You Are a Princess! – Second Place, Wallace Prize for Nonfiction

This morning, Joan Genest’s first order of business is piggy toes.

“What’s he doing these days, besides sleeping?” Rene, Joan’s husband, directs his question at Marcus’s parents. Assessing Marcus’s infant abilities is crucial to planning the session. “Is he sitting?” He is. “Crawling, walking, riding bikes, doing complex math problems?” Rene’s joking now, but the next question is important: “When you put him on his back, does he grab his feet?”

You Are a Princess!
Charlie Croom
You Are a Princess!

Marcus is a mild-mannered boy with a sweater vest and enormous cheeks. He is here so that Joan and Rene Genest, proprietors of Storytellers Photography in North Haven, can take his seven-month-old portrait. But first they need to get his shoes off. Bare feet are known, in the Storytellers literature (“Tips for a Successful Session”), as “piggy toes”: “There is nothing cuter than piggy toes showing in a portrait.” Piggy toes are ideal for the highly desirable on-back foot-grab.

In the studio, Joan changes into ballet slippers before assuming control of the baby, placing him on the blanket-swathed “boppy”—a plush donut designed to aid inexperienced sitters. “Gimme those fingers!” she says as she crawls on the floor, just to the side of Rene, who is poised silently with a digital camera. “I saw you! I saw you! Where did you go?” Joan maintains a steady, ceaseless patter. “Can I have those fingers? I want them! I want those fingers! Gimme those fingers! Where did you go? I want those fingers! Oh, you want them too.” She then makes a choo-choo noise. “I saw that teddy! I said, uh oh, what’s he doing? He’s a dribbler!” Here Marcus’s face requires mopping. “Make some noise,” Joan says to Rene. He emits a series of Donald Duck quacks. While Joan and Rene shoot, Mom and Dad are strictly forbidden to interact with them or with Marcus. They hover in the background, smiling and looking a little amazed.

Finally Marcus is diaper-clad, on his back, and coiled in pale blue chiffon. He’s giving wide, open-mouthed smiles—and, as hoped, grabbing his toes. “Who’s eating his toesies?” continues Joan. “Where’s Marcus?”

Marcus is right where she wants him.

He vomits promptly upon completing the session. There’s soft music playing in the background, the kind you might expect to hear in a jewelry store or the waiting room of a spa. Joan puts her street shoes back on. She escorts the family downstairs to discuss their next appointment.

***

The documentary photographer Dorothea Lange claimed, “It is no more an accident that the photographer becomes a photographer than the lion tamer a lion tamer.”

This was not obviously true of Joan Genest. Joan says that before she started dating Rene and assisting him on shoots, she was never particularly interested in photography. She offered to help carry his equipment, and ended up deciding that she might as well learn to take pictures herself. In three months she was shooting weddings—one of the most challenging assignments for a portrait photographer. She was a blonde twenty-one-year-old who looked about twelve; all things considered, she says, “I think people were surprised by how confident I was.” Now the Genests are a team. For baby portraits, Joan does the legwork while Rene snaps away; at nursery schools, Rene takes the lead; and when photographing high school seniors (another substantial chunk of their business) they each work independently.

Rene might reminisce fondly about his mother’s twin-lens reflex, but Joan came at photography from a business perspective—growing up, she had helped her dad with his tire store. “I knew every kind of tire there was,” she recalls. Photography was just another family business. Still: “I have a creative side,” she says. “I am left-handed.” She grew up in Connecticut and studied French at UVM before marrying Rene, who was one of her older brother’s friends. At the moment, she’s working to earn a fellowship from the American Society of Photographers. “I’m very competitive,” she explains. Qualifying entails selecting twenty-five prints around a theme (in her case, children’s photography) and writing a 2000 word thesis. Fortunately, she has plenty to say.

Two-week-olds: This is the perfect age for a sleeping-baby photo. Lay them on a heating pad and set the thermostat in the room to 85-95 degrees. Wait.

Three-month-olds: They can focus at a distance of one foot. If they see a human face, they’re happy; they don’t care who it is. This is a good age for portraits in christening outfits, maybe in a wicker basket.

Six-month-olds: When propped in the boppy, they can hold their own heads up. Mothers claim this is possible at three months; they’re wrong.

One-year-olds: Babies of this age are good for standing against props, because they generally can’t escape. Good props to stand a one-year-old against include bathtubs and chairs, although the Genests also have a restored Civil-War-era chest that works nicely. You just have to edit out any photos where the babies manage to detach themselves from the props, because if they do this they look weird and adrift.

Two-year-olds: At this point you have to worry about stranger anxiety. Here Joan’s real skill comes in—she has “a lot of psychology things” to coax forth a photo. She ignores the baby and plays with Mom to get its attention. “If they’re shy, I’m shy,” she says. “I hide behind Squeaky Bird.”

Squeaky Bird is old, maybe twenty. Joan has already had to replace his squeaker. As a “puppet connoisseur,” she knows a winner when she sees one, and Squeaky’s mouth opens wide enough that he can play catch. Still, she recently acquired a frog puppet as backup. Another important part of her arsenal is a collection of small, pastel-colored foam cat toys, which the Genests buy in bulk at the pet store.

In 1937, Alfred Dé Lardi wrote Your Child’s Portrait, a small but exhaustively specific guide to photographing children. To parents and other aspiring portrait photographers, he offered a compendium of suggested poses, sorted by age and accompanied by descriptions of the elaborate ruses necessary to achieve them. For example, he presented the following instructions on photographing two-to-four-year-olds:

To hold the child’s attention while you are photographing him, place a coin, preferably a twenty-five cent piece, in the center of your forehead and ask the boy to watch and see what happens. When you have attracted his attention, wrinkle your forehead and the coin will drop to the floor or into your palm, as the case may be. In this fleeting instant you will get a perfectly natural expression on the boy’s face.

Joan favors a less precisely choreographed approach. “The key up there is just to play,” she explains. “Up there” suggests a stage, and it’s true that the studio becomes a kind of theater: the child performs for Joan (maybe), Joan performs for the child (definitely), and even the parents do their best with the roles of Mom and Dad. In Joan’s hands, though, the show is all improv.

Of course, it’s partly the evolution of technology that encourages such spontaneity. Digital photography—with its liberating lack of film costs—means that contemporary photographers can shoot with an abandon unknown to Dé Lardi’s audience. Storytellers began the transition to digital shortly after high-quality digital cameras hit the pro market, around 1998. At the time, they cost $25,000-$35,000. After waiting for Kodak to release its next model, the Genests bought a DCS 520 for $9000, and it paid for itself in six months.

Joan remembers staying up until two or three every morning when she was first learning the digital processes. She still handles the computer work, which involves editing as well as such Photoshop tweaks, as acne removal and the occasional head-swap. Head-swaps are complimentary if necessary to create “the perfect shot” in a group photo—smiles all around and no messy hair. Sometimes, though, families specifically request them. In these cases Joan charges $25 a head.

She scorns the photographers who dump all their photos online and allow customers to wade through them. Storytellers does all sales on-site. Customers sit in a comfortable room and watch a PowerPoint presentation of images Joan has selected, highlighting her favorite few. She estimates that about 85 percent of the time the customers choose the pictures she recommends. With film, it took eight to ten weeks after shooting to fill an order; now, it’s one week at the most.

Today the Genests shoot with digital SLRs, a Canon 5D and a Kodak Pro SLR/n. They don’t have to worry about the silver stains and dichroic fog of 1937. But the spirit of their profession hasn’t changed much in the last seven decades: “First and most important of all, you must really like children,” Dé Lardi wrote. “You cannot pretend.”

***

This will be a rare autumn-themed portrait: the occasion calls for a painted backdrop and small scarecrow. Joan claims to be a Michael’s fiend (as in Michael’s craft store) while sprinkling fake leaves through the studio.

The family—Mom, Grandma, Isabella, Luciano, and Amalia—comes upstairs. Joan is already back in ballet slippers. Rene turns to the mother and grandmother. “You remember the one rule, right?” Dé Lardi would have supported the Storytellers ban on parental chatter. “The greatest annoyance in making photographs of children is that everyone in the room usually thinks up cute things to say to the baby,” he sniffed, “with the result that the infant does not know in which direction to look and your photographic efforts are a total failure.” Rene puts a finger to his lips, and Grandma gets in a last word before forking over the baby: “One thing about her—she loves ducks.”

All three kids wear clean white sweaters. Isabella, the oldest, looks bored. Mom has been placed out of sight behind a silver reflector, where she stands looking worried.

The Morizios are, on the whole, a worried-looking bunch. The baby, Amalia, becomes desperate once her pacifier is uncorked. She starts to whimper. “Where is that…jingleball?” Joan trills, and then begins to sing the alphabet as she fetches the ball from a shelf of toys. “She doesn’t like to sit like that,” says Isabella. “I think she wants the ball.” But now Joan is blowing bubbles and instructing Luciano to say “bananas,” then “hippopotamus,” then “pickles.” Amalia’s brown eyes remain concerned. Luciano’s hand drifts out of his pocket. “Don’t pick that nose,” says Isabella. Squeaky Bird is called into action. “Ducky. Ducky. Ducky. Ducky,” says Amalia. Joan is doing wind sprints back and forth with Squeaky before she resorts to bouncing a ball off Rene’s head. The silver reflector billows. “Ducky. Ducky,” continues Amalia. “Ducky.”

The Genests will shoot children only in the morning: despite what some parents claim, it’s the time when they’re happiest and best behaved. “The personalities—the pleasant personalities—really come out,” explains Rene. Amid the bubbles and jingleballs it’s hard to remember this, but the three kids have to smile for just a fraction of a second to make the picture. Or, failing that, Joan will head-swap.

***

A gold book sits on the coffee table in the waiting room. Its cover shows a blond family, all in white shirts and khakis, and the photographs inside have captions like “Beach Walkers,” “Threshold to Motherhood,” “The Whole World in My Hand,” and “Loving.” Some have painterly edges, or artificial colors. One is sepia-toned. Nowhere else do the blond children appear, but still, you can’t help feeling that you’re looking at some sort of surreal family album. The whole building continues this impression: it invites you to take a plush seat, stare at the myriad faces that line the walls, and imagine yourself, your picture, among them. The illusion of a hyper-home, a building oversaturated with family, is disrupted only by the businesslike restroom sign on one door.

In fact, the front part of the building is the Genest family home—their two children are away at college now, but they grew up here. Joan and Rene have made three additions to the house since buying it in 1982, creating more studio space, a couple of sales rooms, and a camera room. Despite the big-box stores nearby, the gray house’s maroon shutters look idyllic among the autumn leaves; the Genests used to take pictures out front, but the girls who came in for senior portraits would get catcalls from cars at the busy intersection. Now they shoot in the ample backyard, where they have enough props to simulate many photographic worlds. The highlight is their beach scene, a sandbox-like rectangle of gravel and tall grass surrounding a very brief “dock.”

The studio archives are located in the basement. One shot from 1986 shows a sassy girl with red nails and a red shirt peering over red sunglasses in front of a red background. She stands behind Venetian blinds, a popular prop at the time. “Holy smoke!” Rene says as he comes upon another photograph, the first he entered in professional competition. From 1982, it’s titled “Sweet Innocence,” and shows an angelic blond girl child. “Except for the clothes and the hairstyles,” he says, “it’s timeless.”

Of course, claiming a photograph, any photograph, as “timeless” is a tricky thing. Time is what photography captures; time is what photography depends upon; time is what gives photography its power. Time helps explain the particular appeal of photographing children: parents’ desire to record the passage of time, and the fact that children’s rapid changes give their recorded images an inevitable elusiveness.

Portraits were one of the earliest popular uses for photographic technology. With the development of the reasonably convenient and reasonably priced daguerreotype, ordinary sitters could own an image of themselves, provided they were willing to endure exposure times of several minutes and the use of a rigid posing apparatus to hold their head in place. Given the challenge of sitting still, perhaps it’s not surprising that many early children’s photos are post-mortem—families would bring deceased children to the studio for what would likely be their only portrait. The body would be posed as if sleeping.

Children and families were considered ideal subject matter for aspiring female photographers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: such portraits allowed them to work from home, and they were assumed to have an especially intuitive understanding of their sitters. Gertrude Käsebier was a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession (a group of self-consciously artistic photographers formed at the turn of the century), and the first issue of Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work was devoted to her photography. But, starting in 1897, she also ran a successful Fifth Avenue portrait studio. She was best known for her images of children and mothers, which captured spontaneity and activity, maternal bliss but also babies’ natural squirminess. One of Käsebier’s most famous works, “Blessed Art Thou Among Women,” depicts a softly focused mother and daughter in a doorway. It exemplifies her sense for elegant lighting and composition, fusing the subject matter of her portraiture with the sensibilities of her artistic work. Still, Käsebier resigned from the Photo-Secession in 1912 after Stieglitz, disdainful of her business acumen, accused her of operating “a commercial factory.”

As photographic technology became more convenient (no more glass plate negatives or messy emulsions), Kodak used kids to sell cameras to the masses. “All the little kings and queens of childhood’s realm command your Kodak,” declared one ad from the early twentieth century. Or, as a 1909 ad more tersely put it: “Kodak the children.” Kodak promised that if you pressed the button, the company would do the rest—and photography’s ease and accessibility only multiplied over the following century. In 2007, the New York Times ran a business story about mothers who bought cameras (the newly affordable high-end digital SLRs) to document their own babies, and then went on to start part-time photography businesses. The democratization of the medium, it seems, has come full circle. Although they’re derisively referred to as MWAC—“Mom With A Camera”—operations on some photo message boards, the Professional Photographers of America confirms their rising numbers. The MWACs may not have Käsebier’s artistic skills or aspirations, but they seem very much in line with the turn-of-the-century model of a domestic portraitist.

These days, when artists photograph children, they’re often trying to subvert such a tradition. In the early nineties, Sally Mann achieved enormous success with portraits of her three children playing, often naked, around the family’s rural Virginia home. The photographs depicted childhood as feral, messy, sexual. Wild controversy ensued. Mann was accused of child pornography but also inundated with press and sales; the work was deliberately provocative and shockingly beautiful, defiantly unlike any standard image of a child. In fact, the stereotypes of children’s portraiture (smiles, toys, a solitary figure in front of an artificially cheery backdrop) are familiar enough that riffing on them is a project unto itself, as in the work of German photographer Loretta Lux. Lux uses her own paintings as backdrops, turning the clean environment of the studio into a disconcerting void, and Photoshops her child models just enough to render them otherworldly—wide-eyed and feverish. As Critic Richard B. Woodward has noted, the modest scale of her prints further aligns the work with commercial portraits rather than fashionable art-world hugeness.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag said that “recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing”—and this was in 1973, long before the advent of cell phone cameras. So why are we still doing this? Why has so little changed in the 71 years since Alfred Dé Lardi instructed his readers to stick coins to their foreheads? What keeps families coming back to the studio?

***

Joan claims it’s the lighting. “Lighting is everything. It’s what sets us apart from the soccer mom with a point-and-shoot,” she says. The studio’s main light, the one that provides the picture’s base exposure, is covered in a large, square soft box that melts away shadow edges. Another set of lights gives the background texture. A fill light bounces off the ceiling. An accent light, with a strip soft box, skims in from the side to give the arrangement a touch of flavor: “It’s like garlic,” Joan says. She shakes her head. “My sister won’t go to the movies with me because I just talk about the lighting.”

When newborn Madison arrives for her session, the lights are indeed radiant. A swath of chiffon hangs from wires across the studio background. It’s supported by a combination of tulle and powerful-looking clamps.

“Did Joan tell you the one rule?” Rene asks Mom.

Joan did. But it’s hard to see why Mom would even try to interfere—Joan’s already working her magic. “You are a princess!” she informs Madison. “I never saw such a—what a silly girl! Peekaboo! I know you’re so funny. I know you’re so funny. What’s that all about? Beep beep. I said, beep beep beep.”

Madison is propped on her back, head elevated. She appears to be experiencing delight too great for her body to express. Her arms stretch and her mouth strains open in a smile.

“Can we borrow Mom for a minute?” Joan asks. “Can I borrow your hand?” She instructs the mother to take off her shoes and push up her sleeves. They get some shots with Mom’s hand resting near the baby on the baby stand. Then Joan escorts Mom off to change into a giant white men’s shirt. When she returns, Rene instructs Mom not to worry about the baby, just about herself. Joan adjusts the chair and demonstrates a pose. Rene turns to the grandmother who escorted Madison and Mom, and tells her how glad he is that her daughter would participate in the picture.

The studio, it seems, transforms everyone into a well-behaved child. And perhaps this is what keeps people coming back—the ritual that takes place beneath the lights. Here you can see yourself through Joan’s lens. You can play the role Joan creates for you. You are so funny, and Joan knows it.

The baby is curled against her mother’s forearms, their heads almost touching. Mom is frozen in place; Madison wriggles. Joan hovers behind Mom. She gives her a rub on the back and strokes her hair behind her ear. “Relax your shoulders a little,” she says. “I know. I know you’re working so hard.”

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