A Kittery Photographer Unleashes Two Years’ Worth of Dog Portraits

For Aliza Eliazarov, finding subjects for her new book, The Best Dog, was a walk in the park.

Photographer Aliza Eliazarov's Great Pyrenees-Border-collie mix
Photographer Aliza Eliazarov's Great Pyrenees-Border-collie mix
By Nora Saks
Photos by Aliza Eliazarov
From our March 2024 issue
Kittery photographer Aliza Eliazarov
Photographer Aliza Eliazarov

For Kittery photographer Aliza Eliazarov, finding subjects for her new book of dog portraits was a walk in the park. “The human-dog bond is really special and something people want to celebrate,” says Eliazarov, an educator at a New Hampshire animal shelter who previously published a book of farm-animal portraits. She and her husband and co-writer, Ed Doty, solicited candidates in their community and on social media, then spent two years traveling around Maine (and as far away as Indiana) capturing a diverse mix of breeds and personalities for The Best Dog (Ten Speed Press; hardcover; $25), which came out last fall. Among the more than 100 featured pups are Buddy, an Indian street dog from Portland with snowy fur and a wry expression (Eliazarov and Doty call him “an intuitive empath”), Caper, an English bulldog from Liberty who ate Eliazarov’s paper backdrop, and Ducky, the couple’s own Great Pyrenees–Border-collie mix that they adopted shortly after they began researching the book. Wrangling subjects with varying temperaments and attention spans is “hectic and exhausting,” Eliazarov says. “But I got to hang out with 100 dogs, which is my dream.”

Where did this idea come from?

I’ve been photographing dogs for years, but the idea of capturing them and their stories in a book crystallized during the pandemic. When Covid hit, animal shelters were emptying out. So many people were hurting and needed a dog. And those dogs helped them through what was the darkest time in many people’s lives. Ed and I found out first-hand how important dog companionship is when we adopted Ducky, in 2020. He’s the best. When we started talking about the project, everyone kept saying, ‘You have to photograph my dog; I have the best dog.’ And we were like, ‘You’re right. We all have the best dog.’

How did you coax such a range of expressions from your subjects?

Every shoot is a collaboration between me, Ed, who helps wrangle the animals, the dog’s person, and the dog. Over the course of the shoot, the hope is that the dog’s story and character will emerge, and we will capture their essence. We only break out treats when absolutely necessary because, once they’re focused on the treat, a lot of dogs get this intense look in their eyes that isn’t really who they are. Some dogs are afraid of the strobe light. I’m not in the business of traumatizing dogs, so if they’re distressed, the shoot is over.

Aliza Eliazarov’s expressive dog portraits include (clockwise from top left) a soulful Eurasier; a sightless Pomeranian; beagles rescued from a breeding facility; a weary golden retriever and her pups; and an eager-to-please Australian shepherd.

What were some memorable moments?

There was a Pomeranian named Cheese that pooped on set again and again. It was like photographing a squirrel. Ivy, a rescued golden retriever, had a litter of 12 and the puppies were everywhere, peeing and pooping, and then they all nursed and fell asleep, and I finally got a photo. Sawyer, an Afghan hound show dog, had starred in a Saturday Night Live skit. When we put a fan on him and the wind blew his locks, he looked like Cindy Crawford. And I can’t forget Malmok, a Eurasier, who was super zen for a four-month-old pup. His humans told me it was like their old dog, who had died, had sent this special puppy to them. When he sat down and looked at me, I understood what they meant. It was like there was an old soul in a puppy body.

Did you learn anything from making the book?

I realized that when people talk about their dogs, they’re really talking about themselves. I’ve had strangers reach out and tell me that their dog helped them through a divorce, helps their child with depression or anxiety, or helped them regain trust in the world after sexual assault. Those are hard things to talk about. But you can find that out on a Saturday morning at the beach when you strike up a conversation with a dog person.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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