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Wildly Personified

Randal Ford

It all started with a photo assignment for Dairy Today Magazine. On a cold, rainy November day eight years ago, Austin photographer Randal Ford and DJ Stout, a partner at design firm Pentagram, gathered in a barn outside of Waco. Stout wanted Ford to photograph cows like he was capturing people at the time—against sherbet colored backgrounds—to give them personalities. Eight different colors of seamless backdrops later and, no doubt, lots of mooing and bovine byproduct, something else came out of the shoot. Ford was hooked on capturing the souls of animals and bringing them into the human world.

While he still shoots lots of people and places (20 covers and counting for Texas Monthly, numerous covers for Tribeza and a cover for Time), Ford was drawn to continue capturing animals and the human qualities they reflect and personify. “There’s a soul in there, something with feelings. The personification of animals is something that I explore with every portrait I create. It sounds serious and highbrow but it’s really not. My hope is that by personifying animals, I’m able to connect my audience with nature on a more emotional level and offer them a transcendent experience.”

Ford has traveled across Texas and other parts of the country in search of animals to “sit” for him for his photographic series “Kingdom.” To date, he’s captured more than 75 species and is aiming for one hundred. Many of the creatures were photographed in studios in Los Angeles; as the locus of the film industry, it has a lock on animals ready for their close-ups.

His favorite? Despite being an Aggie, it’s the photo of the longhorn on the following pages. When asked what
we can learn from animals, Ford paused a bit and then said: “Animals follow their instincts … always. And they live in the present moment. As a society, we are constantly distracted by technology and the busyness and hectic-ness of life. It’s very difficult for us to be present and in the moment. If you are not present and living in the moment, maybe it’s hard to follow your instincts.”

He shared that he has his own animal kingdom at home. “We have a 13-year old cat, had a 10-year old
dog, but he passed—and other little creatures…kids. They are our wild animals that challenge us on a day
-to-day basis,” he laughed. He and his wife Lauren Ford (no relation to Tribeza’s former editor), have three young children, ages seven, five and two. “I’m constantly in awe of the animal kingdom and what Mother Nature has done so beautifully.”

Here, never published before, are excerpts from Ford’s upcoming book “Kingdom, the Animal Portrait Collection,” from Rizzoli, scheduled to come out in fall 2018. For details visit:

“Maverick had mighty horns. He had a set much curvier than most steers. And they were so perfectly symmetrical that I really focused on their shape when composing my frames. Maverick is a Fort Worth native and you can find him hanging out near the stockyards year round keeping the peace.”

“Alejandra made us take our hats off. Mother Nature never fails to impress, and the color and shape of this South American beauty did not disappoint. Alejandra’s pastel pink feathers juxtaposed with the bright coral red under her wings was just stunning. And the oh-so-perfect S curve of her neck had all of us on set mesmerized by her beauty.”

“Shika was my first large cat to photograph in studio. Large cats in studio are an experience unlike anything else. The combination of power and grace is tangible. They command respect and one wrong move can make things escalate quickly. I remember distinctly when Shika’s trainers removed her leash and asked her to walk to the mark. The way she walked was so graceful, and stunningly beautiful. But I was in the middle, at her mercy. The feeling that I could be prey was chilling. She received fresh, uncooked meat as her reward between takes. I only work with trainers who show a great amount of respect for the animals and are incredibly thoughtful with their care. Shika’s owners not only treat her with dignity but also love. It was obvious there’s an ongoing relationship of trust and appreciation.”

“Poppy’s gorgeous yellow irises were a focal point for her portraits. Owls are one of the most expressive animals I’ve photographed. Their eyes tell a story unlike any other creature. I wanted to show three likenesses of her: one of intensity, one of humor and one more contemplative. Poppy cooperated and was a fantastic model. She is currently traveling the world with her owner, working to educate the world about owls and other birds of prey. Also to note: people always ask, is Poppy the bird in Happy Potter, you know: Hedwig? I’m sorry to disappoint my friends, but she is not.”

“Compared to his brother, Amari was a bit more calm and relaxed on set. I thought it would be interesting to further anthropomorphize him by placing Amari in a very human position. He was agreeable and happy to pose for us. This shot in particular was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker. Throughout the shoot, Amari would run around, dance, and then jump into my arms for a hug. A funky monkey, no doubt. At the end of the shoot, he played the bongos on my head.”

“Jabari: beadhead, messy teenager. Part of the interest of this shot is that he has a young mane growing in. This is so indicative of a teenager, which I guess in Lion years, Jabari was right on schedule. The messiness, the awkwardness and the length all cue the audience to his age and demeanor. Like a teenager, he was all over the place when we photographed him. Some animals sit still for me and I can capture plenty of images. But Jabari only sat still a few times, and I only captured a few decent shots. His size was small enough to know he was young but still big enough to intimidate me as an observer.”

“What a Gertrude. Similar to a yak, Highland Cows have long, beautiful shaggy hair. Per their name, they are originally from the Highlands of Scotland. Most Highlands are redheads but Gertrude was a blonde beauty. I loved how her locks covered up her eyes, and in this frame I selected, she tilted her head slightly as if she was telling me something. My affinity for cows definitely holds true with these beautiful highlands and this portrait of pretty Gertrude is hanging in my house.”

“Krishna is real: no Photoshop. Ayam Cemanis are amazing. They’re all black, cone, beak, feathers and even meat. It looked almost unreal from the online images I saw. Ayams have only been allowed in the States for two years so it was difficult to find an owner. I finally found a small farm of exotic chickens and journeyed to capture a portrait of Krishna. Krishna puffed up his feathers and stood up. His portrait has won multiple awards and is included in the 2016 Communication Arts Photography Annual.”

Getting Their Attention. And Vice Versa.

“If I’m photographing a dog in the studio, I’m constantly rewarding them with treats. Because leopards are carnivores, we reward them with raw meat, in this case , a chicken drumstick. You reward them with things they find in the wild. Being so close to a predatory animal when they are off-leash, the power of a wild cat being in the studio is tangible. Time flies and stands still at the same time. You are in awe of the beauty and power of these animals.”

“I photograph the more predatory animals in Los Angeles and they are used to doing movies, televison and print advertising and show up with trainers. It’s definitely a little nerve-wracking, but I don’t feel unsafe at all. I can tell the trainers work with these animals and have a lot of love and respect for them, and safety precautions are taken. No one moves too fast, talks too loud or breathes heavily. On the flip side, when you go from shooting a leopard to a bird, like an African Crane, you look at them and marvel … you see traits of dinosaurs in them.”

“Some of the animals I shoot are celebrity animals, like Felix the Lion and Bam Bam, a grizzly bear. A tiger I photographed, Shika, has also been in a lot of stuff. I’m thinking about doing another series to explore this— it’s a commentary on our obsession with celebrities. Bam Bam had an attitude but I wasn’t about to call him on it. Bears are omnivores and they love sweets, so in their in-studio treat was honey, marshmallows, pastries…you think about bears getting into trash at camping sites — that’s the kind of thing they like. I joked in his animal description that this bear only requested ‘local’ honey.” – Randal Ford

Read more from the Arts Issue | November 2016