Greg Murray's eyes light up when Norma Jean comes barreling through the front door of his Lakewood studio.
"Norma! How are you?" says Murray, his voice soft and elevated as if he's speaking to a small child. "It's great to meet you!"
Norma, a 65-pound brown-and-white American bulldog, looks up at him shyly, keeping her head low and ears pulled back. Her owner, Adrienne Schultz, holds tightly to the leash attached to Norma's bright pink collar. But the second Schultz lets go to help her 4-year-old son Warren climb onto the storefront window ledge, Norma jogs off. The muscular, 3-year-old pooch quickly passes Murray to investigate the backroom set up with lighting equipment and a white backdrop for today's photo shoot.
"Where are you going, Norma?" Murray asks, following close behind only to re-emerge seconds later with just her leash in hand. While Norma explores, Murray, bearded and wearing a purple Cleveland Animal Protective League hoodie, turns to Warren.
"What have you got there?" Murray asks Warren, who's playing a game on a small tablet in the window. "You got any good games?"
Warren looks at him and scrunches his face, unimpressed, before returning his attention to the screen.
"All right buddy," Murray says, laughing and hanging Norma's leash on the coatrack by the front door.
Norma returns from the backroom and starts scouring every inch of the studio, checking in on Warren near the window before poking her head under Murray's desk and sniffing around the room in circles. Murray sits patiently in the middle with his legs crossed, talking to Schultz and letting Norma warm up to him.
The photographer, who left a decade-long career in human resources, has developed a knack for capturing the gentle, playful expressions of animals with his fun and engaging images. Having photographed more than 120 dogs and cats over the last two years, Murray has garnered attention from BuzzFeed and USA Today. He has gained more than 5,000 followers on Instagram and doubled the size of his Lakewood studio to meet the growing demand of animal owners who want Murray to bring out the candid and animated side of their beloved pets.
Growing more curious about Murray, Norma pads closer to him. He reaches out with an open palm just long enough to pet Norma gently before she walks away. It doesn't take long before she finds a small gray bed in the corner, where Murray has strategically hidden two balls and a knotted chew bone. She nabs the bone and prances around with it, her lips pulled back in a smile. She begins to linger a little beside Murray, who gently reaches out his hand.
"Can I have that?" Murray asks, his head tipped forward excitedly.
Norma drops the bone and sits down.
"Can you shake?"
Norma looks at him, and then looks back at the bone.
"You gotta shake," says Murray, his pitch a little higher. "Can I pet you?"
Before his dog days, Murray built a career centered on people. Following in his father's footsteps, he worked in human resources for companies in Chicago and Atlanta before moving back to Cleveland in 2007.
In 2012, while living with his now-fiancee Kristen Perusek, he began working for a local nonprofit organization in hopes that the job would fulfill his desire to make a difference.
"I love volunteering, I love giving back to the community," says Murray. "I just generally love helping people."
The job, however, left him confined to a windowless office handling employee relations with a wide-range of responsibilities that included the hiring and firing of employees, implementing proper training policies and fielding interdepartmental complaints.
Within months, Murray's relationship with Perusek felt strained. He began rapidly losing weight due to stress on the job.
"He wasn't the type of person to just walk in the front door and let work go," says Perusek. "Work bothered him 24 hours a day."
But their shared love for animals kept the two connected. They frequently visited the Cleveland APL to play with dogs up for adoption. It's how they met Leo, a German shepherd greyhound mix — the last of a surrendered litter of five who hadn't yet found a home. When they requested a private room to play with the pup, he was spritely, affectionate and quick to lay in Perusek's lap.
The couple adopted Leo in September 2012. "Leo is very in tune to people's feelings," says Perusek. "He looks deeply into your eyes and just makes this connection with you like no other dog I've ever interacted with has done."
But the first month proved challenging. When they left Leo in his crate while the two were at work, he'd go to great lengths to break himself out.
When they came home to find Leo covered in blood blisters after squeezing through the cage's metal bars, they sought help from dog trainer Scott Purdum, owner of Evolution Canine.
Purdum showed them ways to calm Leo's anxiety. When crate-training proved impossible, they let Leo roam free while they were at work. They removed breakable objects from the main living room of their Tremont home and closed the bedroom doors on their way out.
"He became the entire focus of our lives," says Perusek.
Leo was a welcome distraction for Murray whose interest in human resources continued to decline.
"I was sick of firing people," says Murray. "I was sick of disappointing people."
So he turned to the digital single-lens reflex camera that he bought in 2010 to explore photography as a hobby, refocusing it from Cleveland landmarks such as the Guardians of Traffic and the West Side Market to a new subject: Leo.
He started with photos of Leo around the house, the pup shooting an inquisitive side-eye toward the camera while resting his head on the arm of the couch, and then in the Rocky River Metropark Reservation, where Leo liked to run — his ears lopsided on a head too big for his puppy bod. The experience connected the two and tapped into something that Murray was missing.
"It's no different than a parent with kids," he says. "It was an outlet, and it made me happy when I otherwise wasn't."
Still, making a career out of this newly discovered passion wasn't something Murray considered seriously until Purdum asked them to adopt a second dog in 2013. Purdum had been searching for another dog to help with group training exercises at Evolution Canine when he answered a Craigslist ad listing a dog for sale. When he arrived at the Akron residence, he found Bailey, a 1-year-old Italian mastiff who was severely underweight, unfit for training but in need of rescue.
The couple took her in. Immediately, Leo and Bailey bonded. The two balanced each other: as Bailey became more social, Leo grew less aggressive. They shared the same couch cushions, propped against each other head-to-head and prodded each other with toys as they romped around the house. As Bailey's health improved, Murray's own inspiration began to take shape. He started taking candid photos of the two dogs playing in Lincoln Park and while out on family gatherings at the Loop and Civilization in Tremont.
"There's something about the eyes and face of a rescue dog that just tugs at your heart and pulls you in," says Murray. "When you can capture a dog's eyes, I think it humanizes them a bit, because it's a living thing and it has feelings."
Working with Leo and Bailey taught Murray how to be patient with animals. He began to experiment with techniques such as using chew bones to get them to focus on the camera and sit still. One afternoon, he gave Bailey peanut butter, which resulted in one of his most popular photos — her eyes skyward, mouth open as if smiling, her tongue lolling out of her mouth and covering her lips in drool.
"Give them a little peanut butter and you have one to two minutes of hilarious funny faces," says Murray. "The more tongue and the more drool, the better."
When Murray was laid off from his human resources position in April 2014, he decided it was time to switch focus. He started uploading photos to Instagram and began reaching out to pet-friendly acquaintances to see if they would let him capture their animals on film. In May, he photographed Purdum's English bulldog, Dutch, on East Fourth Street, which resulted in his most iconic shot.
As Dutch sat on the cobblestoned walkway outside of CLE Clothing Co., a crowd of 20 people gathered to watch. When Murray laid on the ground to get a shot, Dutch followed suit. He rolled onto his back, mushed his pudgy little black-and-white face into the concrete while looking back at the camera with his paws up.
"Some dogs are like people," says Murray. "If you have a good eye, you can capture those more meaningful moments."
It shows in photos of 6-month-old Sampson sharing a cracker with a 3-month-old Australian cattle dog mix named Delilah while Kermit, a 12-year-old rottweiler, stands nearby.
"He really captured everyone true to who they were, whether they be dog or baby," says Maureen Murphy, owner of Cleveland Dog Walk.
In December, Murphy announced on Facebook that Kermit wouldn't have much time left. The rottweiler had received 25 chemotherapy treatments and had been in remission for four months when they received word that she only had a few weeks left. Murray, who had suffered his own loss when Bailey died in September 2014, reached out and offered one final photo session to the family.
Together, with Sampson and Delilah, Murray followed Kermit around on their 3 1/2 wooded acre lot. During their hike, Kermit rediscovered her favorite ball she lost two months prior while chasing a squirrel through the yard.
"She was so stoked to have the ball that she carried it with her the entire time," says Murphy.
Kermit, who died on Jan. 14, is memorialized in Murray's studio in a small frame in the back room, eyes wide while she clings to the orange ball in her mouth.
"Wait, Norma. Waiiiit," Schultz calmly says, trying to inspire her dog to sit still as she dangles a bone above Murray's camera.
Murray, cross-legged on the ground, takes a few shots before Norma plops down in hopes for another treat.
"That's all right, Norma. There's a lot of action going on in here," says Murray, setting his camera aside and wrapping his arms around her body to give her a kiss on the head.
Making that connection with animals has not only fueled Murray's new career path, but led him to volunteer with the Cleveland APL, Muttley Crue and the Friends of the Cleveland Kennel by offering his skills during his free time. He hopes his photos will show the sincerity and necessary strength of animals in need of adoption.
Schultz, owner of Muttley Crue, knows this is especially true for bully breeds, who can be more difficult to place. "He captures the essence of the gentleness of this breed that has been deemed vicious," says Schultz.
In an effort to make Norma happy, her owner continues to hold a Milk-Bone above Murray's lens while Murray feeds Norma a spoonful of peanut butter. This dance between three partners gets Murray the shots he's seeking. Norma stares right at the camera, salivating with her tongue stretched out past her black bottom lip.
"There we go," he says as if he's coaching Cara Delevingne.
"Great job, Norma," he says as she licks her lips.
"That's what I'm talking about!"
Norma lifts her head, mouth wide, ready for more.
"I know these dogs are people's families, and I know how much they love them," says Murray, whose latest family addition is a 1 1/2-year-old Plott hound mix named Kensie. "Making people happy is No. 1, and making myself happy is right there."
Greg Murray offers three tips for snapping photos that will leave you with the warm fuzzies.
Close Quarters: Get on the same level as your four-footed friends. "If you look straight at their face, that's the most natural a dog is going to look," says Murray. "Focus on capturing them when they're being themselves rather than just posing all the time."
Time Ticks: Forget flash photography. "Harsh light can really wash out a dog," says Murray, who uses a fast shutter speed and automatic focus to get sharp images. "Most of my sessions are in the morning or in the evening when the light is more forgiving and soft."
Patience Pays: "There are photographers who are impatient, and that's why they're working with people," says Murray. "I'm photographing maybe a third of the time and playing with [the animals] half the time, because they get uncomfortable with you."