Elias Weiss Friedman was not discouraged when he found himself on the wrong side of a lay off soon after graduating from Boston University. Instead, seizing the moment, he started a company with some friends and a web comedy series, It was soon after that he began taking portrait-style photographs of dogs in New York City and posting them on Instagram as The Dogist. In only two years, Friedman’s immense and swiftly growing popularity has led to 1.3 million followers gushing over the expressive and often hilarious dogs he captures.
Armed with knee pads, squeaky tennis balls, treats and some camera wipes for the dog slobber, Friedman has photographed 8,000 dogs and many of them are featured in his newly released book, “The Dogist: Photographic Encounters with 1,000 Dogs.” The book’s layout wonderfully captures the heart and soul of the photo-series, where shots of adorable Frenchies are only a page away from the deep, soulful gaze of an abused or maimed pitt bull that has found a new home before a return to the lighthearted with a centerfold of the “Doodle Mafia.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Friedman, 27, was one of three siblings and developed a love for dogs and photography early on in life. Both his parents are physicians and his mother, Marissa Weiss, an expert in her field, is the founder of Breastcancer.org.
Friedman spoke to the Forward about his charity, Give a Dog a Bone, his book and the future of The Dogist.
Forward: How was the idea for The Dogist born?
Elias Weiss Friedman: I’ve been photographing things for pretty much my whole life; I grew up with a dark room in my house. But in retrospect, looking back at my photos, a lot of dogs would pop up randomly. It was a thing I liked doing but felt silly thinking that it could be something I could do professionally.
But then I graduated college and got a job at brand strategy for two years and was part of a layoff. That was the break I needed from the path of convention.
I had this opportunity to experiment with my buddies and we launched WeFollow and also started a comedy web-series, “Barking at Dogs,” where we interviewed dogs about world affairs. I didn’t really know what to do I just allowed myself some time to relax and figure it out and I started taking portraits of dogs, kind of like The Sartorialist for dogs.
Do you work alone?
I still do everything on my own, believe it or not. I’m thinking of getting help but I don’t really need it. Posting on Instagram is like a 5-minute break a few times a day. Emails, posting and editing are the only work part of my job.
How do you approach people about taking pictures of their dogs, are they usually happy to have photos taken?
It’s the full spectrum. It’s either “it’s a dream come true I’ve been following you for 8 years,” even though I’ve only been around for two. Or the other aspect is “screw off, no,” and they won’t even look at me. But that’s New York, essentially. Dogs are a sensitive thing and they don’t want you to photograph them, it’s their decision. But that’s not really a problem for me because there are lots of dogs.
Do you have any tips for taking the perfect shot?
There are some things, like taking the dogs’ point of view and getting on their level, it makes the dog look big and gets their attention. What makes a great photo is a feeling of drama. a dog walking down the street is not dramatic, but a dog that looks like it’s posing and looking at you and like it knows what a camera is and is trying to make an impression, that’s dramatic. We anthropomorphize dogs anyway and it plays into that perception.
Do you have any funny or terrible stories of trying to take a photo?
The funniest is at the dog park when you’re the guy with the squeaky ball and all these dogs want it. They always want the new shiny tennis ball that I have, they don’t want the dirty one that’s already there. When I go into a dog park there’s always this funny moment where all the dogs convene around me when I’m trying to take a photo of only one dog and I have wet noses in my ear, slobber on my camera, I get scratched and jumped on.
On the other side you have dogs that are aggressive, you get too close and they snap at you. I’ve had close calls with big dogs but haven’t been bitten in a bad way.
Did you grow up with dogs?
We had two dogs in my immediate family, Ruby and Matilda, a black and chocolate lab. But including my extended family, we had five dogs.
Do you have a favorite breed?
I grew up with labradors so I’m kind of a lab guy. They are keen on the ball and are easy to photograph. They’ll sit for you and they are very interested and easy to work with in that respect. They’re very friendly and funny. But I generally prefer big dogs, I’m a tall guy so I don’t have to be as low on the ground as I would with a dachshund. With a bigger face there’s more dog to look at.
How many photos does it take to get the perfect shot with each dog?
I would say about 15 to 20 photos a dog. The interaction is pretty quick, maybe a minute or two minutes and the first images are usually the best ones because the dogs are surprised and unsure. You get a lot of expression in that first moment.
It was interesting to see how you chose to lay out your book, in most cases, the dogs that got the most text about them are dogs that have been victims of violence and abuse. What was the thought process behind the layout?
The book is a compilation of the project so far, I thought of it as sort of like a yearbook. It’s the best of the blog, outtakes, dogs you have not seen before. Stories from my own account and stories you haven’t heard before. But the layout is supposed to be a little bit random, you can turn to any page and you don’t know what to expect. And that’s sort of the nature of what I do, you walk around and there are no dogs for 10 minutes, turn a corner and you get a dog wearing a bowtie or see some crazy breed.
For the most part, my series up until now has been focused entirely on pictures. And more recently I’m asking more questions about the dogs, the backgrounds and anecdotes about them. The captions and all the stories in the book are the ones who stood out from my experience of the project so far. The ones that make you think about how dogs are people too. They can’t speak for themselves but they go through stuff.
Do you have a dog?
I would love to have a dog, but I would fall in love with it and wouldn’t travel anymore if I did. For the time being I’m very streamlined with my life. I don’t have a real job, I don’t have a dog, I don’t have a girlfriend, a mortgage, kids, employees.
What is your Jewish background?
I’m pretty Reform. I’m not religious really, I had a bar mitzvah and I went on Birthright and I was part of a few synagogues that we bounced around a little bit when I was younger. But mostly my parents are both physicians and we grew up with a very scientific background and religion wasn’t really stressed. It was more about good food, family, structure and being part of the collective.
You started an organization called Give a Dog a Bone? Can you tell me more about how and why you started it and the impact it has had on dogs in shelters all over the city?
My mission was to tell the stories of dogs, and adoption is a huge part of that and it’s important that people know that. I was shooting dogs in shelters and wanted to figure out a way to involve my audience in some way. That’s how Give a Dog a Bone came about, to allow people to participate in my series and support adoption.
Since then I’ve photographed close to 60 or 70 adoptable dogs and I think all of them have been adopted. I’m not going to take credit for it but it’s about awareness, if it’s not that dog, you sort of get an understanding for the dogs that are in shelters, and the plight of pitt bulls. Overall it’s been a very positive piece of the project. It makes me feel good and it makes the project about more than happy pets.
A part of what makes my blog different is that it’s a happy place, it’s fun and it’s an escape from all the crap out there about the world. I think people would get compassion fatigue if I shared only adoptable dogs. But it’s sprinkled in as part of the story about dogs over all, it’s an important thing to do, even if it’s sad.
How did you get into photography?
My father was also a photographer and growing up he would take yearly portraits of all of us kids and develop and print them in our house. I’m one of 3 [siblings] but I grew up very closely with my cousins who are also three. We each have a staircase and as you walk up we get older [in the photos]. That’s sort of where my portrait esthetic came into play.
I was taking photo classes and also later on in college but didn’t really have much attention with it. I knew I wanted to do something creative but I didn’t want to become an event photographer. Which is what most photographers end up doing, doing events and weddings.
What is the future of The Dogist?
I think I’ve covered the spectrum of pets pretty well and that’s great and fun and interesting. But the story of dogs goes well beyond that and I hope that’s what’s on deck. I hope to do more travel and planning to meet up and photograph dogs that are working and in different environments and in more natural settings. Breeds doing what they’re meant to do. That’s something that people don’t always have an appreciation for.
I went out to photograph dogs from Canine Companions for Independence. These are dogs opening doors and picking up things off the ground, pulling their wheelchair, paying for food, carrying bags. It just blew my mind and I’ve seen a lot of dogs. If it blows my mind, it will probably blow other people’s minds too. The Instagram experience, that I share these pictures, this is something that I love doing.
I have a very adventurous spirit and that is what compels me to keep going, meeting people, the dogs and being creative. The fact that I have a bit of fandom is nice but I don’t promote myself on the blog and I have no interest in it.
You have traveled and photographed dogs abroad, where else do you want to visit?
I think dogs in the south and rural areas will be the focus of my next book. I also want to travel to Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and South Africa and some of the places where the breeds originated from. I think I’m going to have more ability to do that in the next year or two.
Maia Efrem is the former research editor and assistant to the editor and was also responsible for the Forward’s annual Salary Survey. Previously she served as the editor of Blognik Beat, a blog written by students who emigrated from or have ties to the Former Soviet Union. Maia is a graduate of Hunter College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.