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From a Viral Series to a Book Series: How Carli Davidson gave her “Shake” portraits longevity

Posted by on March 22, 2016 | Photographer Interviews

by Taryn Swadba

Photographer Carli Davidson was reaching for a towel to clean her dog Norbert’s drool off of her wallpaper when she was struck with an idea that would eventually become a wildly successful viral series. “I thought, I bet it would be pretty amazing to see what my dog’s jowly, drool-filled face would look like in a photo,” Davidson explains in a recent interview with PDNedu.

Carli Davidson Pet Photography

Photo © Carli Davidson

Davidson began assisting for editorial photographers at age 17 in 1998. A few years later, she attended school at The Evergreen State College in Oregon, and she also took a job at the Oregon Zoo, where she cared for and trained animals, in addition to teaching conservation education classes.

In 2009, a car accident forced her to leave her labor-intensive job at the Oregon Zoo. It was during this time that she began taking animal portraits, and that the idea for what would ultimately become her viral series, “Shake,” began to bloom.

Featuring adorable canines mid-head-shake, the images in the series offer viewers a detailed look at a moment that usually passes in the blink of an eye: a freeze-frame of a dog in all of its spit-flying, jowl-flapping glory. “Shake” initially went viral in 2011, shortly after it was named a winner in the animal category in the PDN Faces photography competition, and after The Daily Beast ran some of the images. From there, The Huffington Post ran a piece; then requests started pouring in. “I had one day where my website got a quarter of a million hits,” Davidson says. And it was this influx of attention that made going viral a “full-time job.” She explains: “I did interviews almost every day, and put together press packs and contracts. Everyone that I shared the work with would have to have my name on or below the images, links to my website and agree to image usage for just the one article.” Davidson believes that these parameters are what kept her images from being another flash in the pan, and instead gave her name lasting visibility. “It built a brand, and a business,” she says.

Carli Davidson Pet Photography

Lil Bub! Photo © Carli Davidson

After the series went viral, Davidson worked with her agent to negotiate a contract with HarperCollins to turn “Shake” into a book, which was published in 2013. Having an agent, she says, was “invaluable” for getting her work on the radar of editors and negotiating her rights as an author. Since her first Shake book, featuring all dogs, Davidson has also published Shake Puppies in 2014 and Shake Cats in 2015. Currently working on books with Chronicle Books and HarperCollins, Davidson notes both publishers have been “really amazing to work with.”

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While there are currently no plans for another installation of “Shake,” Davidson says that she never knows what she might be inspired by in the future. Whatever she sets her sights on, she’ll commit to it fully. “I’ve never really seen anyone succeed in photography as a career without being totally immersed in both the medium and whatever subject you are shooting,” she says, “and I’m no exception.” 


Davidson has spent close to a decade working with animals—here’s how she gets them to shake:

+ Become familiar with the animal’s  general behavior. “For new animal photographers I recommend walking animals at a local shelter to build this skill set.”

+ Let the animal come to you. “If you run up to a shy animal and scare them, you might not be able to recover that relationship at all.”

Get your subject used to the lighting first. Davidson starts out with animals off set and offers treats after triggering the flash from a distance. Sometimes it takes up to an hour to get the animal comfortable.

+ Try the easiest method first. Davidson’s vet technician musses up the dog’s hair, blows on its face or plays with its ears to get them to shake. The last resort is an Epi-Optic ear cleaner, which usually does the trick. She notes to never use water in their ears, and suggests having a professional on set for the safety and comfort of the animals.