The first cat Cyrus photographed was Dr. Neil Coconut. Nurse Lily, the other cat, hid behind furniture for the shoot, too scared to come out. Not that you can blame Nurse Lily. That Cyrus is a dog with the ability to take photos doesn't erase a whole history of bad blood between felines and canines.
Local photographer Athena Lonsdale, Cyrus' owner, noticed that a few years after teaching Cyrus to take photos, the dog showed interest in turning his lens toward cats. She took him to a friend who owns two cats, set up the camera in the backyard and simply hoped all hell didn't break loose.
"I was totally the nervous [camera] assistant worried that the photographer was going to blow it," she says. "It was my connection he was using so I felt like my reputation was on the line. I thought, 'Please don't eat the kitty.' I mean, imagine: Just when he's photographing the cat and you think it's safe, he turns on the model."
To his credit, Cyrus, who had a history of chasing cats, seemed more focused on the camera and everyone walked away unruffled.
Lonsdale never intended to teach Cyrus photography. As a smart Australian shepherd and Red Merle mix, he knew enough ordinary dog tricks. But in 2002, while taking a summer intensive at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP), Lonsdale encountered an aspiring pet photographer. He asked Lonsdale if she could teach Cyrus, then 6 years old, to pose with the camera. In two weeks, she had Cyrus trained to put his paw to the shutter button. They set up the photo shoot in front of Bernice's Bakery with the RMSP student reading a newspaper and Cyrus pretending to take his picture. It became another trick, one that Lonsdale had Cyrus do at a RMSP graduation talent show and on other occasions.
"He would take pictures but there was no film in the camera. So I started putting film in and then developing it after he was done," she says.
Since then, Cyrus has shown photos at the Catalyst and Dauphine's, and the American Kennel Club featured him in an article. One of his photos showed at the Missoula Art Museum's (MAM) 2008 art auction. He's on Facebook and Lonsdale writes a blog for him called Wet Stinky Dog (wetstinkydog.com).
In September, Lonsdale lost Cyrus to cancer. She'd spent a year preparing for a joint exhibit at the RMSP Gallery, pairing her digital photos with Cyrus' grittier shots. The exhibit, titled A Dog and His Girl, opens on a bittersweet note—without Cyrus but as a tribute to the relationship between her and her best friend. Though the exhibit doesn't include Cyrus' memorable cat images, it does include his final photo at Water Works Hill.
Lonsdale has an obvious sense of humor about Cyrus, but she doesn't crack a smile when she calls herself his photography assistant. To some, it might seem over-the-top. Clearly, Cyrus' photo career was her idea in the first place. She's the one who selects his equipment, develops the film and mounts the photos. But to her, the process isn't any different than with a professional photographer.
"A professional photographer has three assistants or more working on lighting, loading the film, setting up the camera on the tripod," she says. "That's been our relationship, too."
Whether photography translated as art to Cyrus, no matter how smart, is probably up for debate. But think of it this way: The act of taking photos became for Cyrus, says Lonsdale, like playing catch becomes for bird dogs—an obsession. On walks, Cyrus would take in the scenery and then pick a spot, stop and wait patiently for Lonsdale to set up the tripod. Once the camera sat at his level, he'd hit the shutter button, sometimes having to take several tries before it clicked. And his subjects prove to be the obvious inspiration of a dog: other dogs barking through fences, dogs walking in the park and, of course, cats.
Lonsdale uses digital tools for her photos. Cyrus used point-and-click plastic cameras from thrift stores–the kind of cameras subscribers used to get for free from Lifetime magazine. More recently, he'd used a colorful kids' camera with a much larger, more manageable yellow shutter button.
"He uses only film cameras with aged film and his work ends up being as is, with all the scratches and deformities of the plastic cameras that he uses," she says. "Our work is so different that it was kind of hard for me to think about how we might have a show together, and then I realized that we have a common theme. We've photographed at a lot of the same places and the same subject matter."
When Cyrus died, Lonsdale still had unfinished work to do for the exhibit. For instance, Cyrus had taken a photo of a dog, Bear, who lived on their street, so Lonsdale took a photo of a girl driving past their house to match the location. She misses Cyrus, who she had for all of his 13 years. But making posthumous projects out of his work has kept her busy. She's trying to snare a publisher for a coffee table book. She continues to pay tribute to him on the Wet Stinky Dog website. But Lonsdale remains open to the idea that someday she might get another dog that will also take pictures she can exhibit.
"I would need at least two dogs to make up for him," she says. "But I've definitely thought about it. It was fun with Cyrus so, why not? Maybe the next dog will be interested in digital photography."
A Dog and His Girl opens at the RMSP Gallery Friday, Dec. 4, with a reception from 5 PM to 8 PM. Free.