By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Max wasn’t so sure about this whole camera thing.
The 3-year-old German shepherd paced the deck at Canine Splash, whining softly and looking toward his owners as photographer Seth Casteel waited in the water below him, patiently calling encouragement. Finally, he deigned to walk down the ramp and plunge his face into the water after a tennis ball, keeping a wary eye on this stranger in his favorite place.
Eventually, Casteel’s coaxing and encouragement — and adroit concealment of the camera — paid off. By the end of his photo shoot, Max was enthusiastically launching himself into the water after the tennis ball, praised and reassured by photographer and owners both.
Anyone who’s seen underwater portraits of dogs on social media has probably seen Casteel’s work. Since a series of his underwater canine photos was posted on Reddit last Feb. 9, the award-winning photographer has found himself thrust into overnight fame, parlayed into a New York Times bestselling book (”Underwater Dogs”), a calendar, a book tour and exhibits in New York City and elsewhere. His work has been featured in National Geographic, The New York Times and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine.
Casteel’s underwater photographs capture dogs both fierce and comical, single-mindedly intent on pursuit of a tennis ball or wide-eyed with quizzical canine expressions. In a photo shoot arranged by the owners of Canine Splash, he spent this weekend at the business on Vulcan Street on the Town of Tonawanda/Buffalo border, photographing clients’ dogs as they plunged into the facility’s larger pool, paddled after toys or dipped their faces in after a tennis ball he controlled just below the surface.
“He’s got really good energy with the dogs,” said Canine Splash co-owner Jill Bernstein. “He’s kind of reading the signs, if they need calmer energy or more excitement.”
Bernstein said she initially emailed Casteel to inquire about a photo shoot. Learning that he needed a minimum of 10 dogs to do so, she asked clients to gauge interest ... and almost immediately, had more than 20 dogs signed up for the event.
“He’s pretty busy, so we were pretty happy to be able to get him out here on a weekend,” she said. “I’m wondering if my dog is going to be one of the cute ones or one of the ones who looks like they’re going to eat your face off.”
Dogs taking part in the shoot include many Labrador retrievers, some golden retrievers, a Barbet (French water dog) or two, a Rottweiller, poodle, Newfoundland, Bernstein’s own curly-coated retriever, Petra, and more. Many of the dogs learned to swim at Canine Splash’s swim training program, Bernstein said. Max is a sterling example of that.
“It took six training sessions before he would even go off the ramp,” she said. “He now just has a wonderful time jumping, when four months ago, he hated the water, would have nothing to do with it.”
Max’s owners, George and Jory Herbert of Orchard Park, also credit Canine Splash for the turnaround.
“The first time we were here last summer, he had to swim in the baby pool,” George Herbert said. “He wouldn’t even walk through puddles. Now we drive up from Orchard Park, and he starts crying (eagerly) about the time we reach the (former) HSBC building.”
Each dog needed its own brand of interaction. Before Max’s photo shoot, Isis, a Barbet, started out hesitating at the edge of the dock before eventually warming to the idea, jumping eagerly into the water after a bright orange tennis ball as Casteel called constant encouragement.
On the other side of the coin was Miley, a Scottish terrier who swam like an otter and was thoroughly unfazed by Casteel’s presence ... but wasn’t so interested in the tennis balls.
“I think it’s great,” said her owner, Wendy Mathias of Buffalo, as she watched. “It’s been a lot of fun, very unique for Buffalo. And she’s loving it.”
Casteel, who flew in from Los Angeles for the shoot, said it’s been “a wild ride” since someone first posted some of his underwater dog shots to social news site Reddit on Feb. 9, 2012, precisely a year ago. They went viral — and the rest is history.
“By the time the morning of Feb. 10 rolled around, it was a frenzy,” he said. “The power of the world wide web.”
Capturing the perfect image isn’t just about the mechanics of underwater photography. It’s also a psychological challenge to figure out the dynamics of the dog’s personality and how best to engage it, Casteel said.
“The whole project is really the psychology of dogs,” he said, “understanding them and finding the best way to get them involved. These dogs all have their challenges. ... The whole thing is really about having fun. If the dogs aren’t having fun, I’m not having fun, the pictures won’t turn out.
“I’m interested in the emotions of dogs, wherever it takes me.”
For more information on Casteel’s work, visit www.littlefriendsphoto.com. For more information on Canine Splash, visit caninesplash.com.FOR MORE For a Q&A with photographer Seth Casteel, see Page 1C.