Mary Bloom, photographer to the dog stars, dies at 81

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Mary Bloom, photographer to the dog stars, dies at 81
An undated photo by Mary Bloom of a dog at the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual show. Bloom, an animal advocate and staff photographer for the Westminster Kennel Club who documented their famed competition for 21 years and became a familiar fixture, admired for her careful eye and persuasive knack with the canine competitors, died on Sept. 28, 2021, in a hospice in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She was 81. Mary Bloom via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Mary Bloom, a champion of animals who as a staff photographer for the Westminster Kennel Club shot its annual dog show with a careful eye to illustrating the bond between dogs and the handlers who lead them around judging rings, died Sept. 28 in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was 81.

Her nephew Robert McLoughlin said the cause was gallbladder cancer.

Bloom was a familiar sight at Westminster: With her brown curls framing her face, she knelt and crawled on legs weakened by neuropathy to find the right pictures of breed winners on the floor at Madison Square Garden. Over her 21 years with the show, beginning in 1995, she sometimes jostled and shouted her way through a scrum of photographers to get prime position for a shot, and she admonished handlers if they misbehaved.

“She’d say to handlers, ‘Get your hands off his neck, you’re choking him!’ ” said David Frei, formerly the kennel club’s director of communications and the television voice of the dog show. “It was kind of an honor for her to yell at you while she was setting up a great photo.”

At the 2010 show, Bloom limped from one breed judging ring to another. She spotted dogs she knew and admired, such as Sadie, a Scottish terrier (“Oh, beautiful,” she said after snapping some photos), who would go on to win best in show. She watched giddily as a parade of Irish red and white setters were judged at the show for the first time.

“This is so exciting!” she told The New York Times in her high-pitched voice. “I have a friend who brought some from Ireland. Having them around is like taking a sedative.”

Then, after the mastiffs competed, she scanned her digital shots to find exactly where two of them got into a tiff (“Look at his eyes,” she said. “He doesn’t like that red one”), then looked at her picture of the winner and its handler.

“Happy!” she said as she looked at the triumphant handler and the well-posed dog. “That’s special.”

To persuade dogs to behave for a portrait, she made high-pitched noises that got their attention, but she did not feed them treats. They invariably did her bidding.

“People will say, ‘Oh, you’re a dog whisperer,’ ” she told The New Yorker in 2012. “No, no, that’s not it at all. I just understand who they are. I mean, not like past-life experience, but I’m familiar with how they feel.”

Bloom was also the photographer in residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. From the early 1980s to 2002, she documented holiday services, consecrations, the work of other artists in residence and visits by dignitaries such as Mother Teresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama (whom she captured cuddling a Tibetan spaniel).

She was part of a group that created the cathedral’s annual blessing of the animals to celebrate the feast day of St. Francis. One year, she helped arrange for the attendance of an elephant, which marched down the cathedral’s center aisle for its blessing.

In 2013, the cathedral opened an exhibition of Bloom’s dog photographs, “Dog Bless You: The Photography of Mary Bloom.”

In that show’s brochure, she wrote that since her childhood, dogs had “taught me lessons, comforted me, played games and denied me loneliness but, most of all, they loved me. It was, she said, “a rare, unconditional love, which has nurtured me for a lifetime.”

Bill Berloni, who trains animals for Broadway shows, movies, television series and commercials, recalled Bloom as a trusted adviser and a voice of conscience.

“She was my mentor in all things humane,” he said by phone. “If I had an ethical dilemma, I called Mary.”

Mary Elizabeth Kreykenbohm was born Aug. 15, 1940, in New York to August and Elizabeth (Reilly) Kreykenbohm. Her father was a baker; her mother was a homemaker who took in boarders and raised Dalmatians and poodles. As a youngster, she became entranced with dog shows through articles and pictures in publications such as Popular Dogs and Dog World.

“I was brought to the Westminster dog show, which was just a subway ride away, starting at age 6,” she told Dog News in 2019. “As I grew up, all I ever wanted for Christmas was the promise of a ticket to Madison Square Garden.”

Bloom worked for a computer company in the 1960s before marrying Leighton Bloom, a salesman, in 1968. (They divorced about a decade later.) She also worked in an animal testing laboratory at New York University and at a department store as a saleswoman.

A self-taught photographer, she started freelancing for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the North Shore Animal League in the mid-1970s. Those relationships would endure for more than 30 years.

In the mid-1970s, she also worked for the ASPCA as a dog groomer and wildlife rehabilitator, finding proper places for the snakes, monkeys, hawks and other animals that people had brought into their homes. Her activities inspired two children’s books by author and illustrator Aliki, “At Mary Bloom’s” (1978) and “Overnight at Mary Bloom’s” (1987), about a little girl’s visit to Bloom’s home, where she kept, at various times, two English hedgehogs, an armadillo, a de-scented skunk, an African gray parrot and a blind monkey.

In 1979, Bloom joined a voyage financed by the Fund for Animals, writer and animal activist Cleveland Amory’s organization, to protest the clubbing of baby harp seals on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the coast of Labrador. At dawn one morning, she told the Times, she knelt on the ice to take a photograph of an activist spraying red dye on a seal to make it unusable by hunters.

Rather than risk having her film confiscated by Canadian authorities who did not want to see the slaughter covered, she said, she sneaked it into a duffel bag carried by Amory’s lawyer, who took it to Philadelphia, where The Associated Press distributed her photos.

Bloom, who lived in Beacon, New York, leaves no immediate survivors.

Gabriel Rangel, a handler who has led three dogs to best in show at Westminster, recalled Bloom’s attention to detail.

“She was so involved and always kept an eye on making sure everything was right,” he said. “She wanted to capture the feelings and importance of the moment.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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