bad idea to “put all your eggs in one basket.” So, after only nine months on the job, he asked to be cut back to four days a week so that he could take on freelance jobs. Through the years his clients have included ETS, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the wire services.
It turns out a diversification mindset, along with the structure of a freelance business, was a good thing. He recounts how, in January, the Trenton Times told its editors that staff was to be cut drastically. “Each editor was able to say for how long they would need their people,” says Sherman. Some employees were offered buy-outs soon thereafter, but Sherman was needed to take sports photographs through the spring season. His buy-out offer came in July.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he says. Then he pauses, and revises his statement, adding, “It was no fun working on a dying ship.”
“They told us that we could take the buy-out, or we could stay on, and they would try to find something for us,” he says. But it was clear that there would be no jobs for many people, and that others would not be working in their fields. “I didn’t want to learn how to drive a fork lift truck,” says Sherman. He was sure that there was no chance that he would be able to remain a staff photographer.
The newspaper’s photography staff has been cut from 12 to 4, he says, and cuts of similar size have been made in other departments. Nevertheless, Sherman has nothing but praise for the Newhouse family, owners of the Trenton Times. His buy-out offer, including some nine months pay, was generous, he says, and he will receive a pension. He understands that changes in the way that people get their news is a big reason for the cuts, guessing that “there will be no newspapers in 10 years.”
As he predicts that the newspaper industry will go away, Sherman thinks back to his parents’ work. “One Saturday my father took me downtown, and spelled out my name in linotype, hot type,” he says. “It was a big thrill.” Soon thereafter, that technology disappeared, along with the livelihoods of many of the pressmen who had made a living setting newspaper type. As for the his mother’s occupation, it’s safe to say that it would be awfully tough for anyone to find employment as a skilled comptometer operator now.
Photographic technology has changed, too. Sherman stopped using film cameras years ago. The switch to digital is nearly complete now. Sherman’s latest digital camera is an $8,000, 17-megapixel Canon. The images it produces rival those from the finest film camera, and can easily be blown up to poster size with no loss of detail. But, still, says Sherman, “I spend hours in the lab.” It used to be that you just took the photos and you were done, he recalls. Not anymore. The good news is that the latest technology can remove every blemish. The bad news is that doing so can take an enormous amount of time.
Each of the portraits that Sherman turns over to his pet-loving clients is perfect. There are no shadows or off-colors to mar the moment in time that the camera captures. His commissions include a 90-minute photo session and a 13” x 19” portrait. He says that some clients balk at the size, thinking that it will be too big. He disagrees. “Most people fill their living rooms with 4”x 6” photos,” he says. In his opinion it’s difficult to see the smaller images, which tend to come across as a jumble. The large photo “is eye catching. It looks great on the wall,” he says. So far, all of his clients — those of them who are human, anyway — have agreed. (Pets tend to be silent on decorating matters, only weighing in when they are being evicted from the new wing chair.)
He sends a choice of images via low-resolution E-mail files, and clients choose their favorite. In addition to the large portrait, he is prepared to make up photo cards, photos in different sizes, and digital files.
Sherman, who made a cat a part of his family right after college, and “progressed to more cats” before adding dogs to the household, understands how important pets are to the life of a family. “For people without children, or those whose children are grown, dogs and cats are the children,” he says. In some ways, of course, they are not as rewarding as children. There will be no first words or hand-imprint art projects brought proudly home from kindergarten. But there will be oceans of unconditional love, wagging tails to greet every return home, and intuitive sympathy for all of life’s setbacks. Cats and dogs are part of every day and are key players in many family stories. It’s hard to imagine a pet owner who doesn’t think that Tigger or Max belongs in pictures — with them, their guardians and friends.
Mark Sherman Photography, 15 Hopkins Drive, Lawrenceville 08648. 609-896-2228. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org., www.markshermanphoto.com