Austin-based photographer Randal Ford started the sessions for his latest portrait collection as he always does. He spent a few minutes getting to know his subjects, made sure they were comfortable, and ensured that there were snacks on hand: some marshmallows, a pawful of nuts, maybe a raw chicken carcass.
The focus of Ford’s most recent body of work, after all, wasn’t on humans. For The Animal Kingdom: A Collection of Portraits (Rizzoli), the photographer—who has shot more than twenty covers for Texas Monthly—created portraits of over a hundred different beasts and critters, from horny toads to Longhorns. But these aren’t typical National Geographic–style images. “I wanted to use my lighting in studio to create a certain polish and beautiful aesthetic that you can’t do when photographing an animal in the wild,” Ford says. The resulting likenesses are vivid and strikingly personal, as if the animals are introducing themselves.
A decade ago, Ford found himself taking photos of cows in studio for the magazine Dairy Today. “These pictures really became portraits of the cows, showing their personality and coming to life, in a way,” he says. “I figured that if I could show the personality of a cow, I could also do it with other animals.” Then, in 2014, Ford photographed some dogs and cats for an advertising campaign.
Soon after, Ford decided to go for what he referred to as the “Wizard of Oz trifecta,” and an animal trainer in L.A. introduced him to a lion, a tiger, and a bear. “The experience of standing four feet in front of a big cat is truly tangible,” says Ford. “You could feel their power and their magnificence and their grace. It was just unbelievable.”
He had caught the bug. Over the next four years, Ford traveled across the country, gradually ticking off animals from his dream shot list. There was Yohan, a cheetah who lives at a wildlife sanctuary outside Dunlap, California; Walter, a great horned owl and a resident of Auburn University’s Southeastern Raptor Center; and Perry, a two-toed sloth who hangs with his owner in Mineola, Texas. Sadly, a polar bear and a roadrunner were out of reach.
The project led him to a community of primate handlers, an armadillo racer, and folks devoted to unusual creatures. Often, Ford’s growing network of animal lovers would help him track down an elusive subject: the owner of a Longhorn knew someone with a white buffalo; a dog trainer led him to a black goat. Sometimes, those cross-species introductions happened under the same roof. “A lady in North Texas had rescued a baby skunk and removed the skunk glands,” he says. “All of a sudden, she had a pet skunk in addition to her pet squirrel.” (According to Ford, Bandit the skunk and Merle the squirrel get along just fine.)