Starlight Photography has not budged from its spot in Fort Wayne, Indiana since ‘95, but owner William D. Miller, 57, still has to tell random folks he’s there. There is no signage above his studio. The company name, store hours, and phone number appear on the window, with some senior pictures, wedding shots, and quinceañeras portraits. “Some people come by and think I sell dresses,” explained Miller.
William Miller started leasing the studio before he even had a camera. Occasionally helping out a photographer friend turned into an opportunity to do it for himself, in his own place. The friend lent backdrops and a wind-up film camera.
Starlight has sustained because of accessibility, a strong work ethic, and word-of-mouth. Miller doesn’t advertise; he barely does Facebook. Yet this neighborhood photographer has captured generations of families over his tenure.
The week of his interview, Miller photographed a family of eight, but family sessions are infrequent at Starlight in 2016. Banquets, retirement parties, and quinceañeras, for the most part, fill his appointment book. He’s not booked every weekend anymore; his clients aren’t all African-Americans. But “if I ever did any kind of advertising, it would pick back up.” William Miller works enough.
Photography has become somewhat of a marginalized profession. “I used to have 12 or 15 seniors. Now I get two or three because their friends are taking pictures with their cellphones or tablets.” Cellphone and iPad/tablet cameras, digital cameras with their automatic settings and implied credibility, have made it difficult for the professional to maintain relevancy.
In bigger markets, the beat’s the same. Sonja Hughes, 50, S. Hughes Photography out of Chicago, has been a part-time photographer since 2009. She started shooting with a Polaroid. When she used film, “I couldn’t wait to get them developed and to find out [if] this was too slow, this was too high, or I just didn’t have my settings right.”
Hughes brought her still camera to the dinner table, to a friend’s house, to events, wherever she went. That kind of frequency normalizes photography. Snapping pics becomes everyday and “like breathing.” Eventually she was asked about her rates.
When she’s not shooting events and portraits, Hughes seconds on wedding gigs. Her biggest concern is cell-phone cameras. Once, the best friend of a groomsman tagged along for portraits, taking pictures with his phone. “Of course, when you take a shot, what do you do? You upload it to Facebook. And that’s all the time,” explained Hughes. “I hate to say it, but everyone with a camera is not a photographer. We get that a lot. They’ll say, ‘hey, I’m a photographer too.’ They’ll watch what you do, and they’ll copy exactly what you do. But I’m creating an image. There’s a reason I’m pressing the shutter button…creating memories.”
Photographer Amber Knowles, 33, The Amber Studio out of Dallas, never thought she would be artist. After graduating from NYU, Knowles attended the renowned Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, as her way of “putting off getting into real world. I wasn’t quite sure after college what I wanted to do. That was my way of figuring it out.” Back in New York, she assisted fashion and celebrity photographers. When she was laid off from her job, photography did the heavy lifting.
Knowles does more than weddings. She just photographed year-one baby pictures for the same family that she also shot newborn pics for, after shooting the couple’s wedding and engagement photographs. (Her photography has been featured on EBONY.com).
“I’m registered. I pay taxes. My prices reflect that. A lot of photographers are not legit businesses, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” explained Knowles. “And part of this is the customer service aspect of it. I’m going to give my clients a great experience from beginning to end. I think that sets me apart from the average person who just bought a camera.”
As for myself, I’ve been a paid photographer since 2003, and I hate talking about it. I recently was at a business lunch, and mentioned my photography. It wasn’t until I listed a short resume (I’ve shot for USA Today several times, Black Enterprise Magazine, etc.) that I made an impression. “Oh, you’re not just some guy with a camera.” I have lost the ability to impress — to brag — by just mentioning the name of what I do.
As the status of the professional photographer has taken a hit, so has the value of the professional photograph, whether it’s taken by a working photographer or by a photo enthusiast.
Award-winning filmmaker and photographer Thomas Allen Harris knew the latter. “Growing up, my grandfather was an amateur photographer. Anytime he had all of his grandkids together for Easter or any event, he would take an hour to pose us. That was a ritual that I grew up with.”
Albert Sidney Johnson would pass the camera amongst his grandkids. Family members learned to process pictures in Johnson’s basement. Photography became “a rite of passage,” Harris described.
Grandfather Johnson shot on 16mm and Super 8 film, as well as on video. Above all else, Johnson “was a race man. He was very in tune to representation, with how [African Americans] were being viewed in popular culture,” said Harris. Albert Johnson was Thomas Allen Harris’ favorite storyteller.
At Harvard, Harris was studying to become a doctor. “Something told me I was artist.” He spent his senior year taking photography and creating writing classes; he eventually photographed fashion in Europe, and then at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, shooting events in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. A job in public television led to experimental and documentary filmmaking.
Harris’ most notable, most Netflix-able work is the award-winning (recently Emmy-nominated) documentary Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014), telling the root-to-the-fruit quest for social change set by history’s black photographers. Family photography (and family pictures taken by Albert Johnson) leads the way.
Hughes echoed the film’s sentiment. “There’s a need for documentation of history, generations, and legacies for African American families. When I think of the images I see of my ancestors, it solidifies the need for African American photographers.” She belongs to the Chicago Alliance of African American Photographers (CAAAP). “We are group of individuals focused on telling the stories of the African American life.”
Family pictures, said Harris, “are just as important now, probably even more so than they were back in the day. Most people are taking digital images using their cell phones, but they’re also not taking their images out, they are losing the images in [all of] those of images we click off everywhere.”
Harris’ longtime project has taken on the cause of re-energizing the family photograph, making it an all-inclusive, hunt-gather-show-and-tell. Since 2009, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) has been touring the country (and overseas) with its multimedia community engagement event, the DDFR Roadshow. DDFR bridges inter-generational and cross-cultural differences, deeply affecting participants in intimate and surprising ways.
“We educate people about the importance of “puration” in terms of out of all the images they take, which ones they print out and why.”
Over 25,000 images have been collected across 40+ roadshows. “In almost every roadshow, the black folks have showed up with the oldest images in the room [of] 50 to 150 people, [some] back to the 1840s,” said Harris. Roadshow attendees are photographed with their family picture(s), and are recorded telling the story of each photograph.
In Atlanta, African American families brought trunk loads of images, eight to nine generations deep. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a Katrina refugee told the story of a handful of surviving family pictures; they were wallet-sized, from a studio photographer, and protected in his billfold. “If those had been 4×6 images, they might never have survived,” said Harris. One guy who joined the Digital Diaspora Facebook page has 16mm footage of his war-pilot father recording himself flying.
The DDFR has extended their outreach to college campuses and youth organizations, like in Oakland and Philadelphia.
Thomas Harris uses footage and still photography from his grandfather in all of his projects. He keeps finding more. “It’s my inheritance to use them and remix them.”
When this writer was just out of college, I inherited my Uncle Paul’s photography stash when he passed, including some old cameras and a brown camera bag. Soon after, I bought a digital Canon 10D, the “it” camera around ‘03. With bag and my camera, I was set.
Like Thomas, I grew up with family members who were photo enthusiasts; I have so many pictures of my uncles taking pictures or reloading film, cousins chillin’ with a camera at rest.
A running theme in my work, just like in the Gibson family portfolio, is taking pictures of other people as they take pictures, whether they’re using a camera or a phone. I never get tired of it.
William Bryant Rozier is a writer, photographer, and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter @scrameggsdotnet.