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Omaha Magazine

Puparazzi on Your Tail: Photographer Alex Hopes, originally from Omaha, puts the spotlight on dogs.

Apr 29, 2021 03:47PM ● By Kamrin Baker
alex hopes and his labrador sid

Photo by Jenna Krackenberger

Every dog deserves to be famous.

That’s what Alex Hopes, pho-dog-rapher extraordinaire, believes. 

Hopes is a former Omahan turned Austinite who photographs dogs for a living in the city’s popular Zilker Park. The story begins with Hopes’ own dog, Sid, who is known to more than 103,000 Instagram followers and 52,000 Facebook fans as ‘pizza dog,’ aka myregalbeagle. Sid quickly rose to Insta-stardom for his unique look: a handsome Labrador-beagle-corgi mix with an affinity for posing with pizza. (He’s even been featured in a Domino’s commercial.) 

Hopes rescued Sid in 2009, when he was a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Between the internet virality and unconditional companionship, the quirky canine turned into the catalyst for Hopes’ photography career. 

The plan after he graduated in 2010 was to travel the world. He started by moving to Austin, and eventually planned to make his way to Croatia, where he would be a wedding photographer. A month before they were going to leave, Sid was hit by a car. He fully recovered, and his loving social media fans even paid his vet bills. However, Europe was no longer an option. 

Instead, they drove around the U.S. for eight months, from Austin to LA, up the coast, into Canada and the northern part of America. From there, they made their way back to Omaha for a few months before landing in Austin.

After finding their favorite park in the city, the rest fell into place. 

id and I were regulars at Zilker Park, and one day I just started bringing my camera,” Hopes said. “That was 2015.” The project became ZilkerBark in fall 2016, and Hopes said they’ve photographed close to 40,000 dogs, raising nearly $200,000 for local animal shelters. 

That fundraising didn’t just take place in Austin; Hopes and Sid hit the road once again in 2017 in a pull-behind camper, stopping in cities to take portraits to benefit local shelters. Eventually, this venture was funded by CB2, Crate & Barrel’s sister store. 

“We raised close to $50,000 during the trip,” Hopes said. “The most rewarding part was seeing how happy the experience made dog owners across the country, all while helping out pets in need.”

At first, Hopes’ style mirrored that of The Dogist or Humans of New York, taking man-on-the-street (or pup-in-the-park) portraits. When he wasn’t on the road, Hopes said on any given weekend, he’d find a thousand people playing frisbee with their pooches in Zilker Park. After gaining traction for creating bright, crisp photos of park-goer’s favorite children, the demand for portraits went up, and now Hopes sticks mainly to scheduled sessions in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio with his team of photographers.

The shoots typically last about 30 minutes, with four sessions back-to-back. “Dogs burn out pretty fast, and you have to be clever with treats and squeakers,” he said. “I’ve been pretty successful by making a duck noise of my own. That gets them really excited.”

Hopes doesn't find much to complain about, given that his full-time job is rolling around in the grass with puppies.

“I can tell you that when you’re photographing dogs, they’ll never give you that big, fake, camera smile. They always give you their real face, their real personality, and they’ll always show us what they’re feeling,” he said. 

Hopes has learned a lot about photography that he never anticipated when he focused on humans. “After photographing people for a while, I realized humans always have something to complain about…But dogs can be making the dumbest face ever, and it’s still the perfect photo.”

Hopes is also colorblind, making human photography more of a challenge, as he would often have trouble perfecting skin tones or editing details in traditional portraits. Now, he has the creative liberty of the ZilkerBark brand, rooted in timeless joy, grabbing the true essence of each animal in real time. 

“Sometimes I’ll get dogs that are really well-behaved, or I’ll get some that are tougher and I just need to let them be who they are,” Hopes said. One demographic he can always count on is three or four-month-old puppies. “The minute I get on the ground, they’ll crawl into my arms, lay on their backs, and lick my face. It happens every time.” He said the only downside is when the owner tries to get them to stop. 

After years of puppy bellies and perfectly timed boops, ZilkerBark has become an organized, dog-lover-run operation with a pack of photography associates. They schedule events (or did in the pre-pandemic times), work on brand campaigns, and ensure regular community engagement by donating to and collaborating with local shelters. 

His newest endeavor is Casa Chicoma, an Airbnb in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has five rental units, two greenhouses, and a flurry of micro-forests. The property is obviously dog-friendly (with some rules; no bed-sharing here!) and has become a bed-and-breakfast heaven for Hopes, his fiancée, Michele Abbaticchio, and their crew of mutts: Sid, Polly, and Zeva.

“It can get so hot in Austin, and my fiancée and I both love to travel, so we decided it would be awesome to split our time with this new property,” Hopes said. “It’s become a place to land.”

Abbaticchio, who is also Hopes’ graphic design and branding partner, said that while she might be biased, she’s observed that it’s easy for folks to develop a connection to the ZilkerBark brand. 

“I knew Alex before he started ZilkerBark, but his ambitious spirit and passion for dogs and the dog community is what draws people to follow the brand,” Abbaticchio said. “Alex takes risks and puts himself out there, but behind it all he wants to be a benefit to the community. All of that shines through by the way he is able to connect with all different kinds of people and dogs, and also come up with ways to raise money for local shelters while creating a sustainable business model.” 

Hopes and Abbaticchio hope to incorporate a foster/adopt program at Casa Chicoma in the future, bringing dogs and families together in human’s-best-friend bliss. 

“I can’t imagine life without a dog by my side,” Abbaticchio said. “They consistently provide love and happiness to you, 24/7, no matter what mood you’re in. They’re just happy you’re alive.”

Hopes said people are always thrilled to see their dogs in the light in which they capture them. “Being able to showcase these dogs as the beloved companions—and celebrities—they are, it provides everlasting memories that we don’t get otherwise.” 

Visit zilkerbark.com or casachicoma.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.