By Joseph Robertia
When it comes to books on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, there are volumes focusing on the adventure stories of mushers, but there are few publications with the canine athletes as the center of attention, and even fewer focusing on their unique and individual appearances.
“I love dogs and I love photography, so I said to myself, ‘I have to do something with this,’” said Albert Lewis, an Anchorage-based photographer who has spent the summer so far shooting images of sled dogs for his upcoming coffee-table book of photography, “Born to Run — Athletes of the Iditarod.”
The dogs of several Kenai Peninsula mushers are featured in the book, including Anna and Kristy Berington, Paul Gebhardt, Dean Osmar, Colleen Robertia and Mitch Seavey. Roughly 100 dogs’ images from roughly 30 kennels will be selected for the final 208-page book, which goes to print later this month.
Lewis’ background is in fashion photography, and has included more than 20 years serving in various roles, including photographer, art director, creative director and designer for the likes of Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Target and the outdoor equipment titan The North Face.
He is new to the world of four-legged fashion models, but said it was his naivety with The Last Great Race that was the impetus for this project. He moved to Alaska from Lake Tahoe, Calif., about three years ago, but the 2012 Iditarod was the first time he had witnessed the race.
“That’s where it started,” Lewis said. “I wanted to go check it out, to see if they hurt the dogs like so many people assume. My misconception couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Standing on the sidelines of snow-covered Fourth Avenue in Anchorage, Lewis saw the 16-dog teams approach the starting chute, one after another. The closer the teams got, the more hysterical the dogs became. Barking, howling and throwing themselves into their harnesses in an effort to get forward momentum going, it was clear to Lewis that these dogs weren’t being forced to do anything.
“When I saw how excited they were, how happy they were, how in heaven they were, it left me with tears in my eyes,” he said.
It was an epiphany that left Lewis wanting to share his experience. He wanted others to see through his eyes — or, more specifically, his lens — how unique, amazing and individual each of the canine athletes are, and he wanted to do it in the way he knew best.
“I shoot fashion, so I wanted to shoot the dogs like fashion,” he said.
This is a far cry from the usual mushing action shots. Instead, Lewis relied on his knowledge of differing lenses and multiple-angle lighting to create images of the dogs with a fashion slant in order to allow people to see these athletes in a new way.
“My school of thought is, ‘If it’s already been done, why do it again?’ That’s a cop-out. I wanted to do something that would make people stop and stare and think about what they were seeing. It’ll be a different type of book, which hopefully will be nice to see,” he said.
Having a good idea and carrying it out are two different challenges, though. Alaska mushers are spread out across the state, so photographing their dogs was going to mean a lot of driving.
“Being new to the state, it’s been tough planning shoots in say, Kasilof, when you don’t know where Kasilof is,” he said.
On more than one occasion he drove several hundred miles to a kennel, and then back to Anchorage, only to realize
that the mushers he had scheduled to shoot the next weekend only lived 50 miles farther up the highway.
“I’m a creative guy, not a logistical guy, so that’s been tough,” he said.
Lewis has already traveled more than 5,000 miles this summer — from Anchorage to Glennallen, Willow to Fairbanks, and down onto the Kenai Peninsula — visiting 30 kennels and photographing 300 dogs. Once at a kennel, Lewis also realized, on at least a few occasions, that mushers can be an eclectic bunch, many better-suited to work with 50 sled dogs than punching a time clock.
“There have been a few times I’ve made an appointment to shoot someone’s dogs and I’ll show up at the time we agreed upon and that I wrote down, but no one’s there. I’ll call and they won’t be in town, so they’ll ask me, ‘Can we do it first thing tomorrow?’ Then I’ll show up the next morning at the time we said and they’re there, but still in bed sleeping,” Lewis said.
Dealing with the logistical hassles was worth it once Lewis finally got to the dogs, he said. He travels with a portable studio, so he can make even the most remote dog yards work, and while some might think photographing such high-energy animals would be difficult, Lewis has found several tricks to help in his trade.
Some dogs respond to squeaky toys, others to rolling balls. Some dogs make the most expressive faces when having their name whispered, while for others it’s hearing their name yelled. Still others cock their head and perk an ear at Lewis doing his best impression of a cat. He does whatever it takes to get the shots for which he is looking.
“Front shot, side shots, some back shots looking over their shoulder, he took thousands of pictures, so he should have some good ones,” said Paul Gebhardt, a veteran of 16 Iditarods.
Lewis photographed a diversity of dogs in Gebhardt’s kennel, from 10-month-old pups to yearlings to seasoned pros, and, so readers will have an idea of what the dogs’ two-legged companions look like, Lewis will add one shot of each musher with one of their favorite all-star dogs.
“I choose Lieutenant for that shot. He’s my buddy and my bread-and-butter dog,” Gebhardt said, referring to one of his main leaders, a dog whose roots can be traced back to Gebhardt’s kennel patriarch, Red Dog, who led him to his second-place Iditarod finish.
Gebhardt himself has been featured in numerous books and videos about the Iditarod, and while he is happy to be included in this upcoming work, he said it was nice to see someone focusing on the dogs as the main subject matter for a book.
“It’s going to be a different type of book and that’s nice to see. The dogs are sort of like centerfolds, but he seems to be going about it the right way and I think it’ll be a good thing for the sport to have a book like this out there,” he said.
Colleen Robertia, a two-time Iditarod veteran, shared similar sentiments.
“I think it’s great to see. Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows the dogs are the real athletes and the true talent. They deserve much more credit and accolades than they are given,” she said.
Robertia added that she believes the book will be a big hit with not just mushers, but with Iditarod fans, based on her experiences with the sport.
“My lead dog, Penny, has more fans than I do, so I think the book will be a hit. There are a lot of people who email me to ask about individual dogs, or who write to ask for a photo of one of their favorites from my kennel. This will be really exciting for them to have something like this,” she said.
While waiting for the book to be finished, Lewis has created a “Born to Run — Athletes of the Iditarod” Facebook page, where he provides a few sneak peeks from the book. Anyone interested in seeing some of the images or wanting to learn more about the book can “like” his page on Facebook.