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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
Pet Portraits
by Jason Mills
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As I read through the mission brief, it plunged me instantly into a succession of pseudo-Freudian flashbacks centred around the family portrait which hung above the mantelpiece of my adolescent home. I remembered it vividly. Being driven up to the photography studio in Lisburn, the only child, sat in the back with our beloved mongrel. Even as the photographer was arranging and re-arranging us into various poses and positions I don't recall anything even remotely suspicious. But, lo and behold, whenever I arrived home from school several days later there it was, hanging prominent and proud in the living room. My parents were perched smiling on studio chairs, and there I was leaning on the floor behind the dog in the soft lighting, looking for all the world as if I was slipping one sneakily between its plus-fours. Even my facial expression betrayed me. And there it hung for what seemed like decades, a sneering monolith of embarrassment to me, and endless amusement to my friends.
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So then, the first brave step back into this murky past in order to uncover the horrific truth about animal portraits was a journey through the swamp that is The Yellow Pages. Navigating the photography section was a fairly tricky business. Numbers were phoned, messages were left, but there wasn't a beast in sight. I was often met with a languid response along the lines of 'Yeah, I think we might've done a shoot of a cat about two years ago but I couldn't tell ye who the clients were now'.
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At last a Mr David Lavery emerged from the dense undergrowth to outline the fundamentals of the thing. 'Hmmm.' He began earnestly 'I guess it's the same as with any other project, you have to understand why the people want it done. I did (photograph) a Great Dane a couple of years ago which was about to die, so it was to kind of immortalise it in the eyes of the owners. I was hoping to get the shoot finished before the old dog keeled over in the studio, like Tommy Cooper's final performance. You always have to bear in mind though that people often look upon their animals as if they were children so often the procedure is fairly similar. I've acquired an array of squeaky, gurgling noises to hold children's attention, and I have been known to do cat impressions for dogs and vice-versa. There's no magic way of doing it because all pets have different personalities and it just takes a bit of perseverance to get the thing right'.
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Mr. Lavery then kindly tipped me off about a dog photo-shoot which had taken place at Pets At Home on the Boucher Road a few weeks before. A friend of his, another photographer, had been down at it just for a look. Imagine his surprise then when a guy came walking in with a 6ft iguana, having not even remotely attempted to disguise it as a dog. As Pets At Home was thrown into an immediate state of disarray, with confused dog owners running screaming from the aisles, Mr. Lavery's friend sneaked the iguana outside and snapped it in the car park. And thus began the search for the enigmatic figure who, within the confines of my notepad, became known as Iguanaman. Mr. Lavery's friend didn't have a name or number, nor did Pets At Home, but he knew the address he'd posted the developed photos to in Lisburn. As I eventually headed off down the M1, armed with a special iguana-tracking ray gun, I was wary that as some tropical lizards are able to change colour to adapt to their surroundings, this one could, being Lisburn, prove to be red, white and blue.
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Pet Portraits
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Pet Portraits
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When I did find the flat in question it was home not to one iguana but five. A nest! Despite my dubious claims that I was writing an article for a publication which may or may not have existed as far as the iguana owners were concerned, they hospitably allowed me to trespass all over their property. Three well-equipped reptile tanks sat in the living room beside the TV. Perhaps to suggest something of the modern clash between nature and technology. 'Zippy (photographed) was abandoned in a vet's surgery about four years ago by her owners,' they told me. 'The vet knew that we already had a couple of iguanas so we adopted her and got her a hysterectomy which she needed to remove a clutch of eggs. She's about 13 now, the eldest of the bunch.'
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I asked them if they felt the photographs had done Zippy justice. 'Yes and no' replied Iguanaman 'They've all got very individual personalities. Zippy's affectionate, almost like a puppy. Iguanas are also extremely smart so she'll open up her tank sometimes from the inside and climb up onto the sofa to sit beside us.'
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Ahhhh. Zippy the Iguana was also apparently smart enough to perceive her insult at the hands of the Pets At Home photographer. 'Aye, she shit on the floor on the way out. Completely out of character.' As other story leads crashed and burned before my eyes I turned my attention away from the camera and in the direction of an advert I had seen. 'Pawtraits' (surely worthy of acknowledgement on the strength of its pun alone) proprietor Elaine Williams turned out to be extremely pleasant and almost certainly human once I got past the initially impenetrable exterior of her methodical answerphone. The painting she spoke to me about was done as a birthday gift back in January.
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'It was an acrylic painting of three beautiful Labradors, two black, one gold. I always like to meet the animal to establish some kind of rapport so I spent about an hour with them and took photos from all sorts of different angles. The most important aspect is the eyes. Like people, that's usually where you can capture the essence of the animal.'
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And what does the owner think? When I spoke to her she was barely able to contain herself. 'Elaine got it down to a tee. They really are part of the family and she somehow managed to capture their little individual idiosyncrasies better than most photographers could.'
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So, there we have it. Rejected Reptile Makes Good. Interracial Labrador Relations At All Time High, Says Owner. Back to you in the studio, Bob.
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