In her Southeast Portland photography studio, Carli Davidson rummages through a box, emerging with a container of tiny squeaky toys. Then, she straps on knee pads. Such are the tools required for the subject before her: a blind dog named Reuben. Davidson lures the 5-year-old, two-foot-tall mutt to a bright blue backdrop matching his striking prosthetic eyes and starts beckoning him to face the camera, lightly scratching the lighting equipment and squeaking a squeaker with her mouth as she snaps away. Reuben, anticipating treats, is a good boy.
“Animals are easier for me to work with than people,” the petite, ink-laden 32-year-old says. “It’s like convincing them we’re playing, then taking pictures of them. That seems much more natural than putting somebody in front of the camera who is very aware they’re having a picture taken.”
The animals in Davidson’s best-known work are particularly lacking in self-awareness: the photographer’s popular series Shake portrays wet dogs in the middle of their full-body shimmy—fur, jowls, and slobber captured in delightful disarray at high shutter speed. Inspiration for the series struck Davidson in 2011 while she was cleaning “goo” off of her dresser from her dogue de Bordeaux’s frequent shaking. She photographed seven dogs and a cat midshake, then posted the results online. The images attracted millions to Davidson’s website and earned press from Buzzfeed, Slate, and the New York Times. A book deal with HarperCollins followed. The 130-portrait volume comes out this month.
Shake is only one series of Davidson’s to catch the national eye. Her unsettling shots of veterinarians operating on zoo animals nabbed a spot on the Huffington Post. Her photo of an earnest otter was used in a joke on 30 Rock thanks to the subject’s uncanny resemblance to Tracy Morgan. Davidson sees herself as part of a “little punk community” of Internet-driven animal artists, such as Underwater Dogs photographer Seth Casteel and “perma-kitten” Lil Bub owner Mike Bridavsky, providing a simple yet important counterweight to “all the other heavy shit going on.” “The driving force of Shake is just to make people feel good,” she says, “and I think that contributes a lot.”
That said, Davidson would love to see her other, more pointed project, a series of photos of disabled animals (such as Reuben) called Invincible, gain the attention that Shake has. The images of blind, wheelchair-bound, and two-legged dogs seek to raise awareness for the options available to injured pets besides euthanasia. Davidson’s passion for the issue has deep roots: as a teenager in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, she worked at a nature reserve caring for hurt raptors and other animals. After moving to Portland in 2006, she again worked with birds of prey at the Oregon Zoo—many of which she later photographed with stunning intimacy.
As Reuben pads around her studio, narrowly avoiding light stands he can’t see, Davidson reflects on a commonality of Invincible and Shake: both series show animals in conditions of vulnerability, be they permanent handicaps or moments of utter dishevelment. “Animals are important to me because in the moments in my life when I’ve been vulnerable, they’ve given me a sense of security and strength,” she says. “It’s interesting that what you see when you look at the two series is me reflecting back that vulnerability.”
Reuben finds Davidson and pushes a toy lobster into her hand. Vulnerable or no, he still wants to play.