The Reinvention of Portraiture

You will see more life there—more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty… than in any spot we know,” remarked Walt Whitman upon visiting a recently opened picture studio (it was 1848 and the daguerreotype process had just arrived in America). The power of photography, Whitman said, was in its “knack of catching life on the run, in a flash, as it shifted, moved, evolved.” Instantly captured by the new medium, Whitman sat for hundreds of portraits throughout his life, and, like us, had copies of the best images made to give to family and friends.

Until recently, portraits could be somewhat dull affairs. Clients with frozen smiles posed stiffly in front of curtains. They wore formal clothes and hairstyles that didn’t necessarily reflect their personality. The waiting room outside the studio, with its few chairs, the odd mirror and a distinct hush, did nothing to help clients—espe- cially children—relax and prepare for the shoot. The results were portraits that, while technically well done, looked strangely like everyone else’s. Today it’s different. With digital photography’s emergence, especially in the last decade, and clients’ desire for authentic, natu- ral portraits that tell a story, portraiture, especially for children and families, has been reinvented.

Film to Digital
Introduced by NASA, the first digital camera system was attached to the Mariner 4 in 1965, and recorded flyby spacecraft images of Mars. Since becoming commercially available in 1990, the technology of digital cameras steadily improved until in 2003, when digital cameras outsold film cameras. They have been doing so ever since.

Advantages of digital are:

• Immediate image review. The photographer can see the shots during the photo session.
• No need to load film. Memory cards for digital cam- eras can hold hundreds of images; the photographer can shoot more poses and offer a client more choices on the final images.
• Streamlined post-capture editing with software on a home computer. If the original image is well done, post- capture software can correct blemishes, remove shadows and enhance the final image.
• When it comes to photographing children, from new- born to high school seniors, digital is the practical choice. More images and flexibility allow for increased interaction between the photographer and client, and result in portraits that tell a client’s individual story.

Client-Centered Portraiture
Digital camera technology, coupled with the use of cell phones and social media sites, especially Pinterest, mean clients who book a photo shoot are more educated than ever. In addition, the denizens of our increasingly casual society want to be photographed in their every day clothes, and in unique locations. While the studio shoot is still popular (and has evolved), some clients ask for documentary-style photos with impactful settings such as railroad tracks, open fields, interesting alleyways, or lakes and rivers. And they have examples gathered from the internet to know what to ask for.

Photography studios now resemble living rooms rather than waiting rooms. Photographers provide refreshments, couches, cable TV, and games for clients and their families. Portrait backdrops consist of natural wood, neutral tones, and backgrounds that look genuine and original. Young clients feel at home, and are comfortable to express them- selves in a truthful, unforced way.

Photography with North Country Kids
To gain some insight into how North Country photographers combine digital technology and modern-day design esthetics into portrait photography with children, I visited Jared and Debbie Photography in Plattsburgh.

Jared and Debbie Burns met as finance majors at SUNY Plattsburgh, lived and worked in Boston, then returned to Plattsburgh to establish Jared and Debbie Photography in 2011. After running a successful business together for five years, he accepted a position as a financial advisor with Donlan and Barcomb in February 2016. Since that transition, she has assumed the day-to-day operations of the business and, with the increase in demand for maternity and newborn photography, decided to focus on babies.

“Asking someone to trust you with their new- born is a lot to ask,” Debbie Burns explained. “We began by going to people’s houses, but the environment was unpredictable and there were a lot of distractions. By designing our studio specifically for newborns and babies, we’re able to produce consistent images in a shorter amount of time. Meanwhile, parents can relax and enjoy the experience.”

The warm (in terms of color scheme and temperature), home-like studio is filled with cozy blankets, light wraps and hand-made hats and headbands to accessorize a baby client. With the optimal age for images that show the popular “baby curl” at under two weeks old, clients book before their baby is born, and schedule appointments soon after the birth. Families bring their baby just before feeding and nap time. The babies are fed at the studio and are usually asleep for the shoot.

“The newborn phase is so fleeting; new parents are sometimes too sleep-deprived to soak it in. Once they come out of those first few weeks, they realize their child has already changed so much! I get to give that newness back to people for a lifetime, which means so much to me,” explained Burns. “I create the environment for a successful session, and allow the families to set their own pace. As the session continues, I also capture wide-awake photos, and use a macro lens to get close-ups of a baby’s delicate features such as eyelashes, lips, and toes. Hands are on the baby at all times to assure their comfort and safety.”

As babies grow, she also shoots milestones such as six months, when a baby can sit up, and the first birthday, called a “cake smash” photo. “It is so fun to watch these little babies grow and develop into little people throughout their first year of life. I partner with Batters Up Bake Shop in Plattsburgh. They make the perfect ‘smash cake’ covered with butter cream roses. We let the child have fun with it, and then do bath time photos to capture their love of water,” said Burns.

The Take Away
Digital photography allows a level of creativity and experimentation that was unheard of just a few years ago. As imaginative and empathic photographers apply and adapt their considerable skill and expertise to ever-changing photographic technology and customer requests, the results are portraits that are timeless and original.