Say ‘Woof’

Photographer Winthrop Handy finds niche with dog portraiture

By Pamela H. Sacks

WORCESTER QUARTERLY

2006

A stunning silver Labrador retriever by the name of Maddox is about to have his portrait taken. This is not an undertaking a 6-month-old puppy would naturally embrace, what with the need to strike and hold a pose. Maddox, it happens, is excited about the entire adventure. For one thing, it means lots of attention and plenty of treats.

“Maddox, you need to calm down or there will be no picture,” warns his owner as she struggles to dress her pet in a red and green sweater and a jaunty red hat with a white pompom. It is late summer, but the holidays loom. Maddox, clearly, makes a fine subject for a cheery greeting card, which is why he is at the studio of West Boylston portrait photographer Winthrop Handy.

Winthrop Studios is in a Victorian-style house on South Main Street. It is a comfortable, welcoming place with upholstered furniture and framed photographs of people, often with their pets, decorating the walls. A scented candle gives off a pungent aroma while classical music plays softly in the background.

Handy and his wife, Anne, also reproduce fine art for painters using the giclee printing process through their company Winthrop Editions. They restore old photographs and frame art of all kinds. They own something of a compound. Their home is to one side of the Victorian; on the other side is White Dog Gallery, in which they host exhibitions.

On this day, Handy bustles around the photography studio, carefully arranging a white chair and a giant Christmas-style nutcracker against a curtain backdrop. Maddox’s owner holds out a cookie. He hops up on the chair. “Sit, sit,” she commands. The exuberant puppy immediately jumps down. Handy, who seems to have infinite patience and good humor, is unperturbed. “Cats are the toughest,” he remarks as he adjusts the lights. “The most we’ve done are five in one shot. But dogs, we’ve done up to 34.”

Handy is marking his 30th anniversary in the portrait photography business. He started working as a cartoonist at a weekly newspaper in 1970. The photographer didn’t show up one day. Handy was handed a camera. He watched as the film was processed and the images came up in the tray. “I was pretty much hooked,” he remembers. He set up his studio in 1976.

Handy started practicing his canine photography skills on his shepherd-huskie mix, Whitey. Then, about 27 years ago, he started photographing, free of charge, groups of dogs graduating from NEADS, the organization based in Princeton that trains service dogs.

“I was impressed with the level of training of the dogs and seeing the end result when a person is matched with a dog and the difference it can make in that person’s life,” Handy says.

He has snapped lighthearted pictures of the dedicated and disciplined dogs at Deluxe Diner in Watertown, on a chairlift at Wachusett Mountain and on the steps of the Old Stone Church at Wachusett Reservoir. He got 23 dogs to sit still on the elegant, red-carpeted stairs at Mechanics Hall in Worcester.

One year, a trainer managed to outfit the canine graduates in mortarboards. They posed on wooden boxes set up on the lawn behind the studio. “That got into National Geographic,” Handy says. His photos also have been published in the American Kennel Club Gazette, Animal Fair magazine and the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Actress Mia Farrow and her son Thaddeus

and his service dog have twice posed for Handy. The last time, Thaddeus had been selected to be the United Nations spokesman for the worldwide eradication of polio, the disease from which he suffered. The shot was for New Mobility magazine.

Back at the studio, Maddox is lured back up on the chair. Handy gives three sharp barks. Maddox cocks his head in that comical way common to curious young dogs. Click goes the camera. Mrs. Handy, a high-spirited, energetic woman, slips into the studio armed with rattles and squeakers. “It’s like photographing a 2- or 3-year-old, the worst age in the whole world,” she declares with a boisterous laugh. The Handys growl and emit a series of high-pitched cheers. “Sit, stay,” orders Maddox’s owner. Click, click, click. “We’re crazy here!” Mrs. Handy exclaims.

As he enters his fourth decade in the photography business, Handy is dedicating much of his time to dog portraiture, indoors or outdoors. He also takes cats indoors and horses outdoors in bucolic settings.

“I’m still doing people, but our strongest niche is dogs,” he says. “You’ve got to be fast. You’ve got to love animals.”