Nowadays it takes a lot to make us stop mid-scroll to take something in for more than a mere second. Which is why a dog by the name of Beavis deserves a little credit. It was that four-legged cutie that made me come to a halt and dive deeper into the photography of Lesley Villarreal. Her work with Marfa Pet Pawtraits is still new, but rest assured – she’s been working with a camera in hand for a long time now, and it shows. We talked about where she got her start, where in the world Marfa actually is, and where she’s heading next as her work is always evolving with each passing day.
Kendra: Photography seemed to get a second wind in the early ’00s thanks to digital cameras. What about that new technology at the time grabbed hold of your attention?
Lesley Villarreal: I got into photography in the early 2000s. I loved the idea of digital cameras. At the time I was traveling a lot on a motorcycle and the thought of being able to have a camera that stores all its photos inside of it and not having to carry around rolls of film sounded amazing. I am all for technology and embraced digital cameras wholeheartedly.
Kendra: Speaking of, digital cameras then compared to the ones now…we’ve come a long way in a short time. In the end, the tech can only do so much. You have to also have an eye. How do you feel your own skills have evolved since picking up your first digital camera back then?
Lesley Villarreal: When I look back at my work from when I started out it’s just awful. I don’t think it mattered what type of camera I was using at the time, I just didn’t know what I was doing. It takes a lot of trial and error. I am still learning. The day I know everything about photography is the day I will stop shooting, and I don’t ever see that happening.
Kendra: When you first got into photography it was mostly human based. Then last year you launched Marfa Pet Pawtraits and let me tell you, it’s amazing. I love the studio shots which we’ll get to in a second. Was Pet Pawtraits just a way to marry your love of animals and photography? Another evolution to your skillset?
Lesley Villarreal: Marfa Pet Pawtraits started as a photo project. Last February I decided I wanted to take portraits of people’s pets that live here in Marfa. Almost everyone that moves to Marfa ends up adopting a stray or two at some point.
I had the idea of taking portraits of pets as if they were getting their school photo taken. I called the photo project “Marfa Class of 2018” I photographed over 50 dogs…and two cats in a few weeks. It was the best few weeks ever. It was so much fun. I went home every day smiling. Being surrounded by dogs all day, getting licked and jumped on and loved by furry faces was awesome. I realized once I started that project that I didn’t want to stop doing it, so Marfa Pet Pawtraits was born.
Kendra: Again, the studio pet shots are so good! In many ways, they remind of paintings. Was that the look that came about naturally, the beautiful blue backdrops and lighting, or was there some trial and error?
Lesley Villarreal: First of all thank you for your kind words! When I started the photo project I wanted to take portraits of pets in a fun cheesy way. In this world of social networking where everyone has a camera available at all times, I feel like nobody does the Olan Mills type studio portraits anymore. People don’t actually print out their photographs. We carry everything on our phone. I wanted to bring that experience to pet owners and encourage people to actually print out their photographs and frame them instead of keeping them on some cloud somewhere.
There was definitely some trial and error at first. I experimented a lot with lighting and different backdrops. I practiced on my own animals in the beginning. They have a mind of their own and trying to get them to sit in front of lights in a photo studio took some time to figure out. There is a lot that goes into it. I almost always have an assistant so we can distract them with treats and noises. The behind the scenes of these shoots are pretty funny. Not all dogs corporate so sometimes it’s just pure luck getting the shot.
Kendra: Really quick, who is Beavis (the site’s featured photo) and can you tell that pup he’s got a huge fan out in California?
Lesley Villarreal: Beavis was one of the first few dogs I photographed when I started the photo project. He lived in Marfa at the time with his Mom. I am pretty sure that Beavis is my spirit animal. He has a lot of fans!
Kendra: Again, you are a huge animal lover and also an advocate for animal rescue. Do you work with any organizations you’d like to shout out?
Lesley Villarreal: My husband and I are both animal lovers and big advocates of animal rescue. We have four cats and two dogs. We just lost our oldest who was a senior dog rescue. We rescued him when he was eight-years-old and he lived to be 17.
I do have another project in the works that will advocate rescuing pets from shelters. There are two shelters in the area that I live in. Grand Companions in Fort Davis, Texas and Alpine Humane Society in Alpine, Texas. There is also a non-profit based that provides free spay and neuter options and community education programs here in Marfa.
Kendra: Marfa isn’t a place I’d heard of (and my dad’s a Texas man), but the shots you have of engagements and whatnot make me want to head there for a visit. Is this where you’re originally from or were you drawn to the natural beauty of it?
Lesley Villarreal: I am not originally from Marfa but my husband was born and raised here. In fact, I had never been to Texas until I met him. The open landscape and light out here are breathtaking. I fell in love with this town and the people the first time I stepped foot in it over 10 years ago. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Kendra: Pet Pawtraits launched last year, but what’s going on with you this year? Let the people know what you have going on.
Lesley Villarreal: There are a lot of changes happening in my photo career this year. I am retiring from wedding photography. I am shooting my last wedding in September. I opened a gallery/studio last October called Photo Marfa where I show a lot of my landscape work of West Texas. This is also where I do the pet portraits. So I am really concentrating on the gallery right now and getting Marfa Pet Pawtraits out there a bit more.