Find out how this digital photography pioneer claw his way to the top of the greeting card industry with his inventive, whimsical and furry animal creations.
His chickens don't just cross the road, they blast along it as speed-demon motorcycle mamas, leaving a trail of feathers behind their black leather. A demure white rabbit shoots skyward on a red pogo stick. A cat can water-ski, ride a bicycle and, yes, even wield a chainsaw or a whip (the latter as a dominatrix in tall black boots and a merry-widow corset).
Sound kinky and silly, and impossible to shoot? Welcome to the animal antics world of John Lund (johnlund.com), a studio photographer and digital imaging pioneer whose zany creations have spawned an empire of highly successful greeting cards, books, calendars, posters and gift merchandise such as mugs, figurines, frames, magnets, jigsaw puzzles and stationery.
"The animal world is pretty bizarre," admits Lund by telephone from his rural home in Novato, Calif. From his studio in San Francisco, this pet-free photographer aims his digital Canon 1DS mostly at cats and dogs, although he has posed other four-legged subjects: a sheep in a chair and a lion with its jaws wide open. "It's a little tricky," he confides with understatement.
Yet Lund has received nary a scratch or bite in almost 30 years of studio photography, including six years of animal shoots for his greeting card publisher, Portal Publications. "I remain unscathed," he says, adding, "I love what I do and have a heck of a lot of fun."
Like herding cats
What's his secret to handling models who would rather meow or bark than move? "A lot of patience and a good animal trainer. We use Bow Wow Productions." If Lund wants a shot of a cat with its mouth open, for instance, the trainer will choose a cat that likes to "talk a lot." In general, cats make more challenging subjects than dogs, he says, because they don't offer the same variety of facial expressions. "Dogs want to please you, but cats don't care what you're trying to do," he adds. "The only thing that will motivate a cat is food."
Before any cat or animal appears as a photographic "product," Lund receives a concept from Portal's creative team, led by senior art director Collette Carter and managing editor Peter Stein. From the concept, sketches are produced to give the animal a personality and show it in various activities. Then, Carter seeks out props, many of them dollhouse-sized, and uses them to create detailed photo environments.
In Lund's studio, Carter arranges the sets, props and styling. Lund shoots the animals, then the props. He concentrates on specific body parts that will be needed to complete the card. (He once photographed a mouse's foot from four inches away.) He takes 100 to 150 shots of each creature, using only his Canon 1DS. No more Hasselblads and Polaroids, like in his old studio days. "What a godsend digital is," Lund says.
"As soon as we get what we want, we're done. You know you've got your shot. I can't imagine shooting anything other than digital. It's so much faster."
Typically, it takes two 12-hour days to produce images for eight to 12 greeting cards. Lund will photograph a dozen animals, plus any additional ones required as on-site backups. Carter says that she loves working with Lund. "He's incredibly easygoing and rolls with the punches," she says. "He's wonderful at following the sketches to a T. He can make almost anything work."
Carter hires Lund's studio critters, all professionally trained. Even so, some furry models require two and three trainers to get the shot. "Bulldogs are a pain in the butt," declares Lund, recalling a shoot that required two trainers, one on each side of a 185-pound mastiff, to keep it standing on its hind legs. "The trainers were exhausted afterwards," he remembers. He has endured a mean-spirited, "scary" Chihuahua and a poodle who, instead of standing on its hind legs and begging, acted lame whenever Lund's camera appeared. Occasionally, even the easiest requirement becomes an ordeal. It once took Lund more than an hour to get a German short-haired pointer to sit; as a show dog, it had been trained not to sit.
If an animal is tired or uncooperative, Lund and the trainer take a break or work with a different one. Sometimes they try to come up with an alternate approach, for instance, having the trainer hold out a dog's paw rather than having the dog extend it. Or Lund will reassess whether he can later create the position digitally.
One of Lund's favorite card images, a bloodhound lounging in a swimming pool recliner, proved one of his biggest challenges: the dog refused to get on its back. So, Lund had a platform built and set up in the studio, supported by sawhorses. The trainer and the dog both stood on it, with the dog stretched tall, vertically. Lund rearranged his lights at a low angle and rotated the animal to make it look as though it were lying down.
Once he's completed the studio work, Lund begins his digital manipulation magic, using Adobe Photoshop. He combines hundreds of photo layers to create a composite image, considering every nuance of expression. Each image requires at least a day of work. A single card can take as many as 60 scans. Lund edits the separate images (body parts, props and set) and then assembles them into one final image. "He's amazing at the retouching," says Carter. His digital artistry gives his subjects remarkably human-like postures: a cat massages another reclining, towel-draped cat, for instance, or his "Zen Cat" meditates, its legs folded in the lotus position. When Lund has the finished image, he makes a color print as a guide for the printer, then e-mails it to Carter, along with a digital file. Portal then writes copy to match the personality and attitude of the image.
After that, it's a finished product, ready for market — and what a market it is. His animal images, with their offbeat sensibilities, are in high demand around the world. One of his top card images can sell 10,000 copies in a month, and his images often sell out. Portal usually prints an initial run of 5,000 to 10,000 copies of each new card.
In January 2004, Portal launched a new 56-card "Life According to Maude" series of Lund's images featuring a sassy tabby with an attitude. "This is really exciting," says Tara Gillen, associate products manager for Portal's greeting card division. "John and Collette [Carter] are both really talented. We're very lucky."
Lund's licensing agent, Anmarie Linsley in Sandy, Utah, has listed his work with 14 licensees, and plans to expand his product line into clothing, handbags and seasonal ornaments. "[Lund's] sense of what the business function is within the creative world is great," says Linsley. "He is wonderfully efficient and responsive."
Lund's images have excelled in other publishing venues as well. His book "Animal Antics," produced by Andrews McMeel Publishing, has sold 35,000 copies; his second, "Animal Wisdom," has sold 12,000. He has signed a contract for three more Andrews McMeel books.
Meanwhile, Lund is succeeding in worlds far removed from anthropomorphic house pets. His Adobe Press book, "Adobe Master Class," cowritten with Pamela Pfiffner and published in 2003, is selling well, he says. In late October, Lund will use excerpts from this book when he speaks on "Creating Conceptual Stock with Photoshop" at the PhotoPlus Expo trade show in New York City. He will cover his Photoshop techniques, including layer masking, the pen tool, liquefy filter and more.
Lund also has a travel book in the works with photographer Nevada Wier. Currently titled, "Ladakh: Land, Spirit, People," it features 100 color images of the fascinating inhabitants and dramatic landscapes of northern India's Tibetan plateau. He is still looking for a publisher.
Format-wise, Lund has shot digital for about seven years. Although digital photography and manipulation techniques have become far more widespread and popular than when he began, he says that he has noticed no drop in sales. "There are other people out there doing images that are similar, but they're not doing it on the scope that we are," he explains.
Success through silliness
After about three decades as a professional photographer, Lund enjoys his success. He says dryly, "I relish the opportunity to not kill myself working." He is building a new 2,300-square-foot studio at his home, no longer needs a rep or does assignments (past clients for advertising stints have included Chevron, IBM, Apple and Kodak) and manages to take three to four months off each year. He devotes about 60 percent of his time to animal images, 30 percent to stock photography and 10 percent to travel shots. (You can view some of his stock shots by entering "John Lund" on the Getty Images website at creative.gettyimages.com.)
How did this conceptual photographer turn his self-professed "oddball operation" into such a successful enterprise? He started with a cat and a canary. Back in 1998, he showed Carter his photographic image of a grin-filled cat looking oh-so-smug with a canary feather sticking out of its mouth. (It's still one of his favorites.) "We should do a line of greeting cards," he suggested. "You could make me the Anne Geddes of the animal world," referring to the conceptual baby photographer. Carter liked the idea and, that year, Portal asked him to work with them on a permanent basis.
"I had an overall vision of what the photography could be," Lund says. "I did think that we could do calendars, T-shirts and coffee mugs. Geddes' success was an inspiration to me."
Other photographers such as Pete Turner and Jay Maisel served as Lund's biggest influences when he started out. "They have simple, clear images that are very graphic with bold color and strong compositions," he says.
When it comes to business savvy, Lund has pragmatic tips for new studio photographers: "When you estimate on a job, be as thorough as possible. Itemize every projected expense. Some say, ‘Find out what the budget is.' The budget's not relevant. Your primary concern should be what you need to produce the best possible result." His further advice? Put everything in writing. Never give an estimate over the phone; think it through first. If an art director wants a change, make it clear that you'll charge extra for it.
In his own early days, Lund says he burned out on 80- to 90-hour work weeks. Today, he offers this wisdom: "When you plan your career, be sure and plan for enjoying your life, not being a slave to clients and art directors." He shares a playful axiom that he found on the Internet: "The key to happiness is silliness." Just ask Maude the Cat.