An Interview with legendary pet photographer John Drysdale

My interview with John Drysdale recently was a special moment in the working life of a pet photographer. I have hugely admired his work for such a long time and it was a real privilege to be given the opportunity to discuss photography with one of the all time greats. Modest though the man is, one look at his portfolio of work and it doesn't take too long to recognise just how brilliant, quirky and original some of his creations were. His images should be viewed by all aspiring pet photographers and every new generation. Iconic dog photographers such as William Wegman have also testified to the man's star picture taking ability describing his images as "hilarious, sweet and astounding".

John was born originally in Uganda and it was there that his photography began. In his neighbourhood, there were every kind of wild animal you could think of from monkeys to bush babies.  The family remarkably looked after one of three orphaned lion cubs who they nicknamed "Num Nums". This lion captured many hearts by being incredibly friendly and showing little of her wild traits. Describing the lion as "trustworthy" as a family dog, the lion often followed them on their many walks. People in the area did show their nervousness though and reluctantly the family knew the "friendly" lion had to be re-homed and was eventually transferred to Phoenix Zoo in Dublin. "It was an emotional day when she left", and John didn't expect to see her again, though a few years later on visiting a friend in Dublin he decided to visit the zoo and was reunited briefly with his old friend.

"I recognized Num-Nums and called her name, she instantly rose and became very alert. She seemed to have lost her visual memory of me, but when I called again there was no doubt that she remembered my voice and became very excited, perhaps hoping I had come to take her home."

Drysdale spoke to the zoo keeper and told him the tale, but the man thought he must be mad and would not consider letting him in the pen. "It was sad to part again and not be able to make contact, and very upsetting to see her ‘in the wrong place'", says Drysdale, but he was grateful that she was at least alive and in good health. I guess I would not have been allowed into the pen for health and safety regulations he explained.

During a period of his life in England, he was invited to study at the Guilford College of Art and after completing his studies, he remembers hearing by chance of a job with Vogue Studios working as an assistant. Vogue Studios at that time had such names as Norman Parkinson and Cecil Beaton working for them.  "I can remember deciding to wear a suit for the interview when others perhaps never bothered - that may have been the reason I was given the job. I can remember how great it was to have all this equipment to use and it was great to be able to use as much film as we liked. In those days it was Ektachrome 6 or 8 he recalls. He also spoke of great admiration for Norman Parkinson's ability to conjure up something out of nothing and produce results from a job no matter what went wrong. "I can remember Norman directing various cars to put their headlamps on to illuminate a scene after some of our lighting had failed".  In 1953, John Drysdale also assisted Cecil Beaton in photographing the Royal Family in Buckingham Palace after Queen Elizabeth's coronation and remembers the task of having some of the younger royals put back into position frequently after scurrying away from their group photographs.  Often during lulls in the work assignments John's assignments were in photographing street scenes of London often with children characterising everyday life.  Their soon became a demand for more such pictures and the pile of "classics" grew and grew.  His background in Africa and closeness to animals of ever different kind undoubtedly was an influence on his ability to create something magical out of various scenes involving many pets and animals featured in his classic book "Our Peaceable Kingdom."  "Unlike people and model shoots, animals give you very little time, so you have to be especially quick" he explains.  "Often you have to work with some of the special traits that the animals have, and think of strategies, with an element of luck also needed from time to time."

John's still exhibits on occasions and this is a "a must go an see" in my book, whenever his work is next on display.  I have too many favourite images to mention but would highlight such classics as "Soda Sippers, Special Delivery, Three Ostriches, There There, Big Man-Little Man and Washerwomen" as some of my all time favourites. Much of his time is now spent with his family, though is still taking the odd image here and there and spends some of his spare time, scanning and adding to the collection.  More of John's work can be seen either in his book as mentioned above or on his dedicated website His work can also be seen in the publication "My Love Unleashed: A Dog's Gift of Comfort & Cheer"

John it was an absolute pleasure talking to you and one special moment in my own journey as a pet photographer and as to someone that knows only too well how difficult animal photography can be on occasions.  Your imagery is timeless and I hope every photographer with aspirations in taking pet imagery sees your masterpieces at some point or another.

Thank you,  Paul Walker


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