WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. — Tula is a dog photographer, literally. She is a brown mutt, and she takes pictures.
Her photos have gained quite a following, with more than 6,000 people now tracking the 50-pound canine’s work on Instagram.
It’s not that she’s exceptionally dexterous with her paws. There is no manual clicking of shutter buttons involved. Tula unknowingly captures her images (like the one above) with the GoPro camera that her owner, dog lover and White Bear Lake resident, Susie Kixmoeller, straps to her chest.
The 17-year-old and Tula have been traveling to dog parks across the Twin Cities since January, documenting dogs sniffing and swimming, running and playing, and doing all sorts of other dog things.
Without a human involved in the equation, Tula snaps shots from the perspective that only a dog can, say Susie and her mom, Kim Otness.
“It’s not an original thought, putting GoPros on dogs,” Otness said. “They actually have harnesses just for that reason … but no one else seems to be using them in exactly this way.”
“They take amazing photos … shots Susie could never take herself,” Otness continued.
Kixmoeller and Tula’s story has been picked up by media outlets as far away as London.
Even national gossip magazine In Touch ran a blurb about the “fur-tographer.” The family is considering turning the gallery of images they’ve captured through the endeavor into a book. It’s also exploring ways to use the pictures to help local dog-rescue shelters.
“It’s just been so surprising that people from all over the world are interested in what I am doing with my dog in Minnesota,” Kixmoeller said. “The response has really just been huge and way bigger than I expected.”
Susie Kixmoeller, 17, and her dog, Tula. The pictures Tula takes with a GoPro camera strapped to her chest have started to gain quite a following, with over 6,000 people now tracking the 50-pound canine’s work on Instagram. Photo courtesy of Susie Kixmoeller.
Here’s how it started. Kixmoeller, who’s been interested in photography since about age 7, started accompanying her parents and Tula to area dog parks about a year ago. Fascinated by the interaction between the motley crew of dogs who showed up at the parks, Kixmoeller started to try and document their dynamics with her camera.
She soon found she was getting in the way.
“I’d try to take pictures of the dogs playing with each other but as soon as I got close, they would stop in their tracks. … They stopped being interested in each other and started being interested in me,” Kixmoeller said. “They’re like, ‘Who is this person coming over …’ I couldn’t get what I really wanted.”
Enter the GoPro. Hooked via harness to Tula’s chest, Kixmoeller said her pup doesn’t even notice she’s wearing a camera when she’s on a “shoot.” To an unsuspecting observer, it just looks like a little extra baggage on her collar.
The camera is set to go off every half-second, producing about 7,000 pictures in a typical visit to the dog park. As is to be expected, many of the pictures are of the ground, trees, yellow snow in the winter and other dogs’ backsides.
“But there are also just amazing pictures of Tula playing with other dogs, (capturing) stuff going on you would never see from just watching them,” Kixmoeller said. “The expressions in their eyes and their body language when they play together… You can’t really see it when they’re moving at full speed, but because this is half-speed, it captures really interesting moments.”
Moments like the underside of an airborne golden retriever flying toward Tula, or a black-and-white pooch midsplash as it fetches a stick in a river. Several images show the dogs playing, bounding at each other or wrestling. All are action shots, obviously captured low to the ground, at eye-level with Tula’s playmates.
Kixmoeller spends about a half-hour a day combing through the footage and picking one that “shows a new side of dogs” to add to her Instagram page and Facebook account. The busy Blake School 11th-grader doesn’t always accompany her parents and Tula to the dog park.
When she first started posting to the social media sites, Otness said she and her husband, Ken Kixmoeller, had to ask family friends to start following her, just to make it seem like she had an audience. But when her older sister posted something about it to the news site Buzzfeed, it took off.
“Now we get comments from people all the time saying ‘I look forward to seeing Tula’s photos. … Please keep it going because it’s the happiest moment of my day,’ ” Otness said of the followers Tula has amassed. “They are just pictures of dogs but they really seem to be hitting a chord with people.”
The family often shares special images Tula captures of other dogs at the park with their owners.
Cate Marshall has received several shots of her pitbull mix, Ivan, taken at Otter Lake dog park in White Bear Township.
“They are phenomenal,” Marshall said. “I mean, I take pictures of him at home, but to see him in action like this is pretty cool. … They are something I could never get of him.”
There are likely plenty more photos where that came from. Kixmoeller, who often visits Otter Lake with Tula, said she has no plans of stopping the project anytime soon.
And she’s unfazed by the added attention.
“The spotlight is really on Tula. She’s the photographer,” she said.
Horner writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.
Pictured above: This picture was taken by the dog Tula, who wears a GoPro camera attached to a harness while she runs and plays at a dog park.