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Dog’s Best Friend : Veteran Photographer Puts Show Animals’ Best Paw Forward

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joan Ludwig knows not to perk up hunting dogs right before a photograph. Their ears should hang down in their show photos. Alerting them makes them look, well, wrong.

She does want the ears of German shepherds to be upright, but the thing with German shepherds is that their mouths should be open.

“A German shepherd just looks better with its mouth open,” she said.

During 50 years of photographing champion show dogs, Ludwig has shown champion dog trainers and breeders that she knows how each of the American Kennel Club’s 134 breeds should look.

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Her photos have run in virtually every dog magazine in the country, and a book of her photos from the 1930s to the 1950s will be published this fall.

“She’s sort of the grande dame of the business,” said Tom Powers, a breeder and public relations director of the Beverly Hills Kennel Club.

In fact, she has trained many among the new generation of dog photographers. “She’s very, very important to us,” said photographer Mike Mitchell of Santee, who said he thinks of Ludwig as the “grandmother of my career.”

Ludwig no longer dominates the field the way she did 20 years ago. But she still is so well known among local dog breeders and trainers that she is invited to every major dog show in Southern California and keeps her phone number unlisted. Word of mouth is enough to keep her schedule packed with appointments.

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Missy Yuhl of Sylmar, who worked for Ludwig before establishing her own name in dog photography, said Ludwig was a groundbreaker.

“She was very, very famous,” Yuhl said. “The idea of having a show without Joan was preposterous.”

Today, at 77, Ludwig continues to put in long hours at dog shows.

For a recent event at the Sports Arena, Ludwig arrived at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave until almost 8 p.m. Some shows, she said, last until 11 p.m.

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About five feet tall, slightly stooped and with short white hair, Ludwig wears comfortable sneakers to shows because she runs back and forth between show rings. At each ring, she quickly sizes up each champion, telling the trainer to move a leg forward or the tail up. Peering down into her black Hasselblad camera with Vivitar flash, she throws an old dog show catalogue into the air to direct the dog’s gaze just before taking each picture. A mere quarter of a second could make the difference between a dog looking “blah,” Ludwig says, and like a champion. When she can, she rests in the shade and smokes thin, brown Sherman’s cigarettes.

“I kind of think of her as Katharine Hepburn,” said Yuhl, “because she wore pants, and no one else wore pants. And because she’s independent.”

And Ludwig’s photos, many say, deliver it all--good color, a nice background and both human and dog looking their best. Ludwig even writes personal notes on the envelopes when she sends the photos.

“She captures something deeper than the physical appearance,” said Afton Blake, who has raised Salukis for about 30 years. “It’s the inner dog.”

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Other trainers and breeders agree.

“It’s called ‘an eye for a dog,’ ” said Lynn Brown, a breeder of schipperkes in Long Beach. Brown said she argues with Ludwig over whether her dogs should be photographed on a table or on the ground, and Ludwig always wins.

“She said to me: ‘These aren’t froufrou kinds of dogs. They should be on the ground,’ ” Brown recalled. Brown’s favorite photo is one taken by Ludwig two years ago at a dog show at Hollywood Park. The shot shows a judge and Brown smiling, a fountain in the background and the dog on the ground looking natural but alert.

Ludwig got her start in dog photography in 1938, when she showed her Dalmatian in a competition and took her own photos. Her friends saw the results and began asking her to take pictures of their dogs. Her hobby quickly became her profession.

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Polly Fleming, vice president of the Beverly Hills Kennel Club, remembers a 1954 back-yard photograph Ludwig took of one of her dachshunds. Ludwig thought the dog’s back looked a little low, so she jacked up the box the dog was standing on. The photograph was so good, Fleming said, that it was recently used as the frontispiece of a book on dachshunds.

“It’s such a good picture it stood up to the test of time,” she said.

Ludwig’s big break came when famous dog photographer Paul Ladin died in the late 1930s, just before a competition. Suddenly, Ludwig found herself with a contract from Kennel Review magazine to work the dog show. Her work there launched a five-decade career that has taken Ludwig to events around the world.

Ludwig interrupted her dog show career with a four-year hitch in the Navy during World War II, working as an assistant photo officer at a photography training school in Pensacola, Fla. After her Navy days, she plunged back into her work.

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She worked in black and white until the 1970s, when she switched to color. Her most famous photo dates from the mid-1970s and shows a komondor (a large dog with hair that hangs in cords) jumping over a hurdle. It was reprinted in dog gazettes, newspapers--including the National Enquirer--and dog books worldwide.

Ludwig now confines herself mostly to Southern California. After 50 years in the business, she admits the pace can be difficult.

“They’re tough,” Ludwig said of covering dog shows. “When you have six shows in 10 days, they are killers.”

But she cannot contemplate stopping. She said she stays in the business to keep fit and--whispering with the merest suggestion of a wink--"out of sheer madness.”

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