Meet the Dog Whisperer, Belgian Photographer Paul Croes

Fips | courtesy of the artist
Nana Van De Poel

As a former fashion photographer who has traded in frills for fur, Paul Croes captures animal souls on film in a way that has enraptured pet lovers. Dogs in all shapes and sizes are his specialty, and Croes is intent on letting their distinct personalities shine. We catch up with the Belgian photographer to ask him about his ‘Behind Eyes’ series.
We’ll start with the obvious. Why animals?

For years I did fashion photography in Belgium. After 15 years, I experienced a burnout because there were too many deadlines and too much stress. Then I did a free shoot as a favour for a friend who had a big white Borzoi [a long-legged dog breed] and during the shoot, this dog was mimicking so many fashion poses. It was like a top model on four legs.

courtesy of the artist

With human models, when you want a perfect picture, you need good hair and make-up, the right clothes and, of course, the right model. With dogs, it’s different. They’re always perfect models. Even a dog that’s blind, old, or has three legs can pose without any problems, and I can capture them as they naturally behave.

courtesy of the artist

What’s the biggest difference between photographing humans and dogs? And which would you say is the easier model?

With humans, there is always more stress. Dogs you can hypnotise with some food or games, plus they’re much more comfortable showing you their personality. When they trust you, they readily show their souls. Over the years I’ve learned more about dogs, how to handle them and how to make them feel comfortable in the studio. That’s why we do long shoots and take our time to get to know the dogs. It’s very important to us that the shoot is a good experience for them as well.

courtesy of the artist

Of all the animals you’ve photographed, do you have a personal favourite?

I love to have a Podenco [a Spanish half-greyhound] in the studio, or a podenco mix. They have so many muscles in their face and so much variety in their movement that they express themselves differently in every picture. If I give them a treat and take 20 close-ups of their snout, every single one will be different, which is why they’re fantastic models.

courtesy of the artist

Different dogs have different characters, a fact that’s very clear in your work. What do you do to bring out their specific personalities?

In our studio, the dog is the boss. Every dog, every breed and every age group loves the same things: fun, playing, food, and happy voices. Some dogs need to exercise first to be a little less active, some shy dogs need to gain confidence, lazy dogs need triggers, and so on. It varies from dog to dog what they actually need to be comfortable with us and the situation.

We’ve already learned a lot about breeds and personalities and we’re still learning with every shoot. But we know the most important thing of all is to let the dog be who they are. If they don’t want to sit or raise their paw, we never force them because that will show up in their eyes. By letting them act how they feel, you bring out their true personality.

courtesy of the artist

Speaking about the eyes, your exhibits go by the name ‘Behind Eyes’. Why that title?

That title means a lot to us. The eyes are the windows to the soul, both in humans and in animals. We try to capture the soul and the personality of each model, and you can be sure to find those in the eyes.

courtesy of the artist

Some of your dog pictures are quite humorous. How does that happen, and when do you decide to select a comedic shot?

We always start shooting naturally, without a collar or any add-ons: just the dogs as their natural selves. Depending on the model, we’ll sometimes add funny elements towards the end. Not all accessories, like hats or glasses, are nice with every dog. Sighthounds are the easiest, as they have short hair and skinny legs most of the time, making them naked models that can pull off anything. The furry dogs already have a coat, so not everything looks natural on them. We mostly decide after some time working with the dogs to know what they like and what would suit them best.

courtesy of the artist

Your photos are always taken indoors in a studio. Why is this?

In the studios we have full control over lighting conditions, no matter what the season. This guarantees the same level of quality every time, and shoots never have to be cancelled because of bad weather. We work with a high-end flash system that gives us an exceptional light performance. This way, we can present clients with images that are technically sound every time.

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I’ve held a special interest in studio lighting all my life actually, and in the process of keeping that light as natural as possible. We’ve taken to using our spots in a way that gives our images a certain old-painting look.

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Which photographers do you admire and how are their influences visible in your work?

I love the classic fashion portrait photographers like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, and more recently the fashion photographers Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh. It’s classic work, shot in studios, which captures stylish beauty with analogue techniques. My work is, like Paolo Roversi says, a search for beauty. Dogs are all beautiful in their own way, and I search in them the fashion, soul and perfection that are personal to them.

courtesy of the artist

Your animal photography is starting to take you around the world for shoots. What are your goals for the future?

I love to travel the world for shoots, especially since I can bring my wife [Inge Nelis, who works with Croes as his permanent assistant]. It takes us to nice places where we meet great people time and again. We have a lot of future plans, but my big dream is to publish a high-quality coffee table book. Not just with our pictures, but with a nice story about the models in every photograph, too – a book that can be read by children as well as adults to show the world more about dogs!

During a shoot in Germany

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