A show in the works for a year, and featuring images from one of the world's greatest dog photographers, opens Friday at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography Gallery, but the artist won't ever see it.

He died Sept. 13, at the age of 13.

When we say "dog photographer," we mean it. Cyrus was an Australian shepherd who took pictures.

"One of the world's greatest," we're just guessing. We figure there just aren't that many dogs on the planet who are also professional photographers.

Cyrus was, and he and his owner, Athena Lonsdale - she, too, a professional photographer - are teaming up for the first time for a show in "A Dog and His Girl."

Cyrus' photography career began, oddly enough, on the other side of the camera, as a model.

Lonsdale was a student at RMSP several years ago when a classmate came to her with a request. He was going into pet photography, and wanted his business cards to include a picture of a dog taking a picture of him. Could Lonsdale and Cyrus help him out?

Lonsdale taped a cheap Instamatic to a short tripod, stocked up on treats and taught Cyrus to swing his paw at the top of the camera. It wasn't too difficult - the motion is essentially the same as you'd see if you taught a dog to "shake a paw."

It's just that Cyrus was taught it to the command, "Take a picture."

He never actually did back then. There was never any film in the camera.

But Cyrus was showing off his new trick at a party at Lonsdale's one night when a guest suggested she put a roll of film in it and see what happened.

What developed was a photography career.

Cyrus' prints have fetched, pardon the pun, up to $350, and he was even commissioned by people to take their portraits.

Whether working in the field or studio, however, Cyrus' shoots were always an adventure. He was an artist who was easily distracted by cats or odors. Told by Lonsdale to "take a picture," nine out of 10 times he'd either miss the button, or knock over his camera.

Even when the paw connected, it usually jiggled the camera as the shutter snapped, producing a blurry image. Because he could be rough on his equipment, Cyrus went through several cameras a year, so they were all cheap ones, often bought for under a buck at thrift stores. Sometimes the film didn't advance correctly, resulting in overlapping exposures.

"I like to tell people he was inspired by Elizabeth Sloan," a California photographer whose work also features blurry images and overlapping exposures, Lonsdale told the Missoulian five years ago, in advance of Cyrus' first gallery show.

Back then, Cyrus was infatuated with cats, and the sight of one would bring any photography shoot to a quick halt. The artist didn't chase cats or bark at them, but instead would park his rear on the ground and stare intently at them, his whole body quivering.

Over time, though, cats became one of his favorite photography subjects, along with other dogs, people and - go figure - fire hydrants. Lonsdale always selected the subjects, of course, and pointed the tripod-held camera in the right direction - "I was his assistant," she explains - but no image was ever captured until Cyrus' paw successfully landed on the button, and art was born.

Despite working closely together for several years, Lonsdale and Cyrus have distinctly different styles, which posed a problem for collaborating on a show. You can see the contrast at the photographers' separate Web sites, www.athenaphotography.com (Lonsdale's) and www.wetstinkydog.com (Cyrus').

"He used film and 69-cent cameras, and his pictures are gritty, scratchy, nostalgic," Lonsdale says. "I'm working with $1,000 cameras, do lots of work in Photoshop and my photographs have more contrast, are a more commercial type of work. The question became, how do you put the two together?"

The answer came after Lonsdale printed out all of Cyrus' work and discovered that, at different times, sometimes years apart, they'd both shot the same subjects or in the same location.

"The common thread became the location, or subject matter," she says. "He's taken pictures at Greenough Park, I've taken pictures at Greenough Park. He shot a portrait of Kerri Rosenstein, a friend who's an artist here in Missoula, and I've shot Kerri. I've taken Cyrus to the airport to shoot pictures, and I've shot pictures there."

That became the theme for "A Dog and His Girl," which will feature 54 photographs, about half of them Lonsdale's, and half Cyrus' work.

"Sometimes I have five of his and one of mine, and sometimes there's one of his and five of mine, but the total is about even," she says.

The show includes the last photograph Cyrus ever took, at the Waterworks trailhead, three weeks before he died from cancer.

Lonsdale says she can never replace Cyrus, but she does hope to get another Australian shepherd this spring.

"I might need two to make up for him," she says. "I had such good times with Cyrus. When I posted that he'd died on Facebook and on my blog, it was overwhelming the amount of comments I received. It was like he had a bunch of fans."

Now, his fans get one last show.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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