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Monday, November 22, 2010

"Every Photo Should Have a Story Behind It"

By Lauren Martinez

It’s 10:00 a.m. on a Monday. Sylvia Arriaga walks into her photography studio in Los Angeles, sipping on her non-fat chai tea. Time to start the work week.
She looks through her brown leather calendar to confirm the day’s activities. Sylvia has appointments with two of her clients who will be coming into the studio this afternoon and viewing their proofs for the first time. The rest of her day will be filled with editing photographs and tending to paperwork.

Sylvia sits on her black swivel chair at her large wooden desk, her eyes move from left to right as she reads her e-mail on her apple desktop. She received 90 e-mails since she left the office at 7:00 p.m. the night before. “Affordable Time-Share in Vegas.” Delete.” Four people have searched for you in the last month.” Delete. “Winter Photography Fest in Aspen.” Save.

Still sitting at her desk, Sylvia finishes editing the photographs that she will present to her clients today. The only printing that she does in her studio is of the proofs that she will include in the portfolio that she presents to her clients, two-weeks after the shoot has taken place. Once they select which photographs they want and the sizes that they want them in, Sylvia sends them out to a printing press to have the photographs printed.

She already completed the portfolio for the Alec family who will be coming in today at 2:00 p.m. so she is currently working on the Montgomery’s portfolio because they will be arriving at 4:00 p.m. for their appointment. Usually Sylvia takes around 25 frames of her clients; however, she only includes the 12 best frames in the portfolio that she puts together for them. Out of the 12 frames, Sylvia’s clients select which ones they want and the sizes that they want to have them printed in.

“I really enjoy the editing process,” said Sylvia, “I like being able to correct certain flaws in individuals that they are unhappy with. It’s almost like I’m a plastic surgeon in the photography industry. Thanks to technology, the process is much easier compared to when film was popular.”

The Alec family finally rolled in around 2:15 p.m. John was 6’2, in his early thirties, and still managed to look youthful despite the fact that he was wearing a suit and had his jet black hair neatly combed to the side; he was on his lunch break, so he only had a few minutes. Kelly was 5’4, blonde, and seemed to weigh about 120 pounds; she walked in with a big smile on her face carrying her 2 year old son Collin on one hip.

“So how’d they turn out?” asked John with a smirk. “They came out beautifully,” said Sylvia, “How could they come out any other way with such an attractive family?” “That’s sweet of you to say,” said Kelly, still smiling, “The photos were all I could think about for the past two weeks, I’m so excited to see them.”
“Well here they are,” said Sylvia, “I’ll give you guys a moment to look them over.” The couple leafed through the pages of the portfolio whispering to each other and pointing to which photos they liked.

When Sylvia returned after a few minutes had gone by, John excused himself to go back to work and said that Kelly would decide which ones they wanted. “It’s nice to see you were able to hide that huge blemish I had on my nose,” said Kelly,” I hardly ever break out, but of course it would happen to me when we were going to have our picture taken.” Sylvia responded by saying “That’s what I do best; I am intent on making my clients happy so I’m glad the finished product is to your liking.” Within a matter of thirty minutes Kelly had selected and paid for the photographs that she wanted and was told that she could expect them in a matter of three weeks.

The process went just as smoothly for the Montgomery family. They came into the studio right on time, and the five of them sat around Sylvia’s desk studying the photos intently. Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery were in their fifties and looked as though they had just finished playing tennis at the country club; Madison, 17, Dylan, 16, and Mark, 14 shared a similar preppy look, all wearing a different colored cardigan. They wanted a large portrait matted and framed to hang in their foyer and five 8x10s, 8 5x7s, and a plethora of wallets to hand out to all of their friends. “We have been coming to Sylvia since Madison was born, said the Montgomery’s “we love the way she photographs our family so we have a yearly sitting with her in the studio. These are the photos that we always include in our holiday newsletter.” In an hour’s time, the Montgomery’s left Sylvia’s studio eagerly anticipating their photographs that would be ready in a matter of weeks.

As Sylvia watched the Montgomery family walk out of her studio, she reminisced about why she decided to become a photographer in the first place. “I remember one particular event that I attribute to being the reason why I got into photography, and that was the first time my family had their portrait taken,” said Sylvia.” I was very young, I must have been six, so it was difficult for me to stand still and not fidget but the photographer managed to keep me under control. Now I look back at my family portrait and because both of my parents have since passed away, I realize how precious these memories are. It is for one split second that everything seems to be perfect which is why I try my best to capture that special moment for all of my clients, especially when it comes to their family portraits.”

The remainder of the day was made up of Sylvia processing invoices and calling clients to confirm their appointment for the rest of the week. Sylvia closed up shop around 7:00 p.m. it was finally time for her to lock up and go home. She had to rest up for her shoot that next day.

It was Tuesday afternoon. The Lewis family walked into Sylvia’s studio at 3:00 p.m. on the dot. They were perfectly dressed. Todd was wearing black slacks and a crisp white button down shirt, with the sleeves cuffed and Kara was wearing a simple yet elegant black dress with a long, single strand rhinestone necklace. Their 12 year old daughter Meghan was wearing a black button down dress and shiny red patent leather flats; her hair was hanging loosely at her shoulders with a rhinestone clip positioned neatly to one side. Their son, Aiden, 5, was wearing a black and white plaid shirt tucked into his black slacks, and for a pop of color he wore a little red bow tie.

Sylvia positioned the family on the tweed rug that was in the middle of the room that she used for shoots, the room was plain aside from the fireplace with an elegant mantle. Sylvia would move props in and out accordingly. Todd and Kara stood behind a tall bench that Sylvia draped a black cloth over which Meghan and Aiden sat on with their hands folded on their lap. She then adjusted the two side lights and overhead light, and made sure that her Pocket Wizard Plus II transceiver was properly set to initiate the flash on her Cannon D60 camera. It didn’t take her long to position the equipment and make sure that the Lewis family was ready. Shirts tucked in, chins down, and every hair in place. The family pasted on their biggest, whitest smiles and stood motionless as Sylvia photographed them. 1, 2, 3, 4…12…17…22…25. The shoot was over by 4:00 p.m. and the family was out of the studio eagerly anticipating the results of their shoot.

Photography has become an increasingly popular trend in recent years, especially due to the fact that access to a camera is often easily secured. In fact, a recent study from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) showed that 77% of American households currently own a digital camera. According to another report from Techno Systems Research, it is known that Canon manufactured an astounding 25.2 million cameras in 2007 alone. Whether it be a parent taking pictures of their child, a teen Facebook junkie, or friends and family taking photos to capture the essence a beautiful wedding, it is safe to say that almost everyone has had some experience using a camera and enjoy taking pictures to create lasting memories.

Families are often known to have photos taken of them as a way of capturing the closeness and intimacy of the family relationship. Photos are also a great way to highlight the development of the family over the years, there are new additions to the family, children get older, there are physical enhancements made, pets obtained etc. It is known that families enjoy keeping a record of their history, it gives them something to reflect back on with feelings of nostalgia; they can be proud of their familial accomplishments.

When deciding to be photographed professionally, families have to consider many factors, they must decide whether they want to be captured indoors or outdoors, formally or casually, coordinating their wardrobe or wearing something that reflects their individual personality the best. After such decisions are made there comes the time to search for a photographer who meets their needs the best. There are many methods of photography in existence. Two popular yet diverse methods are documentary photography which allows the photographer to capture subjects using a more naturalistic approach which typically brings out the beauty in what is ordinary, and traditional photography such as portraiture where subjects are often sought to be captured as close to perfection as possible.

Sylvia specializes in more traditional methods of photography. “People want to have the best versions of themselves captured. Why would they pay me good money to be photographed in a way that they can do themselves with their own digital camera? My clients want to have their finest features emphasized; they want to be proud of the photo that will sit on their mantle and the wallet size photos they give to their friends and family. If it’s not close to perfect than I’m not doing my job right. I work hard to give my clients a product that they are ultimately very pleased with. ”

Sylvia’s quaint studio is dimly lit due to the long ornamented curtains which hang dramatically over the windows with a beautiful chandelier hanging from the ceiling; there is a dark cherry wood desk in the corner of the room and just to the left of there is a navy and gold floral print couch with a glass coffee table and an oversized navy velvet chair which is inviting to many of her clients.

“My favorite part of my job is taking care of my clients’ imperfections," said Sylvia."Sometimes my clients are very critical of themselves, they may say things like ‘am I really that heavy’ or ‘my skin does not look good in that lighting at all’ thanks to modern technology I am able to correct most of those minor flaws so that my clients are more than happy with the results. I want my clients to walk out of my studio feeling good about themselves and the results of their experience.”

It is becoming easier and easier with the passing of every day to manipulate photographs and heighten print quality; people are surrounded by a multitude of photo editing software such as Photoshop and Picasa. In the 1970s and 80s, if you took a photograph and it didn’t come out the way you wanted it to, you would simply have to deal with it. There wasn’t any red eye correction or auto enhancing capabilities like there are now. Society places a heavy emphasis on physical appearances and the need to look aesthetically perfect which is a significant factor in the trend of individuals not being satisfied with themselves often times people find that they have unreasonable expectations for themselves.

Sylvia originally started her photography business because she was passionate about photography and because she cherished her personal memories from her family portraits as a child. It was also because she noticed that her friends would hire a photographer to have a portrait taken of their families but there was always something that was a little off that left them feeling dissatisfied with the quality of their results. Sylvia believed that she could correct what the previous photographers failed to achieve with her attention to detail. She is inspired by paintings that she sees in museums she tries to transfer the same feeling that she gets from looking at a famous painting to her photography. ”I appreciate excellence….I want to wow my clients with the quality of work that I produce.”

Rick Elias is a photographer who is based out of Whittier, California. Elias’ method of photography is more closely related to documentary style of photography, but it is actually a new trend where he creates storybooks. Elias’ method of photography is much different from Sylvia’s, in that he doesn’t pose his subjects, but instead chooses to capture them in their everyday environment as they take part in the activities that are part of their daily routine.

Elias’ hours for business vary unlike Sylvia who tries to keep a regular schedule; he even has an assistant to help him with office duties and paperwork so that he can focus primarily on his photography. The style of photography that he specializes in is a reflection of his free spirit.

Elias’ aim is to capture the allure in what often seems to be mundane. As part of his unique photographic method, Elias is hired by families to go into their homes where he photographs them engaging in normal activities.

A mother cooking dinner, a father reading the paper, a son washing the family car, and a daughter polishing her fingernails, this is a typical scene that can be appreciated from one of Elias’ story books. He believes that it is much easier to remember a special occasion such as a wedding, graduation, or a baby shower, but what often gets forgotten are the memories of the everyday which can be as equally important as specific occasions. ”People want to look back in their lives and remember what they did and what they wore and what they looked like ten years back…not just on a day where they were doing something spectacular, but they want to remember what an average day was like for them; that can be special in itself.”

Although most photographers like the idea of posing their subjects, Elias prefers not to he believes that storybooks work better for him as a product. “Most photographers pose their clients and they already have a fixed idea in mind of how they want them to be. I don’t believe in posing clients because when you pose, you are changing the person’s body language and creating an image of them that is your interpretation not their actual essence. By posing them, you take them out of who they are. It just doesn’t work for me.”

Elias didn’t always believe in not posing his subjects, he used to direct a lot more in an effort to get that ‘perfect pose.’ Elias realized that it took him the first 20years of his career to figure out that allowing people to be real should be the primary focus of his work.

“When I started taking photos of people in their homes, they were just being themselves; it was a real life situation. I found that when you start taking pictures of a real life situation they started doing things as if I wasn’t really there. Posing is a lifeless situation-you’re just standing in front of the camera smiling. I am a conceptual artist which means I have a reason why I do everything; there just doesn’t seem to be a reason to have people just standing there. It doesn’t define them well. Every photo should have a story behind it.”

Elias’ method is becoming increasingly popular because people feel comfortable being themselves and allowing themselves to be vulnerable as they drop their guard. “People that embrace life and embrace what life brings to them, generally those are the people who want to be photographed real.” However, in a world where perfection is strived after, whether it be with regard to a career, family life, academic success or personal relationships, it is difficult to imagine the appeal of being photographed in a more candid setting. Therefore there are still some who prefer the more traditional method of photography.

Although there seems to be a trend toward being photographed in this new innovative approach similar to that of Elias, Sylvia’s more traditional method of photography seems to influence people in more ways than one would think.

Yvette is a wife to Mike Llavore and mother of two, Erica, 15, and Luke, 4. “I always found it important to take pictures as a family. My kids will only be young once, but I want to have the memories of their youth last forever, which is why we take family pictures about once a year. It’s funny to look back and see how we all change from one year to the next. It’s scary how time flies. The last few years we have had our photos taken outside…last year it was at Heritage Park and this year we’re going to have be photographed in Laguna Beach just to change it up a bit. We all prefer to be in a setting that is more natural to us; it’s just more comfortable that way. We don’t have to worry about all of the stiffness that comes along with being in a studio or having to get all dressed up, we can sport a more casual look which is more realistic…I guess you can say it gives us room to just be ourselves.”

It was a sunny day in November, but windy by the beach. The sand was still damp from the previous day’s rain, but fortunately for the Llavore family, the wind had blown all the clouds away which made it a lovely day to have their family portrait taken. The photographer arrived early to set up for the shoot, about half an hour later, four figures emerged from the west end of the beach. Mike was wearing a crisp white shirt with khaki pants, and Luke matched his dad wearing a mini-version of his pressed white button down shirt and khaki pants. Yvette wore a white pleated dress with a long shell necklace; her long dark hair fell loosely at her shoulders. Erica had her hair pulled back which accentuated her large brown almond shaped eyes; she wore a strapless dress with flowered eyelets that outlined the bottom of her dress. They were all barefooted.

“We chose to wear neutrals because we wanted the beauty of our surroundings to be the focal point of the photograph; we just wanted to blend in with our environment so we chose a minimalist look that would help us to achieve our concept. Plus it’s just more comfortable this way, we don’t have to try too hard and the kids feel more at ease, while being able to enjoy a nice trip to the beach. I’m not looking for perfection today, as a wife and mother I realize that isn’t possible. I just want us to have a good time today while making a memory that we can look back on with a smile years from now.”

The photographer stated that she needed about fifteen more minutes to set up and then they would be good to go. Erica and Luke went for a walk in the sand while Mike and Yvette waited nearby to get the “ok” from the photographer. “Stay close kids,” yelled Yvette, “You’ll need to be back in just a few minutes.”

Shortly after, the photographer had finished setting up and was ready to photograph the Llavore family. “I can’t see the kids anymore,” Yvette told Mike, “Let me call Erica so that I can tell them to start heading back.”

Five minutes later Erica and Luke returned from the water’s edge. “Erica! What happened to your hair? It’s all windblown and look at Luke; you let him get all sandy…Is this what you want our picture to look like?”

Yvette told the photographer, “We’re going to need a minute, I don’t want my family looking like we put no effort into this, I want our portrait to make a statement.”

Whether it be traditional or documentary photography, photographers and the art of photography are an important part of American culture which will continue to evolve in the years to come.

Reporting Notes
-Interview with Rick Elias on Oct. 8, 2010 for 2 hrs.
-Observation of Rick Elias on Oct. 4, 22 and Nov. 10 for 3 hrs.
-Interview with Sylvia Arriaga on November 1, 2010 for 2 hours.
-Observation of Sylvia Arriaga on November 4 & 7
-Interview with Yvette Llavore on November 2, 2010 for 1 hr.
-Observation of Llavore family on November 5 for 3 hrs.
-“Camera Obscura.” 18. Harper’s Magazine Foundation, 2004. Academic Search
Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.
-Historical Digital Camera Statistics on Ownership and Market Share. Historical Digital Statistics..
-Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. Photographers.

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