PESOTUM - Transforming Buster and Barney, two strong-willed bundles of menacing male dog energy, into peace-loving characters named Earl and Pearl was their first amazing human trick.
Now Kirby and Cindy Pringle, a couple of pedigreed photographers/writers with two zany canine books under their belts, are tackling a new enterprise.
They are inviting dog lovers to send photos of their pets, which the Pringles will transform into treasured antique-looking pictures of the pets dressed as babies, cowpokes, elegant ladies or honeymooners.
"We'll make their dogs into dog people," said Cindy Pringle, a professional photographer whose images have appeared on billboards and humorous greeting cards and in a Kodak book of outstanding pictures.
The Pringles have assembled about 25 vintage photographs from their family collections and antiques stores, mostly those classic frozen poses popular with photographers with huge box cameras about a century ago.
To show potential customers how their dogs might appear dressed in a baggy suit or long dress, the Pringles have replaced the original human faces and hands with furry visages and paws.
"Dogs are family members to a lot of people," said Kirby Pringle, a feature writer at the Champaign News-Gazette for 23 years who recently accepted an employee buyout to work alongside his wife in the photography business.
The Pringles, self-described frustrated comedians, consider Buster and Barney a source of pride and joy - in addition to cheap comic labor. The couple has devoted a prodigious amount of time and energy into transforming the beasts into humanoid characters who play checkers, ride horses, skate on a frozen pond and milk cows.
The Pringles, who live in a 60-year-old farmhouse near Pesotum, met in Paxton 18 years ago. Kirby was working on a story on why a released jail inmate who spoke little English died on a cold December night en route to a bus station. He interviewed Cindy, then a thrift store employee, who had given the man a coat and other clothes. Cindy was so impressed with Kirby and the article he wrote, she drove to Champaign to thank him. They were married six months later.
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The Pringles' creations, Earl and Pearl, are presented in their two books, "Happy Tails: Earl and Pearl on the Farm" and "Happy Tails: The Call of Nature." Kirby does much of the writing, while Cindy takes most of the pictures. A native of Paxton, Cindy Pringle received training in photojournalism at the University of Illinois.
While selling the books and individual images of Earl and Pearl at art fairs, the Pringles have been frequently asked if they have pictures of any other kinds of dogs, such as Chihuahuas, dachshunds and Dalmatians. That gave them the idea to try creating custom portraits.
Kirby Pringle, who hails from the Robinson area, reached into his storehouse of family portraits to create templates. He found a century-old studio shot of his great-grandfather, an Oblong butcher, dressed in a cowboy costume, complete with outlandish looking sheepskin chaps and an iron-studded leather holster and wrist guards.
Great-grandpa's head and hands were replaced by the proud visage and clenched paws of Buster, a 75-pound white boxer the Pringles rescued from the mean streets of Golconda in Southern Illinois. Barney, an 85-pound boxer mix, was adopted from a rescued litter of puppies in Paxton.
Kirby Pringle, 50, a graduate of Eastern Illinois University who worked for the Mattoon Journal Gazette and Charleston Times-Courier in the early 1980s, said it is not easy adjusting to self-employment, after working as a reporter for three decades. But the attractive buyout offer enabled him to pursue the dream of becoming his own boss.
"It was hard, because I need structure in my life," he said, adding it is easy to get distracted by needed chores or the allure of the great outdoors.
The Pringles are confident they will succeed, partly because they have found their own niche.
"In photography, you have to specialize," Kirby Pringle said. "It's so competitive, and there are so many photographers out there. We've made (dog people) our niche. We like doing it, and it's fun and creative."
Jim Meserve, an art agent who began representing the Pringles early this year, has sold several of the images to a large greeting card company based in Boulder, Colo. Meserve said he is impressed with the amazing amount of time and effort put into the details of each picture.
"What caught my eye with Dogtown and the Pringles is that the photos are unique, with a real smile factor," Meserve said. "It is really fun. Everyone who sees it, you can't help but smile."