by Dave Simm Published 01/12/1999
The business of family portraiture in America is a far cry from the business I had back home in Lancashire during the seventies and eighties. Notwithstanding that styles vary dramatically from state to state and county to county, there is no way that I could sell the very stylised pictorial canvas portraits, here in the Chicago area, that I sold in Wigan and again in Saudi Arabia.
Chicago¹s cosmopolitan population are much more interested in a relaxed less formal style of image. Oh there are studios still selling very formal portraits, but they have been in the same location for years, in some cases have extremely loyal clients and in one case, the best known of them, gone belly up in the last five years.
To go out after the same market, would probably do no more than dilute the potential returns for those already serving the market and in turn provide me with a very lean prospect. I do have a number of very formal institutional portraits on display, but that is a different ball game. Those images don¹t get hung in the home.
Chicagoland families are into relaxed, some are even looking for a snapshot quality about there portraits, they don¹t seem to mind paying, even if the picture looks like it could have been produced by a gifted beginner.
I had one very well known former Chicago Bear who wanted to sit cross legged with his infant daughter in his lap, whilst his wife struck a similar pose with their young son. It was almost embarrassing to sign the portrait because it looked so unprofessional, but it was exactly what the delighted client wanted they also ordered 500 Christmas Cards of it.
The casual air is also sought after in the presentation and display of images, fewer people these days seem to want ornate frames for their portraits. Box mounts are increasing in popularity. The photographs are heat sealed onto hardboard, which has a chamfer around the edge. We then add a one inch square wooden from to the back and paint the edges.
Fastening the portraits together into a cluster, like the set on the left, has proven very popular. Seen here is one 14 x 11 one 10 x 8 one 7 x 5 and three 5 x 4 prints.
Of course it makes sense to shoot separate poses of family members during the sitting.
Three matching composites were sold to this family, one for each of the two children, who live in different states, and one for the parents.
When local foresters cut down trees near the studio, I rescued a few logs to stick in the boot of my car, I cart them with me to any outdoor sitting, it saves having to use kitchen chairs if the subjects don¹t have photogenic lawn furniture. I must be the only guy on the north shore who takes his own logs back into the woods for portrait sessions. You should see some of the expressions when I flip open the boot at people¹s home to reveal the camera bags nestles in a bunch of sawn off logs.
I enjoy location portraiture, but prefer to work with some degree of control, as the family group demonstrates. During the spring, summer and autumn, I hardly ever take studio portraits, except passports and head shots.
Almost all my portraiture is on location, I am in walking distance from the forest preserve, just a few miles from Lake Michigan and within minutes from countless other natural beauty spots.
Next year I plan to shoot free sittings, spending early evenings in the park and scheduling half a dozen or so sittings between closing time and sunset. Portraits sales should increase tremendously with that.
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