It’s hard to imagine any one person being more intimately familiar with the distant corners of our world than Keith Ladzinski. A longstanding wildlife photographer for National Geographic, Ladzinski knows how to capture the exact moment when an animal reveals its personality, and this knack is most apparent in his photography of dogs. No matter where in the world Ladzinski finds himself, even in the midst of a demanding commercial shoot schedule, he makes time to photograph moments of spontaneity as only canines can give us — it is his passion.
He has photographed dogs on all six continents that have dogs; if there is one in Antarctica, he’d love to shoot it, too. In Nepal, a Tibetan mastiff— bred to be defensive and quick to protect territory and family with a sharp nip — was impossible to pass by without taking a portrait, because the setting and majesty of the dog were undeniable. His series on Alaskan sled dogs unflinchingly captures the often brutal reality of the environment and landscape the dogs live in, while simultaneously providing a conduit for the viewer into the energetic and playful nature of the dogs on the team.
On an excursion to the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia — where the environment is so harsh that traveling from one rock outcropping “island” to another is done at night to minimize exposure to the heat — Ladzinski remembers a dog who showed up at their remote camp and laid down by the crew, as if he had arrived home. It was a surreal and deeply unexpected experience in a place normally void of flora and fauna. When they hopped to the next rock island, they met the dog’s owner, who had a small business selling supplies to travelers.
Ladzinski’s most recent long-term assignment — an environmentally focused piece about life around Lake Michigan — seeks to shed light on the egregious transgressions against the ecosystem surrounding the industrial hub of the Midwest. One evening on location, he met a family having a picnic on a beach and asked to take their picture; as he settled low to the ground to capture the moment, the family dog burst out from hiding with all the unleashed excitement that a young Staffordshire terrier can offer, creating an incredibly emotive and spontaneous image that became one of his favorites from the whole project.
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Any time that it is even remotely practical for Ladzinski to travel with his golden retriever, Vesper, he does. If he can’t bring Vesper along for an adventure, she stays at home with the rest of his family and watches over his eight-month-old son; he says it’s magical to watch the bond between his son and Vesper grow so quickly and from such a young age. Vesper is a family member who provides comfort and love, whose needs and wishes are as important as anyone else’s. But the dogs that Ladzinski interacts with during his travels have wilder, more visceral lives, with less gentle human interaction.
Ladzinski often reflects on the kaleidoscope of directions the connection between humans and dogs can take. While love for animals may be nearly universal in human culture, the specific needs of societies and animals vary and change due to geographic and economic pressures. Throughout his life, Ladzinski has learned to empathize with his subjects whenever possible, but also to step outside of his own subjective view and take on a more neutral, objective view, aware that the more he imposes his preconceived ideas onto a scene, the more he risks diluting the honesty of the moment. But he feels none of those pressures when he is candidly photographing the dogs that he meets in strange and distant places; the results illustrate that no matter how much our standards of living shift, we will always develop a level of companionship that is deeper than mere convenience.
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