For 11 years, Robin Schwartz had been photographing her daughter, whom she calls her muse. But in February, Schwartz realized that her daughter had grown into a teenager — and one that no longer wanted to play dress up or serve as a portrait model. Schwartz knew it was time to work on another project, and she found that new photographic world at a party hosted by another photographer, Mary Ellen Mark. There, the photographer saw jeweled gowns created for dogs by Anthony Rubio, a designer who commands up to $600 for custom outfits for fashion-forward canines (and their owners). Mesmerized by the colorful and embellished creations, which often involve pearls, crystals or floral pieces, Schwartz knew she had discovered her new subject matter.
“This is a world where it’s acceptable to dote on and play with your dogs, be extravagant, charitable and eccentric — I wanted in,” she says. “With my daughter growing up, I was getting sad about having an empty nest, and having a dog is like having a baby. I was enamored.”
For the last four months, Schwartz has attended various canine charity events, capturing the fashionable pups and their equally eccentric owners. Schwartz quickly learned that the dog couture world is, like many other social circles, a nuanced and complicated bunch, and balancing the egos of dog owners became as important as camera angle and composition to getting a great shot.
She’s also documented the design process of Rubio, who started making dog costumes after being called to help rescue a badly abused Chihuahua that had been tied to a fence and kicked violently. “After a visit to a vet and being told that he might not live another year due to injuries, I decided to take him, care for him and ultimately rehabilitate him,” Rubio says. “I started dressing him because he was always trembling, and with time, he became quite affectionate… The word got out and I was asked to design for other dogs and the rest is history.”
Schwartz is saying goodbye — at least for now — to the canine couture world as she plans to road trip across the country with her daughter to take portraits for her forthcoming book with Aperture called Amelia and The Animals Photographs. “What I’ve learned from this project is that every group is socially complicated, that people can be pretty needy too and that I prefer animals — except for my daughter, Amelia,” Schwartz says.
Robin Schwartz is a photographer based in New Jersey. She is an Assistant Professor in Photography at William Paterson University.
Feifei Sun is an Atlanta-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @feifei_sun.