Photographing the Westminster Dog Show: Interview with Landon Nordeman
An assignment to capture images of trophy canines at the Westminster Dog Show yielded a striking New Yorker magazine portfolio by photographer Landon Nordeman. An award-winning imagemaker who frequently shoots for Saveur, ESPN The Magazine, and The New Yorker, Nordeman is no stranger to visual storytelling at the greatest dog show on earth.
“My first time photographing Westminster was actually a newspaper assignment in 2004,” he said. “I was assigned to photograph one woman and her dog. Her dog did not do so well, so when they were finished, I used my credential to shoot whatever I could. I loved it, but I did not go back until 2010.”
First organized back in 1877, the Westminster Dog Show is one of America’s classic sporting events, the second longest continuously held competition behind Kentucky’s legendary derby. Dogs from all over the world compete for best in breed and the coveted and rarified air of being chosen as ‘Best in Show.’
In years past, Nordeman documented the show and the action behind-the-scenes much as he does when covering sports for “One Game, One Day” with ESPN the Magazine. His tactical strategy is often minimal and lightweight, using a Canon 5d mkII and primes like the 35mm and 50mm along with the occasional use of a 24-105mm. As he explains, his approach involves dedicating his energy to a scenario and fighting against the temptation to chase after surrounding distractions:
“I have found that I have the most success when I make an effort to slow down and work on one situation at a time. It could be a person and their dog, or a location like a corner back stage and then wait for the photograph to develop (or not). That is how I like to work. I make myself commit to what I am doing and believe it, feel it, trust it, and give it a chance to become a photograph before moving on with my search. It’s harder to explain why I choose one situation over another—that is just something you sense with your instincts.”
This year was a creative departure as Landon pitched the idea of setting up a location studio and creating dog portraits. With less than a week to go before the show, however, there was no chance of finding a suitable space on site so he was forced to improvise. The Hotel Pennsylvania, where many of the dogs and their owners stay before the show, seemed an ideal setting for a portable studio.
“The problem was that all of the designated meeting rooms at the Hotel Pennsylvania were booked, including all the hotel rooms for guests,” he said. “Completely sold out. So, I went over there and started looking around and talking to people. I was very lucky to get permission to use a corner of a large room designated as a vendor area near the lobby.”
Photo by Chelsea Riggins
With 8’x4’ foam core V flats, Landon and his team of assistants built a temporary wall around the shooting area, roughly 25 feet by 12 feet, that enclosed the studio from the rest of the room. After pinning down the space on Thursday, they loaded equipment on Friday afternoon and started shooting at 7am on Saturday morning. It all came together very quickly. From 7am to 6pm on Saturday and Sunday only—the two days before the show launched on Monday—Landon and company shot over 8000 images, capturing 70 individual dog portraits. A total of 50 were submitted to the magazine and 18 ran in the final portfolio. Every member of the team played a crucial role in making it a success. Two people roamed the lobby seeking out dogs and their owners, one managed the names and details of the shoot roster as it evolved and then there was a digital tech and assistant working the set. It didn’t hurt to have an iPhone with a doggie toy app (it makes a noise when you shake it) and a bag of treats donated by Purina.
Even with such a formidable team on site, getting even the most well-trained dogs to sit for a session in front of lights and a camera was no easy feat. Landon’s desire to take the dogs off the leash during the session forced him to really collaborate with the owners and handlers. Assistants had to ensure that there were no gaps in the walls of the makeshift studio so the animals wouldn’t run away. There were no guarantees that the seamless would last the weekend but “not one of them peed on the backdrop—which was amazing!” As Landon recalls, it was an exercise in patience and, at times, it wouldn’t work and he had to improvise.
“I wanted to show the personality of these dogs,” said Nordeman. “That is what the whole dog show world is about—finding dogs with personality. As Samuel L Jackson once said in the movie Pulp Fiction: ‘A dog’s got personality–personality goes a long way.’ So, in that sense, I was looking for the same thing I look for when photographing a person: a moment when their character or personality comes through. It requires their cooperation to be successful, and I love that collaborative part of the portrait process. It’s a completely different experience from shooting on the street or at an event, yet it can be just as exhilarating and exciting—just like discovering a moment on the street when various elements come together.”
Landon won a James Beard Award for Visual Storytelling last year for a portrait assignment that he did on Southern barbecue chefs for Saveur magazine. The work was then collected in book format as Slow & Low, the way that he originally envisioned the work being featured. Rather than capturing environmental portraits and using studio lights, Landon worked with one assistant, using natural light only, shooting from dawn until dusk and eating only barbecue.
Landon’s work has a unique voice, a visual style shaped from years of shooting. It doesn’t happen overnight but requires a tireless work ethic, patience and willingness to experiment.
“I believe that photography — like most things — is learned by doing,” he said. “You just have to keep shooting. You can’t sit at home on the couch and figure out what your voice is going to be. You develop your own personal voice by just getting out there and doing it. I once heard the photographer Bruce Gilden give a lecture and I always remember it. He said (and I am paraphrasing here) that his work really began to develop when he realized that if he tried to be Henri Cartier-Bresson, he would always be second best. It’s when he realized that he had to be the best Bruce Gilden he could be — and only he could do that — that his work really began to develop. I think about that often. It might sound corny—but it is true. Be yourself, and follow your instincts. Only you can see the world the way that you do. So get out there and experiment and try different things. Trust yourself and then go for it.”
The portfolio of dog portraits from the New Yorker appears online here. All images are published here with permission of Landon Nordeman. See more of his work online at his web site here and follow him on twitter, facebook or instagram.