South Bend Tribune

December 18, 2001

Interest Grew Steadily at Local School

Tribune Staff Writer


Before he was "America's Best Pet Photographer" David Sutton was one of Washington High School's best.

Dave Sutton
Dave Sutton

Sutton, who was born and raised in South Bend, bought his first 35 mm camera, at age 14, with six years of earnings as a Tribune carrier.

His interest in photography grew, he says, through his work for the Washington High School yearbook and newspaper, and "Beyond Our Control," the Junior Achievement-sponsored television program produced by WNDU-TV from 1968 to 1986.

Sutton helped his late teacher Dave Weber set up a photography program at WHS, and Sutton soon discovered he was drawn to portraiture and black-and-white photography, trademarks of his work today.

Washington High School also was where Sutton mounted his first photography exhibit -- featuring candid portraits of the boy who lived next door, John Michael Palmer.

Graduating in 1976, Sutton went on to college at Indiana University, taking 10 weeks off after the first year to wander Europe, creating photographs he still considers stunning.

Eventually, Sutton finished college at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Pet and Owner Dog in Closeup
Pet personalities shine through Dave Sutton's photographs.
Photos Provided/Dave Sutton

He moved back to Bloomington to free-lance, but he says, "got very thin. There's not much of a market there."

He's lived and worked in Evanston, Ill., since 1986.

In addition to his studio work, Sutton says he expects in the spring to produce a loose line of greeting cards that will be available through Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Borders Books Music & Cafe. He also hopes to soon begin work on a book of his photographs.

His parents, Vern and Von Sutton, still live in South Bend. Two sisters also live in the area.


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Sydni is staring out the car window, a faraway look in her chestnut eyes. She's daydreaming (assuming dogs daydream) and replaying the triumphs of her first professional photo shoot.

A smile spreads across her face (assuming dogs smile), and she gives a gentle nod of satisfaction, as if to say: "Uh-huh, I'm one hot puppy:"

Thirty minutes in a Dallas studio with South Bend native David Sutton. 'America's Best Pet Photographer," and my goofy 7-year old yellow Lab thinks she's a supermodel.

But I really can't blame Sydni. Sutton's almost Zen-like sense of calm could turn even the most camera-shy pooch - or person - into a Norma Desmond.

When I ask Sutton if he is some sort of dog whisperer, he smiles and says: "It's not hard to be patient. I love dogs. I love pictures and I love the results."

He's not the only one. Sutton's black-and white portraits of pets and their people have earned national attention, including an appearance on NBC's "The Today Show" and a deal with Crate & Barrel to carry a box set of Sutton's canine greeting cards. His commercial work can be seen in numerous ads, including his famous blue hound for Skyy Vodka.

But whether it's a pug in the palm of its owner's hand, a pair of majestic Great Danes staring off into the distance, or a terrier-mix sharing a tender moment with "Mom." Sutton's portraits reflect his uncanny ability to freeze-frame the grace and the humor of the pet/pet owner relationship.

This summer when Forbes FYI magazine anointed Sutton 'America's Best." it was a signal he had reached the pinnacle of pet photography. He now commands $4,500 per sitting and averages six shoots a week (eight during holidays).

And he has a steady flow of clients coming to his Evanston, Illinois home studio --everyone from top business execs to multi-generational families to nice Jewish boys trying to keep their mothers happy.

Still, Sutton remains as surprised as anyone about how his business has taken off.

"I get a disbelieving feeling when I look back. I mean, it's not like we did a lot of market research." says Sutton. 43, stroking his silver-flecked goatee. "Is this where I thought I'd end up? It was the furthest thing from my mind. My early interests were in photojournalism and early Life magazine photography:"

Nearly a decade later - and with a lot of help from his wife, Lynntia, and some inspiration from his dog. Zane, an Australian cattle dog,-border collie mix. Sutton estimates he's photographed between 2,000 and 3,000 dogs and cats (plus the occasional gerbil or iguana).

With all that animal kingdom experience, I figured photographing Sydni would be a snap. Sutton invited us to be his test subjects on a recent visit to Dallas, where he had several shoots scheduled for the following day.

When we arrive I'm a little nervous. But Sydni is downright giddy. She loves riding in the car, so after 45 minutes on Interstate 30 from Fort Worth, Texas, she bounds up the iron steps to the hip warehouse studio Sutton has rented. As I admire the funky lighting and exposed duct work. Sydni is already munching on a treat from Sutton.

Ha, bribery: I should have guessed.

"It casts me in a positive light," says Sutton, a gentle giant at 6 feet 3 inches. "With Labs, especially that's all then can think about."

But there is much more to fine-art pet portraiture than Liva-Snaps.

As Sydni sniffs every corner of the studio. I get a took at Sutton's photo equipment, laid out on a table with the precision of surgical instruments, Cameras, lenses, flashes and a plastic chicky? An old harmonica? And, what's that, a squeaker from inside a Tasmanian Devil toy?

"All my trade secrets," jokes Sutton.

"Dogs respond to sound: cats are more visual. So I have a small collection of noisemakers," he says. "And then there's me and my mouth."

"When I was in fourth grade, a buddy and I would try to outdo each other with silly sounds," says Sutton.

"Who knew I was forging a career".

A few seconds into the shoot, he is clicking and clucking, whistling and whooping, tooting and Taz-ing. Not exactly the stuff of a Vogue fashion shoot, but Sydni is mesmerized. Between all the sounds and the snacks, she would have recited Shakespeare to please Sutton.

After 15 minutes of solo Sydni shots. Sutton invites me in front of the camera. He doesn't, however, offer me a liver treat. Reluctantly, I step into the frame. "The people are always more self-conscious than the dogs." says Sutton.

Quickly I try to divert attention from my receding hairline and rather large nose by sharing with Sutton one of Sydni's few signs of brilliance: the Head Tilt.

Ask her a question, almost any question, and she'll give you a Joe Pesci-esque "You talkin' to me" look - except sweeter:

Sydni wanna cookie? Head Tilt. Sydni. wanna go for a walk? Head Tilt.

Sydni, should bowling become an Olympic sport? Head Tilt.

OK, so she's no Einstein. or even Eddie from Frasier. but she is cute. Sutton agrees and has her tilting her tail off for a while. By the 30minute mark. Sydni's had enough and she stretches out on the studio floor. Sutton keeps shooting.

"With dogs, I'm always looking for stuff that just happens, outtakes, grab shots." he says. "I give the clients all the contact sheets. and some owners go for it if they have the right sense of humor."

Of course, when someone shells out $4,500 for a set of pet portraits (six signed and matted 8-by-8 prints. a large display print. plus the contact sheets). they must be looking for something special. right? Who pays that much?

"People who adore their animals." says Sutton. "Single people, couples with children whose pet was really their first child. I've also photographed a fair number of same-sex couples.

"Most of the people are in their late 20s and 30s and have put off having kids. but the instinct is there," he adds. "In some way: they are acknowledging that their dogs or cats are really a member of their family:"

Sutton understands the potential for sticker shock and says he tries to keep the pricing information out there as much as possible. Invariably though. when people call their first question is: "How much does it cost?" Sutton responds: "'What kind of animal do you have.'... And we start talking about their pet. Things usually go from there."

Stacey Verbeek, who organized two sessions with Sutton last month in Dallas, says the cost is "well worth it because he really knows how to capture the personality of the dogs."

Verbeek's father, Richard Snyder who owns Snyder Capital Corp. in Dallas, posed with his Welsh terrier and Rhodesian ridgeback-mix, and said Sutton "really knows how to tweak the dogs. And I look better than I normally look."

On the Web
David Sutton's Web site is
His studio can be reached by calling
(847) 679-8090
or e-mailing:

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