Animals should be a part of everyday life, even if they are just adorning your home.
At least that's how artist Val Shaff feels, and she tries every day to achieve that human-animal connectivity through her photography. Val has been an artist all her life and she specializes in photographing all kinds of animals. From cows to tigers to dogs, Val is an insightful expert who manages to capture the animal's essence through her photography.
But I get ahead of myself; to really get to know Val and her art, we must start at the beginning.
Val grew up in a family of artists. Her father was a textile designer and there was never a question of whether Val would be "allowed" to pursue art. She got her first camera at seven and loved photographing animals even at a young age, realizing that observing the natural world "was a window into something powerful."
She attended Bard College in New York state overlooking the Hudson River, an idyllic setting perfect for a budding natural-world photographer. Even though she was officially studying painting, she spent all her free time in the university's dark room but there wasn't a photography major available...yet. Luckily the program was established before Val graduated and she can proudly say she was part of the first graduating Bard College class in the photography major.
But her studies in painting and fine arts didn't go to waste. Instead, she found a way to combine her love of photography and painting by initially printing analog film on classic photographic paper made with actual silver.
While she doesn't use this medium anymore, Val still manages to give her photography a mythical feel with the use of sepia tones and her unique way of shooting animal subjects.
Her career path wasn't easy. After she graduated, she found that a photographer's life in the analog era was a tough one. She found herself adapting to what clients needed from her photography and she made headway in children's fashion photography. From the money she made in that industry she bought a beautiful country home in upstate New York and that's where her journey truly begins.
Val's 19th-century cottage is something out of a fairytale and it is there where she returned to her roots and the land; she began photographing the animals around her. Down the road was a dairy farm where they had Shetland ponies, flocks of geese, sows with piglets, and, of course, cows. She soon found her artistic calling and her ideal subjects.
Val loves photographing all animals but if she had to pick a favorite, it would be dogs. She told us her truth:
"I love dogs more than life itself. Sometimes I feel like I am one..."
She also loves taking photos of exotic animals and of course, farm animals. Really any animal that "in their presence make you feel like you're on an adventure," is special, she tells us.
But Val's photography is more than just pretty pictures of animals. She captures the true essence of the creature in their portraits and this comes from her background as a yoga practitioner and her fascination with shamanism. She accompanies each of her pieces with the shamanic description of the animal which adds to the overall mythical feel to her art.
Here is the description of the cow by Ted Andrews from "Animal Speak" that Val includes with her bovine photos.
The Cow is associated with motherhood and nurturing.
The Cow is very alert and intelligent. Lead cows have led herds from pasture to pasture to avoid droughts and danger. Cows work with a sixth sense about danger and opportunity. Those with Cows as guides will be strongly perceptive, and the Cow will appear to tell you to pay attention.
Cows have large eyes that see all. The stare may be hypnotic and will tear down one's walls to find the soul. The cow is a powerful totem and shows us how to nurture ourselves and honor others.
And doesn't that perfectly represent this piece of art and how the cow's energy might represent your life?
While photographing animals isn't always a walk in the park, Val sees a correlation on how much easier the animal is to work with when they have been treated well by humans.
"The more benevolent conditions the animal is kept in, the better it is to photograph. When animals are well regarded by their humans they lack fear and their natural curiosity makes them engaged and accessible subjects for portraiture."
She told us the only negative experiences she's had occurred while photographing animals that experienced trauma or abuse in the past. And this breaks her heart. She currently does commission work through word of mouth and travels to farms, shelters, and reserves where she knows the animals are treated with respect and have happy lives, even if their utility is for human consumption. Val doesn't eat meat, and is part of PETA, but she sees how these farmers love their animals and are with them every day.
She alludes to the owner of Kinderhook Farm, who told her she "loves the herd" and lives and breaths for taking care of her animals. And that has stuck with Val ever since. She appreciates when "people benefit from animals, and animals benefit from people."
Val has had a fascinating and decorated career. She has commissioned dog photo shoots for her dear friend Martha Stewart, and Sting (a fellow Jivamukti yogi); she shot the Purina calendar of celebrities' pets, and photographed a multitude of celebrity pets to raise money from the NYC Humane Society. She will never forget photographing Michelle Pfeiffer's sister's huge lizard...
At the end of the day, Val simply wants to provide a way, through her art, to put people in touch with the natural world, and in turn, themselves. Living with animal imagery in the home will provide that sense of connection and help "reconfirm our own values."
You can explore Val's art for yourself on her website: Val Shaff- Living with Animals. There, you can pick a piece that fits a particular room in your house and truly represents you and your animal energy. Val also makes smaller portrait pieces, and prints her art on pillows as an extra medium!
It was truly a pleasure talking with Val Shaff; her insightfulness and desire for connection is something all animal lovers can appreciate and practice in their everyday lives.
Tell us what you think of Val's art and her philosophies in the comments below.
All photos provided by Val Shaff in addition to her website
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