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Lisa Johnson: Capturing canines heart and soul

Photographer Lisa Johnson bundled up in layers of winter gear to shoot mushers and canine athletes at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race. 1 / 2
Denis Tremblay of Quebec’s team leaving the starting line of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race. Photo by Lisa Johnson2 / 2

Photographer Lisa Johnson said she bound off the end of her “knitted-it-all-through-January-uber-long scarf” just before heading out to shoot the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race in subzero temperatures and punishing winds.

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Armed with her camera equipment and warmed by a hot cup of coffee and her love of dogs, the owner of Pupparazzi-Companion Animal Photography set out to capture the unique personalities of her canine subjects.

“One of the things that is so humbling, whether you’re watching the Beargrease or a sheepdog trial or even an obedience class, is the way dogs look at their people with their whole hearts in their eyes. It chokes me up,” she said. “They hold nothing back; all they want to do is understand what we want and do it, and that devotion is right there for us to see.”

In addition to her photography business, Johnson has been a broadcast journalist for well over three decades and the host of KUMD’s Northland Morning program since it began in 1991. Born in Rochester, Minn., she settled in Duluth after spending the early part of her career as a news reporter and anchor. Over the years she has taken her affection for her four-footed companions into her adopted community.

“ I would take my special-needs dogs – Helen (who was) blind, Rosalie (who was) crippled from 11 years in a puppy mill, and Johnny, a miniature poodle with genetic dwarfism…to schools, nursing homes, and Arrowhead Juvenile Center,” she said. The program, part of Animal Allies Humane Education, was designed to show audiences that “you don’t have to be perfect to be loveable.” Both Helen and Rosalie have passed away, but Johnson said that Johnny and his brother Joe are being prepared to take their show on the road.

“(They’re) undergoing Canine Good Citizenship training with the awesome Shannon Williams of Two Harbors at Twin Ports Dog Training… I hope we can eventually be certified through Pet Partners,” Johnson said. Pet Partners provides a variety of resources to help people live better with the aid of therapy, service and companion animals.

Johnson’s interest in photography began in the 80s and she has developed a network of likewise- talented friends who advise and inspire her work, including avian photographer Laura Erickson and Duluth News-Tribune photographer, Bob King. This year she had a series of four photographs in the Duluth Art Institute Membership show and several of her photographs have been published in the Lake County News-Chronicle. The novelty of the craft hasn’t worn thin; in fact, she said that photography is a medium that allows her to hold a visual conversation with viewers.

“I have always been one of those people who processes things through discussion. I can, and do go to plays and movies and events by myself, but I prefer to do things when I can process them through sharing them and talking about them with someone else,” she explained, “so when I take pictures, I think I’m trying to tell a story - or a little bit of a story - with the photograph.”

Johnson said that shooting fast-paced events like the Beargrease don’t always result in the capture of that perfect image, but sometimes she manages to catch lightening in a bottle – a particular thrill for a photographer.

“(I)t’s almost like Christmas when you come home and pop the memory card into the computer and see what you got. I love that little kick in the gut you get when you click on a photo and open it up and it’s better than you thought it would be,” she said. Photographing pets, however, allows for a more intimate approach and results that she hopes will honor the relationship between humans and their furry family members.

“When I photograph their dogs for people, I want to capture their dog’s personality, in addition to getting a “pretty” or “nice” picture. I especially like photographing senior dogs; there is so much in their eyes. And I know their folks will be happy to have those photos when their friends are gone,” she said.

In between pet photography gigs, look for Johnson in the woods, on the trail and in communities throughout the region – coffee in hand, camera around her neck along with her extra-long wooly muffler.

“If there are dogs somewhere, chances are I am lurking around snapping their pictures!”