The Rural We: Val Shaff
Germantown, New York resident Val Shaff calls herself the “quintessential valley girl” — the Hudson Valley, that is. She grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson and went to Bard College before moving to New York City to start her career. Shaff specializes in photographing animals, capturing the “soul to soul” contact with every species from mouse to lion. She’s produced four books with humorist Roy Blount, Jr. (another RI-region resident), and has photographed animals for advertising accounts, fine art exhibitions and private commissions. Her compelling photographs are available at Hammertown stores as well as Canyon Ranch and online at her website. For Shaff, it’s all about connection with the animals. “Interspecies love is divine,” she says.
After college, I did whatever I could to make a living for quite a few years. I worked in the nightclub world, where I learned about shooting interiors, portraits and band pictures, and I did some projects in Italy. I fell into shooting children’s fashion, which gave me the income to buy my first house, in Greene County (New York). There I lived down the street from a classic, old-timey dairy farm. I started spending time photographing the animals, shooting with my Hasselblad and making large-format photos. I had so much fun doing it and got so into the zone, completely engrossed in watching the interaction of the animals. I started investigating other barns, too. At the time I was riding horses in the Rhinebeck area, and riders there wanted me to photograph their dogs. The dog portraits snowballed.
My collaboration with Roy Blount, Jr. happened because a literary agent had seen my portraits at the former Café Pongo in Tivoli. She wanted to publish them but needed the right writer to pair me with, and that was Roy. We did four books together, which Amazon picked as readers’ choice their first year in business. From that came a lot of work in advertising, celebrity work, book covers, even some photojournalism. I feel very blessed to have had a career in so many different worlds.
For me one thing has often lead to another. Jivamukti , the yoga school that I’d long been associated with asked me to photograph a celebrity cast of devoted animal lovers. I photographed Sting and Russell Simmons, Mike Dee, Donna Karan and others all with the same sweet chihuahua available for adoption. It’s such a pleasure to meet all kinds of fascinating people in a moment of authenticity driven by our mutual love of the subjects at hand.
What I share with my patrons and my subjects is an appreciative moment of species-to-species, open-hearted recognition. I believe that my work in its intimacy and monumentalization of all creatures brings warmth and some recollection of the normalcy of living with animals.