What’s your best side, Wiley?” Randal Ford crouches down and cups the chin of Wiley, a sleek bull terrier who raises his distinctive foreshortened face for inspection. Wiley is one of about 150 dogs whose portraits will appear in Ford’s second art book for Rizzoli, a follow-up to The Animal Kingdom: A Collection of Portraits, published in September 2018 and already in its third printing.
Fifteen years into his photography practice, Ford has earned a reputation for crafting sincere and striking images of his subjects, whether they are animals or humans. Advertising commissions make up the majority of his assignments, and while his clients vary widely, from L.L.Bean to Jdate, Ford consistently illuminates the warmth and humanity of individuals within artful, arresting compositions.
It’s a safe bet that Ford was the only business major at Texas A&M University with the goal of becoming an advertising photographer specializing in conceptual portraiture, but that is indeed how he described his intended career at the time. He says, “Looking back, I did a lot of things right without knowing it. It was so beneficial for me as a young photographer to have that sense of clarity; it made it easier to break into such a tough business.”
Ford grew up in Dallas, grandson of Creed Ford, Jr., who gave him his Nikon film camera when he was a teenager. After taking a darkroom photography class in high school, Ford nurtured his fledgling love of photography during his college years at both the Battalion, the university newspaper, and the local paper, the Eagle. Shortly after graduating, Ford visited the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and was struck by Richard Avedon’s portrait series In the American West. “I still get chills thinking about Avedon and that series,” Ford recalls. “I know I’m not alone, but the way he composed those portraits of people and the way he framed them really spoke to me.”
In college and afterward, Ford cultivated relationships with mentors from the advertising communities in Dallas and Austin. With a fresh degree in small business and entrepreneurship from A&M, Ford moved to Austin in 2004 and quickly earned a position with Jack Hollingsworth shooting stock photography. Soon, he was using his dad’s FedEx account to send his portfolio to local agencies. “I thought FedEx gave me credibility,” he remembers.
One of his first major assignments came about two years later from Roy Spence, one of the founders of acclaimed Austin advertising agency GSD&M. Spence didn’t hire Ford for an ad shoot; instead, he commissioned Ford to document 50 Texans and their places of worship for his book, The Amazing Faith of Texas: Common Ground on Higher Ground. Ford traveled the state for three months documenting facets of religion, from a cowboy preacher in Marathon to a chapel in Ruidosa. At age 25, Ford had burst on the scene with a three-pound coffee-table book.
Ford, having captured Wiley’s good side, kneels to get eye to eye with a shy Weimaraner. With twelve dogs on the call sheet, one producer, two assistants, a digital technician and a table full of dog treats, Ford has a busy final day of shooting for his upcoming book, Good Dog: A Collection of Portraits, out this fall. After welcoming each dog and their companion, he directs longtime collaborators Jason Griego and John Doughtery to adjust a carpeted platform, lights and, for some long-haired canines, a fan for that windblown model look. Squeaky toys (tip: crinkly water bottles captivate almost every dog) and treat-skewered sticks swirl behind Ford’s head as nearly everyone on set growls, yelps and even meows to cajole the subject. Ford is patient and unruffled, shooting a Nikon D850 tethered to a Mac Pro and a 5K monitor on a utility cart to his left. Every so often, Ford stops and asks an assistant to “pay” the portrait-sitter with a finger of peanut butter or a Vienna sausage while he zooms in on his recent shots on the large screen, scrutinizing whether he’s captured the animal’s eyes with the precision and empathy he seeks.
“It’s just remarkable watching Randal on set,” says DJ Stout, Pentagram partner and leader of the graphic design firm’s Austin office. In 2008, Stout collaborated with Ford on a particularly memorable photo shoot in a chilly, hay-strewn barn outside of Waco, Texas. Stout had earned a reputation for redesigning agricultural trade magazines, and Dairy Today, a bimonthly for dairy farmers, sought his services but didn’t have a budget for a complete redesign. As Stout recalls in his book Variations on a Rectangle, “My solution was the simple convention of featuring a stylized portrait of a dairy cow on the cover of every issue.” He remembered seeing a photo by Ford of a man cradling his dog—Stout points out that “the dog is what I remembered”—and commissioned him for a day’s shoot. They photographed two years’ worth of covers of various cows in front of pastel-colored backdrops in the makeshift studio. That was Ford’s fist day of animal portraiture, and an unforgettable day for Stout as he jumped up and down on a hay bale, jangling a metal bucket of feed to enliven the bovines’ apathetic demeanors. Stout declares, “Those damn cows don’t have much personality.”
Over the last twelve years, Stout has watched Ford’s technique mature. “He has a head for technical know-how and is precise with his tools. Randal is really great with composition, which is so important for a photographer. And he has a good sense of narrative—all his images tell a story,” Stout says.
Take the stories Ford told in images and videos for InnovAge, a company that provides care for elderly people so they can stay in their own homes as they age. Mark Stiltner, associate creative director at advertising agency Karsh Hagan, explains that the goal of the campaign was “to celebrate older people and their independence.” For a series of print ads, Ford conceived a portrait of Edna, a ping-pong paddle wielding senior dressed in matching white pearls, eye shadow and terrycloth wristbands. She stands proudly in her wainscoted living room, clutching one of her beloved trophies.
For Edna and the other seniors portrayed in this campaign, Stiltner says, “He brought little touches that place this person in their own world and give us so much context to their story.” Every detail in the frame adds to Edna’s vivacious countenance. A wider grin or gaudier wallpaper would have tilted Edna’s portrait into a caricature, draining the individuality and sincerity from the company’s message. “The whole set was built around framing [Edna] and the subtle grace of her smile. One more little push, and it would have gotten really cheesy,” Ford says. “In all of my work, I try to find this balance of warmth, humor and sense of reverence for the subject.”
Ford doesn’t accomplish this alone. As Stiltner says, “Randal is a team. Randal is a brand. When you get Randal, you get this great team of epically talented people who work with him, and that’s part of the secret of his success.” Ford says, “I am lucky to have surrounded myself with top-notch players who share my personal philosophy of old-fashioned hard work, having a great attitude and simply doing the right thing.”
“Herding cats” may be a trite metaphor to describe the interplay of all the various disciplines in front of and behind the camera during an advertising photo shoot. But for Ford, that cliché turned literal when he shot a series of live-action assets for Crave high-protein dog and cat food. Perhaps as a nod to Reservoir Dogs, four dogs and three cats swagger straight toward the camera in the signature scene. Ford recalls, “That shoot took a lot of creative minds.” The crew taped off a lane for each animal, and Ford locked down the camera and shot each one individually, compositing in post-production. “Those cats—and they are Hollywood cats—had five days of prep just to walk in a straight line,” he says. On set, three cat wranglers waved toys to coax a single cat down the runway. Ford smiles and says, “Cats are always the hardest.”
He speaks from experience, having photographed dairy cows, dogs and cats. About five years ago, Ford set his sights on more exotic subjects. “I had been dying to photograph some predators, specifically a lion, a tiger and a bear: the Wizard of Oz trifecta,” he says. He worked with trainers in Los Angeles to locate the animals and booked studio time. He became known for his work with animals, and the assignments kept coming. Soon, he had about 30 animal portraits—including Schicka the Bengal tiger and a black wolf named Geronimo—from a variety of commissioned and self-funded projects, and envisioned publishing a larger collection as a fine art book. The result was The Animal Kingdom: A Collection of Portraits.
Only two months later, Ford’s editors at Rizzoli asked him what he planned to do for his next book. He remembers thinking, “‘What if we did a whole book of dog portraits?’ I wanted to further explore our connection with animals, our love of animals. There’s no animal we are more connected with than our dogs.” That’s how he found himself sitting on an apple box, snapping away at Wiley.
The dogs he’s assembled for this book are as varied as the humans who star in his recent ad campaigns, from coding yentas, for Jdate, to couples dressed in the same fabric as their sofas, for CenturyLink. Ford describes his mission as “fostering a portrait. In addition to making an image that is aesthetically beautiful, all the other aspects are the differences that make a difference.” ca