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Black dogs featured in Gleason Library exhibit

by Cynthia Sorn

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Denver, a service dog who spent time with first responders after the Boston Marathon bombing. (Photo by Fred Levy)

There’s a well-known secret in rescue shelters: black dogs, particularly big black dogs, are passed over. Some say it’s because the dogs are often portrayed as evil in books and films. Shelter workers say visitors may have a harder time reading dogs’ moods because their coloring is too uniform. Whatever the reason, black dogs are harder to place and often languish; especially older black dogs or those with white on their muzzles, making them look older. 

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Fred Levy

Artist Fred Levy has started a “Black Dog Project” to illustrate these beautiful dogs and bring attention to this issue. His distinctive photographs are on display at the Gleason Public Library in the stairwell to the third floor through April 25, 2014. A new exhibit is opened every two months at the library through “Art at the Gleason.” In addition to the Black Dog Project, the Carlisle Public School art show is ongoing.

Learning that black dogs 

are passed over

Levy joined the Mosquito for a chat at Ferns Country Store. How did he start photographing black dogs? “It was through a conversation at a dog park,” he said. He and his dog, Toby, take frequent walks, particularly at a dog park in Acton. Levy always has a camera with him, he said. While filming and chatting, he struck up a conversation with a woman who walks shelter dogs. She told him that black dogs were less likely to be adopted and the idea of highlighting these dogs grew into a project. “I don’t have statistics,” said Levy, “but it was an interesting idea, to show off the dogs.” Levy, who lives in Maynard, said he started reaching out to dog owners and photographing dogs at the park. It has also helped him connect to clients who want their dogs professionally photographed. 

Finding black dogs via Facebook

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“Crickett.” (Photo by Fred Levy)

He said he put out a call on Facebook for black dogs. He prefers to film the dogs in his studio where he can control the lighting and setting. He is careful to photograph dogs that are almost entirely black. He doesn’t charge his usual fee for the black dogs since it is part of his Black Dog Project. He hopes to eventually do a photo display for a particular shelter and, if he has enough photos, to publish a book about the dogs. 

The photos on display are striking and eye-catching. Even from a distance the dogs seem to “pop” out of the photo. And they are irresistible. On a recent Thursday, a group of preschoolers heading up the stairs for story time stopped to look at each photo. “I will show you my favorite one,” said one little girl to the others.

Lighting the key to good photos

How does he achieve such detailed photos? He said he did some research and found that black dogs were not being photographed properly. “The 3D effect has to do with the lighting,” he explained. He also decided to use a dark background, which helps the illuminated dogs pop out of the photo. He places the dogs on the dark, seamless fabric background, and uses four lights to illustrate the dog: a light right above the dog’s head, two lights from each side focused on the dog’s face to bring out the facial features, and most importantly, he said, a light behind and above the dog, which gives depth to the photo and almost a halo-effect. “It creates definition,” he explained. “If there wasn’t a light the fur would blend into the background.” 

Printing techniques also help bring out the details. The photos on the wall going up the stairs are Giclée (inject) prints on glossy foam paper. The larger photos on the landing are printed on aluminum. “Metal works really well with darker images,” said Levy.

Getting the dogs to cooperate takes patience

He has various tricks to convince the dogs to pose. “Each dog has a different level of interest,” he said. One photo of a prancing dog was achieved by offering a treat, but sometimes it can be challenging to get good shots. “One dog was scared of the flash,” he said, particularly the high piched noise. “I got only 20 good pictures,” he said. Normally he takes over 100 and out of those he usually gets three to five “really good ones,” he says.He also likes to photograph dog owners with their dogs. In the Gleason display, one of his black dog photos includes a child. He said it was clear to him that the dog knew the child was the owner. Some dogs will only respond to the voice of their owners, he explained. “The trick is to get the dogs to perk up their ears,” he said. One of the craziest sessions, he said, was trying to photograph three women with their dogs. He also remembered a time when a family of four came in with their dog.“My studio is not that big,” he said. “But everyone is great and it works out.” 

Juggling work and the Black Dog Project

Levy has had many professional photography assignments, including fashion filming in New York City. Although he is focused on black dogs, he says he enjoys filming many different subjects. Levy teaches photography and digital storytelling at Lesley University, where he also ran the computer lab for more than 15 years. Though he still teaches, he recently left the computer lab job in order to put more time into his photography work. “I need ten more dogs to photograph” for his black dog book, he said. He hopes to connect with a shelter and would like to help them get inviting photos of their dogs on their websites. “Good pictures help the adoptions,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t charge the shelter for the photos.

He is moving forward on his Black Dog Project. “I hope to get it off the ground,” he said. For more information on the Black Dog Project, see http://caninenoir.tumblr.com/. For more information on Fred Levy, see http://www.fredlevyart.com/.∆