Ian Pettigrew Aims for Smiles With His “Floating Dogs” Project

All images by Ian Pettigrew. Used with permission.

Ian Pettigrew is one of our favorite creative brains to pick when it comes to photography projects. This time, we have him back for something totally different from his usual work. A drastic departure from hard-hitting topics like Cystic Fibrosis explored in projects like the SaltyGirls and SaltyKids, this adorable new project brings smiles to our faces in place of the tugs at our hearts. Interestingly, the idea for this “floating dogs” series just popped in his head — literally and figuratively — in a way that only seems to happen to an art director-turned-photographer. Ian tells us more about this beautiful project through our lighthearted chat after the jump.

Phoblographer: Hello Ian, it’s nice to pick your brain about your projects again! Can you tell us more about your new floating dogs project? How did the idea came to you?

Ian: It’s truly a pleasure being back again. Like a lot of my projects, this literally came to be lying in bed in the morning.

That’s not hyperbole, that’s how a lot of things just come to me. I got my start in advertising as an Art Director, and 90% of that job is just thinking. Nothing beats a strong idea, and nothing is more powerful than a strong idea perfectly executed. I thought these would be fun, and the hardest part would be working out the HOW TO.

Phoblographer: This project is drastically different from the ones we’ve already seen and featured. What was the motivation behind it? Why not straight-forward dog portraits?

Ian: It’s certainly a departure for what I’ve kind of become known for  — my portraits of adults with Cystic Fibrosis. Even though my two books about CF had a lot of great stories and hope, they were also mired by a lot of sorrow. In just my SaltyGirls project, 12 of the women have passed away in the last 3 years. That’s tough to take.

I thought maybe a new project with some levity might be in order. Something bright and cheerful, that would put a smile on anyone’s face.

In the past I have taken straight on dog portraits, usually with the owner as well. Those have all been mainly commissioned works. I needed to do something fun, something very different. I’m a big fan of the surreal and magical, like the works of Terry Gilliam and the French directors Jeunet and Caro. I find movies very inspiring in my work.

Phoblographer: Was this the first time you tried working with pets for a project? Why dogs specifically?

Ian: Besides the occasional dog and owner portrait, this is the first time I’ve worked with canine talent alone. I chose dogs specifically for a few reasons. First, the wide range of different looks for smaller breeds. Second, the availability of all the dogs. And third, and mainly, owners LOVE doing things for their dogs and will pretty much do anything for them.

Phoblographer: Did you have to make any special preparations or arrangements for this project, especially for scouting the “talents?”

Ian: There’s not really any special preparation for these shoots. There are more technical aspects the owners have to be aware of.

The dogs have to have a decent harness so we can lift them, things like that. Scouting for something like this is never an issue. Like I said, people go crazy for their pets. So to have their pet featured in something like this, I’m not short on any takers.

The reason we are only choosing smaller dogs right now is because we have to lift the dogs ourselves to simulate the floating. As much as I’d love to try this on a Saint Bernard, I just haven’t worked out the logistics yet of anything over 20 pounds.

Safety is top priority, of course.

Phoblographer: What do you consider to be the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this project?

Ian: Right now the most challenging part is the post-production work. Trying to match the dog with the right balloon and background.

Do I use one balloon? Do I maybe use 3 for this dog? Blue? Pink? Purple? And its a helluva job in Photoshop. The goal, always in Photoshop, is to make it look like it wasn’t Photoshopped. And many people have asked me “How many balloons do you think it would take to float my Pomeranian?” So obviously it’s working. I mean, I certainly don’t consider myself some PS-Guru. But I try to make it look as seamless as I possibly can. The dog owners are always pretty happy to see the final results. Plus all the messages I’ve gotten about how its put a smile on someone’s face. That’s the most rewarding.

Phoblographer: Please satisfy our curiosity; Can you tell us about what happened when you tried to shoot cats for this project?

Ian: I tried one cat, it was a disaster. I didn’t even set up any lights or anything. I just wanted to see if it can even be successfully lifted without freaking out. Nope. Mind you, it was a fairly young cat, a Sphynx cat. But it just totally went bananas. Maybe with different breeds it might work out better. But it’s also about keeping the project with a more singular focus: dogs. Once you say “animals” then everyone with a dog to an iguana will want a photo.

Phoblographer: I’m sure making this project was really fun for you. Do you already have plans to make more like it in the future?

Ian: I like to change up my projects, but I never have any real idea where things will go. It starts with an idea, then it rattles around in my head for a while to see if its a good idea. Right now I’m only 7 dogs in as well. The goal was to get at least 25 initially, but now I think I’ll aim for more like 50 dogs so its much more of a fully formed project. I may eventually turn it into a book or calendar or something along that line. I’m also in the planning stages right now for another personal portrait project, where I want to do formal portraits of all my relatives. Again, its just an idea rattling around in my head at this point.

Phoblographer: Lastly, what would you advise photographers who may be thinking about doing something different from their usual style or subjects?

Ian: It’s fun to get out of your normal comfort zone, every now and then. Maybe initially it may seem a bit daunting, but it really isn’t. What’s the worst that could happen? You end up taking a shitty photo? Oh darn. Who cares? Just do it. It’s also good if you are in a creative rut. Maybe you are stuck in the same old rigmarole of what you are used to. It’s a good exercise to flex your creative muscles. It may also be good — for many photographers — to partner with another creative person, like a graphic designer or art director. I find a LOT of photographers are long on technical skill but way short on good ideas. Having someone else to help out on the creative front might be just what you need to get the spark ignited.


Don’t forget to check out Ian Pettigrew’s website to see more of his projects.