When it comes to cute animal photos on the Internet, Maddie on Things is a viral hit you can love without feeling embarrassed. The popular Tumblr features stunning photos of Maddie, a 2-year-old, 45-pound coonhound with a knack for perching in unusual places. Theron Humphrey, Maddie’s owner, has been shooting the photos for the past year and posting them to Tumblr and Instagram, where he’s attracted more than 145,000 followers. Come April, you can find some of these photos in the book Maddie on Things.
Like many pet owners whose photos and videos go viral, Humphrey had no stage-dad aspirations when he started taking pictures of Maddie. He had just quit a commercial photography job and was about to be embark on a Kickstarter-funded project: photographing one person a day, for 365 days, in all 50 states. Before his road trip, the North Carolina native turned to Petfinder.com in search of a travel buddy. “I really wanted a southern dog, so I looked up coonhound,” he says. “Maddie was the first one that popped up, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she looks like a deer!’” Maddie became his front-seat companion and occasional icebreaker. “I had to convince people that I was trustworthy,” Humphrey says, and Maddie was a perfect wingman.
One day he decided to commemorate his trip with a personal photo in the vein of classic Americana photos—a man and his car. Or in this case, a man’s dog and his car. He placed Maddie on top of his truck and was amazed when she stayed put. “I was like, okay, what else would she stand on? Will she stand on this trash can? Will she stand on the fire hydrant? It just grew and snowballed from there.”
In December of 2011, he posted a photo of Maddie standing on four soup cans. To his surprise, it attracted viewers outside his friend-and-family circle—a memorable milestone in the journey of every amateur viral hitmaker. As he posted more photos (his friend bought him the Maddieonthings.com domain name for Christmas), his fanbase grew, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of blogger Tina Roth Eisenberg, who runs the design blog and studio Swiss Miss.
Nowadays, Maddie photos typically draw 20,000 to 30,000 likes, and she’s appeared on everything from tree stumps and track hurdles to road signs and a McDonald’s arch. It’s a career Humphrey never would have anticipated while studying photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design, but he’s learned to embrace the iPhone as a legitimate tool of the trade (he still uses his Canon 5D Mark II for other projects). And though he was initially skeptical of Instagram—he worried his road trip photos would be seen as just another solipsistic photo album—he now appreciates the app’s expediency, which has taught him to be less precious about each and every photo he sends into the world: He executes ideas as they come. If it works, the photo goes right up. If it doesn’t work, he moves on, spending five minutes at most on each photo.
Though the Internet is overrun with adorable dogs and cats, Maddie photos belong in their own class of cute overload. They’re just as likely to elicit William Wegman references as they are to elicit “awwws” and LOLs—which can be both a blessing and a drawback for Humphrey, whose non-Maddie photos tend to get overshadowed by the dog’s popularity. “A lot of days I don’t wanna post Maddie photos,” he admits. “I like a lot of minimalism, work that I could post and get 4,000 likes. Whereas I could post a photo of Maddie and it’s like 20,000.” At the end of the day, though, he gets the mass appeal of Maddie photos, calling them “digestible, like a pop song, which I’m cool with. I’d rather write a pop song than never write music at all.”
Maddie on Things is no gold mine (yet), but Humphrey is just happy to be shooting people and places instead of handbags. Right now he’s working with Purina One on an animal rescue photo project in New York City. “When people are in the commercial world, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I wanna go shoot my own personal project,’” he says. “I got to a point where I was tired of sitting over beers on a Friday night, talking about what I wanted to create.” He reflects. “I want to show my kids something I’m proud of one day.”