We all start somewhere. For many, it was their first job, the time they got their foot in the door. For Randal Ford, it was a commercial photoshoot with 10 cows on a dairy farm in rural Texas. The client was thrilled with Ford's conceptual series; the dairy community left rather confused. Ford was inspired, and his first foray into animal portraiture eventually lead to his magnum opus, The Animal Kingdom .
Ford is historically a portrait photographer of humans. In college, he was inspired by Richard Avedon's In the American West , the prolific 1978 series that captured the spirit of place through people Avedon encountered at slaughterhouses, ranches, and state fairs. Ford's work advances American West 's aesthetic: Head-on portraits with a no-frills sensibility—just replace Avedon's brooding Midwestern teen with an upside down sloth.
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The Animal Kingdom is the culmination of nearly two years of commercial and editorial photography. Before approaching a publisher, Ford set an intention: To gather photographs of 150 different animals against neutral backgrounds in a studio setting. For a few of his shoots, he used professionally trained animals available for rent through services such as Hollywood Animals or Cat Haven. The photographer also tapped the internet to locate new creatures, inadvertently discovering a sort of underground community of local Texan exotic pet owners.
"I'd ask people, 'You know someone with a buffalo?'" Ford explains. "They'd say, 'Nope, but I can hook you up with a guy with an armadillo.'"
When he's on set, Ford has one or two assistants in tow and his trusty Nikon D850 camera. Those are the variables he can control. The rest? Nope. Because animals—especially the untrained ones—are unpredictable, Ford's shoots can last anywhere from 10 minutes (black fox) to two hours (tiger). And some of the photographer's subjects require unique treatment, like the squirrel who could only sit still after a swim in a bag of pistachios or the mountain lion who dropped (and subsequently ate) raw meat off Ford's feet. But what was most challenging during the Kingdom shoots was Ford's inability to direct the animals.
"Working with animals is different in the sense that I feel the power of a tiger or the intuitive nature of a horse," Ford says. "It's a little more one-sided than it is with people, where you're collaborating and feeding off each other's energy."
As netizens, we're hounded (pun intended) with images of animals every day. There's the lion cub screensaver that comes pre-installed on your laptop; the video of the zoo panda that everyone's mom emails them; and let's not forget your dog's Instagram (try as we might). But why are we so consumed by these furry creatures that share so little with us in return?
Ford offers a theory: "The emotions we apply to these animals are emotions that are within us." So, a bad day at the office might look like a weary highland calf. The feeling of receiving a text from your Hinge date could be a triumphant Ameraucana rooster. We anthropomorphize animals all the time, seeking to know them better in relation to our inner thoughts and feelings. Ford describes his series as "engaged portraits" but maybe they're something more, a rare naked glimpse at the most mystical and elusive breed of all: ourselves.
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