I'll admit that when I first decided to write about Shirley Isaacs, I was going to do one of those smart-aleck social commentaries about Orange County and its upside-down priorities.
Shirley Isaacs photographs pets. Only pets. And I was going to say that only in Orange County could you find people rich enough and screwed-up enough in their priorities to buy photographic portraits of their pets while the homeless are routed and the indigent sick have no place to go.
Well, the irony still applies, but it just shouldn't be laid at Isaacs' doorstep. Turns out that a lot of non-rich people get their pets photographed, too. And Isaacs is a real, genuine--and, in many ways, ingenuous--article who stands up fiercely for the pets she photographs. And, besides, she's from Indiana.
Isaacs does all her work in a studio that was once a garage adjacent to her house. She's a 68-year-old former schoolteacher who tends to deal with her photo subjects and their owners as if they were lovable but recalcitrant seventh-graders who forgot to do their homework. When I asked her what type of animals gives her the most trouble, Isaacs thought it over for a few seconds, then said, "The two-legged ones."
The four-legged ones--overwhelmingly dogs--she deals with better. The results are displayed all about her studio, dozens of portraits of dogs--small and large, fierce and gentle, surly and wistful, melancholy and happy--hung on her walls. And she remembers each one of them by name. She may not remember the owners, but she remembers the pets. She even has a voluminous catalogue of the birthdays of all the pets she has photographed, and she sends each one of them a birthday card.
Isaacs is not your run-of-the-mill society photographer. She got into the game late after giving up another career; then, what started almost as a hobby turned into a dead-in-earnest moneymaking career when a long marriage foundered three years ago. Today, she lives with her elderly mother and two dogs named Dolly and Mitzi in a tract home in a pleasant Tustin neighborhood.
Isaacs grew up in Plymouth, Ind.--about 40 miles from where I grew up--got a master's degree in social work and was a field director for the Girl Scouts until a spinal fusion forced her to turn to other work. She married, spent several years as a social worker, then began teaching at an elementary school in Mishawaka, Ind.
Isaacs continued teaching when she and her husband moved to Northridge in 1958. "I had gifted kids," she told me firmly, "and if they weren't gifted when I got them, I made them gifted. We read Shakespeare and Greek mythology in the fifth grade, and my kids once rewrote Macbeth and made a movie of it."
The Isaacs moved to Orange County several years later, and within two years, Isaacs had abruptly ended her teaching days. "The kids ran the school here," she told me. "There was no discipline. I taught math and literature, and the students knew nothing about either. It was the first time in my life I hated going to work. So I quit teaching."
She studied photography for four years, taking every class that Orange Coast College offered, plus a good deal of individual study with local professionals. She decided on pet photography when she took her own dog in to have a portrait made and it turned out so badly that she decided to learn how to do it for herself. And several years later, she did. Much better, she said, adding, "It was very difficult to get a decent picture of your dog."
Isaacs started slowly in her studio seven years ago, picking up business mostly by word of mouth. She developed techniques and set down requirements unique to her business. Each pet owner is asked to come in for a conference before the actual sitting is arranged. The conference may last up to an hour, but when it is over, all the ground rules have been established and the nature of the photographs discussed.
"Other studios," she said, "won't do what I do with pets--conference time up ahead and sometimes long photo sessions--whatever it takes. And then I always have to clean up afterward."
Men pet owners, she said, give her the most problems, often resisting the conference and shouting at their pets when they don't perform well at the sitting. That gets Isaacs on edge. She has a large sign on her desk saying, "Kindness spoken here," and she told me with her jaw set firmly that "child abuse is not allowed here. Besides, if the owners get mad, their pets will be cowed and I can't get a decent picture."
She described with a mixture of satisfaction and irritation a man who claimed that his dog was well-trained, then abused his pet verbally when it didn't behave until the dog was a nervous wreck. "He was finally screaming 'sit, sit' to the poor dog," Isaacs recalls, "until his diction slipped a little bit and the dog obeyed. I had quite a cleanup job that day."