American Families, Summer, 2013

September 19, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

At the beginning of this summer, I tried something new in the way of marketing. I put up a deal on Groupon, offering a one-hour, on-location portrait shoot for $59. The folks at Groupon and I pitched the deal to individuals. I was hoping I'd get clients who needed pictures for their resumes, for LinkedIn, for social media sites on which they'd grown tired of representing themselves with a selfie taken with their phone and a bathroom mirror. (You can see the deal by clicking here.) And I indeed got some of those kinds of clients, and I've enjoyed photographing them..

But from the beginning, the majority of people who bought my deal would email me and begin by saying something like, "I know your ad says you do individual portraits, but I was hoping you'd shoot my family." Well, I couldn't tell those people to try the photo studios at Wal-Mart or Sears. First of all, I was flattered that they'd ask me. And secondly, I'm a sucker for families.

Mostly, women initiated these shoots. Sometimes it was a mother with two small kids. Sometimes, it was a baby sister trying to take advantage of a rare reunion of her and her older siblings. Sometimes, it was a daughter wanting a family picture for her mother's birthday. In once case, the father of an infant bought the Groupon, but that was a family with two dads. For the most part, I get the sense that men tend to think if they show up at home each night, pay the bills, and spend time with the kids, they're doing their bit for the family. Women seem to want to be more. They've got a vision of what their family should be like, and if that vision includes a family picture hanging on the wall or standing on the mantel, they're going to get that picture. Their families may not look exactly like the iconic, non-existent American families--the Nelsons, the Cunninghams, the Simpsons--but they believe fiercely in family and in the talismanic value of the family portrait.

A quick look at some of the family pictures I have made this summer will show the validity of the stories you read in the papers about the growing rate of inter-racial marriages and the growing number of same-sex marriages. I've photographed a lot of kids with beautiful, cafe-au-lait skin this summer. I used to work with an assistant principal at Central High School, Dr. Cathleen Rozanski Cruz. She was a blonde with Polish ancestry, and she'd married a Hispanic man. She once told me she thought the American racial problem would be over by 2050, because the whole country would be brown. I'm not sure her date will prove right, but after this summer, I wouldn't bet against it.

I have to say that shooting families, especially families with small children, is tough. With an individual portrait, I like to try to vary the mood and tone of an image with different lighting and shadow combinations. I can take the time to consider whether the subject will look better with the broad side of the face lit, or the short side. With a family portrait, I can't do that, particularly when the family wants the portrait done outdoors. I can usually only manage to get the pose right, to get all of the faces lit reasonably well, then hope no one blinks. I take a lot more shots of each grouping, because quite often, someone blinks.

Kids are a particular challenge, one I am still learning to cope with. A few nights ago, I shot a family that included a five-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister. Initially, the boy refused to open his mouth when he smiled, and I got a series of pictures with his mouth in a tight-lipped grimace that looked like someone had shoved something unpleasant into the back of his pants. Slowly, dim-wittedly, I realized that he was embarrassed because his front teeth had recently fallen out. He finally relaxed a bit and opened his mouth when I asked the family to pose lying flat on the grass. I guess it amused him. But I wish I had had the presence of mind to forget for a moment about exposure speeds and white balance and simply say to him, `Jamari, people who see the gap in your teeth are going to think, `There's a boy who's becoming a man.' " Maybe he would have bought it.

His little sister's mood swung between sweetness and boredom, unaffected by anything I said to her. We were moving from one shooting site to the next in a park when she told her parents, "I'm going to walk with Bob." She caught up to me. I sensed the possibility for a working connection.

"Would you like to hold my hand?" I asked.

"No," she said.

I told her it was all right. Many pretty girls had spurned me. But she was the first one born in the 21st Century to do it.

She stared at her shoes for most of the next series of shots.

I occasionally worry about what more established photographers might think about doing family portrait shoots for the steeply discounted price I am offering on Groupon. Maybe they'll think I am undermining their price structure. I prefer to believe I am like a dealer selling Vespas and they're like a dealer selling Harley Davidsons. I'm offering the entry-level in professional photography. Maybe someday my Vespa riders will want to trade up to a Harley.






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