Famed dog photographer captures the canine spirit
The portrait of Aja is haunting. Her missing eye and her other luminous green one are almost closed, ears pinned back, a serene look on her face. The black and white portrait of the red-nosed Pit Bull terrier possesses a hauntingly beautiful aura, sort of like a canine Mona Lisa.
Yet this is not a one-time-get-lucky Kodak moment. Photographs as rich as this are commonplace for Los Angeles-based dog photographer Frank Bruynbroek ("Brin-brook"). He's best known for capturing canine souls and personalities in dramatic black-and-white portraits too emotionally charged not to be called works of art.
Originally from a small town on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium, this modern-day Renaissance Man tried his hand at everything before finding his true calling: French teacher, motorcycle tourist, wedding photographer, light-show designer, ski instructor, commercial director, background singer. At the age of 29, he moved to Hollywood to try his hand at acting, and found out he was good at it. From securing side roles in "Godzilla" and "Rush Hour 3" to landing commercials, television spots and voice-over work, Bruynbroek found himself immersed in the Hollywood dream. In between acting jobs, he dabbled in his hobby—photography.
It was during one of these "dabbles" that Bruynbroek stumbled upon his life's path. In 1997, while taking headshot pictures of a fellow actor, Bruynbroek turned around and saw his Pit Bull/Boxer Rosalie, 1 year old, just staring at him in the most intriguing way. Acting on instinct, he snapped the shot and, suddenly, knew he was on to something. Shortly after that, Rosalie died unexpectedly of an illness, and Bruynbroek realized how precious that one, perfect photo embodying Rosalie's image and soul was to him.
Years passed, more acting commenced, and then came the photo of Aja, another of Bruynbroek's beloved rescues. The sun slanted through the yard just right, Aja beamed into the lens and Bruynbroek struck gold. The image of his canine soulmate further launched his photography career. The pieces formed years ago with Rosalie's one and only snapshot began taking shape. That portrait of Aja wound up winning contests and being sold numerous times to various publications, mainly because it says so much, says Bruynbroek.
"I want to show that dogs, no matter how cruel we were to them, they bounce back and they love back," he says.
And he's giving back. Having adopted Rosalie, Aja and his other Pit Bull Sophie from the Brittany Foundation, a non-profit all-breed dog rescue in Los Angeles, Bruynbroek is no stranger to the joys of rescuing dogs and the need to bring attention to dog rescues.
An idea about creating a photography book featuring rescued dogs photographed in the soulful, black-and-white close-up portrait style Bruynbroek is famous for began brewing. Called "Compawssion," this book is an homage to his Rosalie, as well as the countless other homeless dogs needing homes and the former orphans now living good lives with loving owners.
"Why don't I use my talent with photography to help the cause," he remembers thinking 15 years ago when this project started forming. "I began looking at my art differently….The cause of rescue dogs became bigger, almost a humanitarian cause. It's almost like my calling. It's definitely a great new chapter of my life I embrace."
In "Compawssion," stories of dogs' love written by celebrities will round out this coffee-table book, with proceeds going to dog rescue organizations. Bruynbroek will be signing his book this month all around the Southland. Click here for dates and times.
Owners often hire Bruynbroek to take portraits of their pets, many of which are rescues that will wind up in "Compawssion." Sometimes, Bruynbroek will approach owners of interesting-looking dogs at popular dog hangouts, like the hiking trails near his home. He spends hours with his canine subjects in their own environments, waiting patiently for that one moment—that one look—so that what he captures on film (he's old school, no digital cameras here) not only makes a good picture, but symbolizes what that dog is all about. No silly hats, wigs or funny poses in a studio setting here; Bruynbroek's style is all about finding the soul and letting it come through the lens.
"Dogs live in the moment—that's when I connect with them in my camera" he says. "They're very much like Zen masters. Animals are freer than we are. They don't judge."
This feeling of peace and tranquility is exactly what he tries to provide in his gallery, Oh My Dog, in Idyllwild, Calif., near Palm Springs. Featuring approximately 70 large-scale black-and-whites of dogs, the gallery introduces visitors not just to Bruynbroek's photographic talents, but to the world of rescue, too.
"It's the seed I plant in people's brains with art and soulful pictures," he says. "It goes beyond a canine picture. If I can be inspirational, it's my duty to inspire people."
Even though his three Pit Bull girls are gone now ("Every time a dog goes, it's devastating," he says. "It's a way to show us that nothing lasts forever and death is a part of life. [Maybe] they show us the way."), Bruynbroek hasn't given up on fostering orphans, which he does mostly through the Brittany Foundation. Perhaps history will repeat itself and he'll adopt one of his fosters as he did three times before. But one thing's for sure: he'll probably be photographing those who stay with him on a temporary basis. Because canine photography is more than a job for Bruynbroek. It's his mission.
- Richard Schwartz