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A photographer in the final stages of ALS creates a photo book of dogs to benefit animal shelters

HOLLY SCHOLZ/CENTRAL OREGONIAN 
 - Diane Dunbar holds the photo book her brother, Rick Fisher, self-published that celebrates dogs and the joy they bring. She is a volunteer at the Humane Society of the Ochocos Thrift Store. Sales from this book benefit the shelter.

When Rick Fisher had a newspaper route as a young boy in the 1950s, he had to make peace with all of his customers' dogs — whether they were big or small, mellow or rambunctious.

"Over time, I was able to befriend all of the neighborhood dogs and was always happy to spend a few minutes with each one as I delivered my newspapers," Fisher writes. "That began a lifelong love affair with 'man's best friend.'"

Now, at age 70, his diseased body is giving out, but his mind is still sharp, and he still has a heart for dogs.

In December, Fisher self-published a photo book of dogs, "A Last Love Letter to My Friends: Celebrating Dogs and the Joy They Bring Us."

Humane Society of the Ochocos is one of 18 shelters and pet rescue organizations that will benefit from the sale of Fisher's book.

"I continue to be interested in helping animals find their forever homes, because, unfortunately, there are a lot of animals, and there are a lot of shelters that are not no-kill shelters, and that really makes me sad," Fisher said.

He and his older sister, Diane Dunbar, grew up in Pennsylvania. A lifelong love of photography began to develop when he became his high school yearbook photographer.

Fisher worked as an accountant for 10 years before transitioning to the corporate human resources role. He retired at age 58 and settled in Durham, North Carolina, where he still lives today with his wife, Beth, and their two Labrador retrievers.

But he wasn't ready to settle down. Instead, he took some photography training and became a professional photographer, donating all of his profits to charity.

Meanwhile, his sister moved to Powell Butte about 20 years ago. She, too, loves dogs and has four rescue dogs of her own.

Dunbar began volunteering for the Humane Society of the Ochocos when they opened a thrift store to support the local shelter four years ago.

"If it starts with a P, I'm in charge of it," Dunbar laughs, clarifying that she takes care of the pet area, plastics, pillows and pictures that are donated to the thrift store.

"She's a fantastic volunteer," said Humane Society of the Ochocos Executive Director Heather O'Daniel. "Giving in their family runs deep in their blood because her brother, who is an amazing man, is doing this all for nonprofit and charity, and what she does for us — what a wonderful family."

"Our parents modeled that. That's what you do. You help other people," Dunbar said. "They were big in volunteering."

After a few years in retirement, Fisher began to have an unusual amount of fatigue. Eventually, he had difficulty walking and started using a wheelchair. He was diagnosed with body inclusion myositis, an inflammatory condition of the muscles that causes weakness. But he still continued to take photographs — specializing in dogs.

In the summer of 2017, he drove across the country to visit his sister. Dunbar informed her friends of his goal — to photograph 1,000 dogs in 1,000 days. He took pictures of dogs along the way, and when he reached Powell Butte, Dunbar had a list of dogs that he could photograph.

"I could tell that it was hard for him to move around. In fact, I was kind of shocked," Dunbar said. "I didn't realize how bad he was."

They pared her list down, and he was only able to capture a handful of dogs during his visit.

The following March, Dunbar got a call from her brother.

"He said, 'I have good news and bad news.' Then, he said, 'They diagnosed me with ALS, and I have four to 10 months to live.'"

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function.

"I had to close my business," Fisher said. "I couldn't hold my camera."

"He's a fighter," Dunbar says of her little brother, noting that it's been nearly a year since his diagnosis.

Knowing that he could no longer reach his goal of photographing 1,000 dogs in 1,000 days, he decided instead to create a photo book of dogs to benefit Humane Societies across the country.

"I had already done many years of pet photography, but I ended up with about 50,000 images of dogs, and that's when I got the idea," Fisher said. "I didn't have that much longer to live, so I might as well put my time to good use, and I started the tedious journey."

His goal now is to raise money for animal shelters.

HOLLY SCHOLZ/CENTRAL OREGONIAN
 - Diane Dunbar shows the page in her brother's photo book that features her neighbor Judd Bowen's working dogs on a Powell Butte ranch.Last September, he sorted through his portraits, choosing his favorites for the book.

During that process, the director of development from his local animal shelter paid him a visit and showed him some pictures that her husband had taken of their dogs.

"I started to think, you know there are certain kinds of pictures that only an owner can take, maybe the owner with their kids, maybe the dog's head hanging out the window, all kinds of crazy things," Fisher recalls.

So, he opened up the field to his Facebook friends, asking for pictures of their dogs that he would consider for his book.

His inbox quickly filled with hundreds of images of man's best friend.

"I liked the images, but sometimes, they were out of focus, sometimes they were not very well exposed," Fisher said. "So, I was sorting those out, and I got the idea that I should look to some other professional photographers to see if they'd be willing to donate any pictures to the book."

He Googled the top 10 dog photographers in the world and sent them emails, asking for some of their dog portraits.

Photos poured in from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, San Francisco and the Netherlands.

With help from his family and a few friends, Fisher designed his 240-page photo book. About two-thirds are his own photos, while the remaining are from professional photographers and his friends.

The book is divided into 16 chapters, such as "Happiness is a Puppy," "Sorry, Mom," and "Faces — Do You Ever Get Tired of Your Dog's Expression?"

He dedicated his book to the tens of thousands of volunteers who rescue, foster and care for animals without a home.

In his book, Fisher shares unique stories of dogs and their people as well as dog quotes, such as, "No matter how many years we get with our dogs, it's never long enough."

Of course, a few of Dunbar's dogs are featured in the book, as well as her Powell Butte neighbor Judd Bowen's work dogs. Several other Central Oregon dogs also made the cut.

Those interested in supporting the Humane Society of the Ochocos by purchasing Fisher's book may order it on his website. The cost is $100 plus shipping. Fisher explained that it costs $50 to print the book, and the remaining $50 will go to the selected shelter. He also sells an E-book for $52, with $50 going to shelters.

Fisher's new goal?

He wants to sell 500 books. So far, he has sold 380, and five of those have benefitted Crook County's no-kill animal shelter.

O'Daniel said the profits from the book sales are not earmarked for anything specific, however, they might use it to help with thrift store needs.

In his book, Fisher writes, "Treat each day like you only have a few left — I do."

Book ordering details

To order Rick Fisher's book "A Last Love Letter to My Friends: Celebrating Dogs and the Joy They Bring Us" visit: www.rickfishersphotography.com/store.

Select Humane Society of the Ochocos as the beneficiary.

Cost is $100 plus shipping.

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