During a career that has taken him around the globe, photographer Jack Kenner has aimed his camera at deadly snakes, snarling lions, and charging rhinos. But the only animal that actually attacked him was a French poodle in Memphis.
“I was in the studio and turned to adjust the lights, and he bit me in the back of the leg,” Kenner says, laughing. “It’s the little ones who’ll get you.”
Wait a minute. Why is a fellow who once specialized in industrial and scientific photography taking a picture of a poodle, anyway?“I have to go back to the third grade to answer that,” he says. When they were kids, Kenner and some pals decided they wanted to be veterinarians, so they’d venture into the woods and bring back snakes, frogs, and other critters. “We’d even lie on our back in a field, with a dead chicken on our stomach, hoping to snare a hawk or a buzzard.”
Did that crazy plan work? “Nope,” he admits. “Probably a good thing. They would have torn us to pieces.”
Flash forward to the 11th grade, when Kenner purchased a nice Pentax from his uncle. To help pay for the camera, he photographed East High School football players for a “Guess the Ugliest Feet” contest. He also took pictures of his friends at school, charging them $25 a shot. But his main interest was still animals.
“My friend Sam would bring home snakes — poisonous ones! — and it was our own version of Wild Kingdom. He would be wrestling with some big snake, and I’d be taking pictures of the whole thing.”
He earned a degree in mass communications from then-Memphis State University in 1976, back when the school had no photography department. For a while, he worked as a copywriter and photographer for a local ad agency, where he oversaw photo shoots and met with clients. Then he ventured to California to hone his skills at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara.
“I got a real technical background there, but I was actually more interested in wildlife and landscapes,” he says, “so every chance I’d get, I’d wander out into the desert to take pictures.” After graduation, he moved to New York and began shooting for ad agencies. “My idea was to apply a really heavy industrial background to advertising photography, since that’s where the money was at the time.”
Maybe so, but Kenner was bored. One day, he left New York for a three-month tour of North America, living out of an old Ford Econoline van while photographing different national parks around the country: “Just building up a portfolio of elks, rain, fog, landscapes — whatever I encountered. Ansel Adams kind of stuff.”
Weary of the cold weather up north, he decided to move to Miami. On the way to Florida, though, he came through Memphis, realized the growing medical field here might offer him some work, and moved into his parents’ home in East Memphis. “Before you know it, I had hauled my mother’s furniture out of the guest room and turned that into a darkroom,” he says. “When I took over the den, she said, ‘Okay, you’ve got to find your own place.’”
So Kenner set up a studio downtown, in an ancient brick building at Second and Mill. Clients included Richards Medical, Wright Medical, and most of the hospitals. Then came a turning point. “I wanted to buy the building, but the owner wouldn’t sell. That made me think, what do I want to do with my life? I can’t stay here; I’m not really interested in what I’m doing. So I went to Africa.”
Kenner hired a guide to take him across the continent, where he photographed the wild beasts of Africa in their natural settings — animals as large as elephants, creatures as small as frogs — and this is where he began to develop the up-close, hyper-real style that would become his trademark.
“After I came back to Memphis in 1985, the Nikon House in New York saw my work, liked it, and put it in their gallery in Rockefeller Center. And so I became the frog guy, just like other photographers who specialized in whales, or porpoises.” A 1991 calendar for the Memphis Zoo, with a bright green frog on the cover, was probably the first big project that introduced Kenner to the general public as an animal photographer.
No dog pictures yet, though. That came about because of something so strange he remembers the exact date.
“I woke up on May 2, 2004, and I couldn’t speak a word. I couldn’t talk to clients. I couldn’t even order in restaurants. And when I called people on the phone, they hung up on me, thinking I was some kind of pervert.”
The problem, said his doctors, was sudden paralysis of a major nerve linked to his vocal cords. The condition could last months, even years. “So I just shut down,” he says, “and do you know that three months to the day, my voice came back.” But during that period, Kenner made two major changes in his life. He had resisted the change to digital photography, but the time off gave him a chance to study the new technology and learn new shooting and lighting methods.
The other breakthrough: “My only subjects to practice with were my own dogs, a pair of West Highland Terriers.” As he would explain later in the foreword to his first book, “I didn’t have to speak words to communicate with dogs. Dogs understand calm, assertive body language as well as squeaky toys and treats.”
And then, he says, “All of a sudden everyone wanted me to photograph their dogs.” A new career took off just like the name of his first canine client, a Greyhound named Flash.
At first, owners brought their pets to his studio and gallery, a converted cottage near Overton Square, where Kenner posed them on borrowed chairs and cushions. One day he called an art gallery in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and asked if he could set up a portable pet studio there. “The owner called ten people, and I got ten shots that weekend,” he says. That gave him an idea. He traveled to California, talking with veterinarians and pet-care centers, and found plenty of clients. So he expanded his practice, still doing studio work when the client wanted it, but traveling around the country to photograph dogs in their own homes.
“I do the major dog shows, from the Westminster Kennel Club show in New York to the Eukanuba show in Houston,” he says. “You’ve seen Best of Show? Those people are my clients. I can do two dogs a day, and I’ve been busy ever since.”
Sometimes their requests have a sad urgency. “People will call me, telling me their dog’s got leukemia, he’s dying, and you’ve got to come here right now.”
Kenner tells the story of Sabrina, a Golden Retriever in North Carolina diagnosed with cancer in May 2007. “While I was there, I talked with the owner and put her in touch with Dr. Mitchener here.” Kathy Mitchener is a local veterinarian who specializes in oncology and has also set up an animal acupuncture clinic in Kenner’s studio. “Kathy worked with Sabrina, and that dog lived three more years,” Kenner says. “In fact, she even lived through her owner’s bout with cancer. It’s a really amazing story.”
Sabrina and other dogs have been captured in Kenner’s two books of pet portraits, Dogs I’ve Nosed (2007) and Dogs I’ve Nosed II (2008). Although the owners aren’t identified, and most are regular folks, some of Kenner’s clients are decidedly high-profile. One portrait shows a Bichon who belongs to the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and another family in the book owns the St. Louis Rams. Perched on a couch is the Great Dane of actor Steven Seagal. And there’s Cybill Shepherd, Kenner’s classmate from East High, gracefully posed with her two — what else? — German Shepherds.
Some of the best shots came about almost by accident, such as the surreal image of a big spaniel named Boyd captured on the cover of the second book, with only the owner’s bare legs visible. “I had taken Boyd out for a walk, and he was bouncing all over the place, catching moths,” says Kenner. “That dog was a nut! And as soon as I set up the lights, he just jumped onto [the owner’s] lap. I told her, ‘Drop your head!’ and I got the picture.”
Photographing pets isn’t easy, especially for a perfectionist like Kenner, who says, “I make sure when I leave, I’ve captured the spirit of that animal. The love is there.”
Part of his approach seems almost mystical. “When I first go into a house,” he explains, “I just hang with the dog until he’s comfortable with me being there, and he basically becomes the master of the house again. And then the dog shows me the picture. I know that sounds weird, but that’s what you get.”
That’s also why Kenner prefers to shoot dogs in their own homes. “If you bring an animal into a strange environment, like a studio, they get nervous. But in their own home, I talk to them, and get them to relax. Plus I get to use their own stuff! I don’t have to borrow chairs and pillows.”
Cats are, well, different. “Cats are fine, and they’re beautiful, but I don’t try to make them do anything,” he says. “I let them show me the picture, and that’s it. If you try to manipulate a cat, you’ve got nothing. It’s like trying to work with a 2-year-old kid. There’s nothing you can do but wait.”
Even in their own home, though, animals don’t always cooperate. “When that flash goes off, it’s like thunder and lightning,” he says. “One Doberman, after just one shot he bolted through the door. Even if they’re not bothered by the flash, after about 20 or 30 pops, they’re done with you. The dog’s bored and now he’s ready for something else. Just like people.”
Kenner says he’s had to become an expert in dog behavior. “I’ve learned how to approach a dog. It’s very important to walk in with very calm, cool, assertive body language. If you show any fear at all, the dogs will pick up on that. They know fear.” And except for that day with the cranky French poodle, he’s managed to stay bite-free.
So how many dogs has Kenner “nosed” over the years? “My computer has 19,000 images stored on it. Most of them are dogs, but those might be multiple shots from one sitting, and some include more than one dog. I really haven’t counted.”
But he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon, and is already at work on his third book, this one focusing on animals who do tricks.
“To tell you the truth, I think I prefer dogs more than people,” he says. “And never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would photograph dogs and get paid for it.”To schedule a sitting and get more information about portraits and rates, contact Jack Kenner at www.JackKenner.com
Michael Finger | Photos by Jack Kenner