By Robert M. Johnson
Know what an epigram is? I’ve got one for you: “Man is predator.” Say that to yourself. “I am a predator.” Again. This time grit your teeth.
Feel those muscles tightening? That saliva flowing?
Now, say it one more time. But this time think of chomping down on a nice cuddly three-month-old baby. Grrrrrr!
Incongruous? Strange? Certainly. But that’s exactly what it’s going to take if you want to be a success at baby photography.
There used to be a bunch of outfits that did it. Lullaby. Peter Pan. Van Gogh. Those were the biggies. But there were others.
You got a coupon from a diaper service. Someone gave you a gift certificate at your baby shower. A friend of yours made a referral. The come-on was always a free five-by-seven or a discounted eight-by-ten.
A pleasant-sounding lady would call, congratulating you on your newborn. “Awww. Is it a boy or a girl? Awww.”
Then the pitch began. “Have you and your husband heard about our special offer? We’re going to have a photographer in your area about 10 AM tomorrow. I’d like to put you down for an appointment. Is that all right?”
You agree. After all, it’s free. Right?
So you follow her instructions. By 10 AM you’ve located a light-colored comforter, a pillow, a receiving blanket, a rattle, and a small stuffed animal. And you’ve got your three-month-old bathed, fed, burped, and primped.
Sure enough, about 10:07 a young man lugging a large black case and a six-foot roll of what seems to be wallpaper arrives on your doorstep. In less than six minutes he’s introduced himself, coochie-cooed your baby, and rearranged your living room.
He’s opened that black case and pulled out all manner of folding tripods and light stands. He’s uncoiled cords that spaghetti this way and that across your carpets. He’s commandeered your coffee table, opened an umbrella inside your house. And unfurled and hung his roll of wallpaper, his portable blue backdrop.
Yes, blue. It’s always blue. Not a cloud in the sky. Get it?
Six minutes after he’s entered your living room, he’s ready. His lights are glowing. His camera is loaded, mounted on its tripod, and pointed toward your coffee table. Your comforter is spread over the coffee table, and his backdrop is behind it.
Then this stranger who’s invaded your house turns to face your baby.
“Ooo, such a cute little baby.” His fingers reach out and he touches your baby’s nose. “What’s that? Is that your nose? Is that your little nose?”
And your baby grins, and gurgles, and tries to squirm into his arms. He snatches her from you and lifts her high in the air, twirling her, wiggling her sweet little arms like plucked chicken wings. “Ooo, you sure are a cute little baby.”
This is making you nervous. But she’s cooing, smiling, loving every second of it.
Then he throws you a lifeline. “Mom,” he says, “I need your help.” He tells you to get down on your knees beside the coffee table. (On your knees?) Then he sits your baby on the comforter, takes your hand, and instructs you to grab the back of your baby’s outfit tightly in your fist.
You obey, but inside your mind is objecting. “My baby’s not a doll. I’m not a ventriloquist.”
“Hold her steady now,” he cautions, “so she won’t fall.”
(So she won’t fall?)
In another few seconds he’s draped your arm so it doesn’t show, rechecked his focus and framing, and begun teasing your baby with her own rattle.
In this position you feel as if you’re offering your child up for sacrifice. And it hurts your back, too.
Your daughter reaches for the rattle, giggling, eyes bright. “Ah, ha.”
POP! His lights flash. Baby blinks. The home invader cranks his camera. “Whoa, what was that? What was that?” (It was pose number one.)
He turns her slightly. Helps you adjust your grip. Puts the rattle in her hand. And touches her on the nose. “What’s that? Is that your nose?”
She grins at him. POP! (Pose number two.)
Next he brings out the stuffed animal and waves it in front of her. Her eyebrows rise. “Ooo,” she pouts. POP! (Pose number three.)
The magician cranks his camera. “Oo, such a sweet little baby.” And so it goes, through pose number seven, sitting, and prone, and playing peekaboo from beneath a blanket, with all manner of tickles and coos and caresses that elicit wide-eyed giggles and goos and grins.
Until finally, your baby’s ephemeral soul locked within his magic box, the snake charmer says “That’s it.” And he steps forward and picks your baby up, saying, “Such a good baby. Such a good good baby.”
You stand, rubbing your back, and he hands your baby back to you. And you think, “Thank God it’s over.”
But it’s not. For now the ransoming begins.
“What does your husband do?” (He’s already looked around your living room, to see what you spend your money on.)
But you’re more interested in when you get to see the pictures.
“Three weeks,” he says.
“And then I just choose one, is that it?”
(That’s great. You’re leading him. He doesn’t have to work as hard.)
“We took seven poses today,” he says. “And you saw. All the pictures are going to be beautiful.”
“I can order extras, can’t I?”
(Way to go. You’re selling yourself.)
By the time he’s finished putting his equipment away he’s on the floor at your knees. “Let me show you what I’ve got,” he says. And he hands you a brochure and begins his spiel.
For him, and for anyone in his shoes, even you, should you think maybe you’ve got what it takes to be a baby photographer, this is the hard part. This is when the customer gets a chance to really look at you, see into your eyes. And if they don’t like what they see, you’re wasting your time. They’re not going to write you a check.
“You don’t get the cash, you’re not a baby photographer,” is the way Phil puts it. Phil is the manager at one of the remaining local outfits. (The names in this article have been changed).
He manages a stable of 12 to 20 photographers, and another cadre of telemarketers and outside salespeople. Phil’s a short, husky bald guy in his 50s who always wears a tie and wide suspenders. He’s one of the old-timers. Been here over 20 years.
Phil doesn’t smile anymore. It’s all nameless faces and numbers and addresses for him now. That’s because Phil doesn’t shoot babies anymore. Instead, he hires others to do it for him.
In the old days, Phil worked a 20-minute schedule–three houses, three babies every hour, ten hours a day, six days a week. He must have smiled then. Impossible to coochie-coo a baby without a smile and a silly noise.
Imagine one of those sad clown portraits with all the greasepaint and the balloon nose wiped away. That’s Phil now.
Phil’s the guy who tells you what it’s like out there, should you answer one of those ads in the Sunday job guide, the one that reads something like “Students/Teachers/Amateur Photographers, earn $500-$800 a week during summer vacation shooting portraits of children. We train, provide equipment. Must have car, valid driver’s license.”
As many as 20 people will answer that ad, well-groomed, hopeful people, both men and women. Phil talks to them en masse. He tells them what it takes to do the job.
He tells them it takes stamina to lug 60 pounds of equipment in and out of a car and up and down stairs all day. He tells them it takes a reasonable amount of intelligence to set up and use the equipment effectively. He tells them you need to know kids and be able to handle babies. He tells them it takes a mysterious x factor involving enthusiasm and motivation to succeed. And finally, he assures them, “If you haven’t got the guts to ask for the money, this job’s not for you.”
Phil explains the money part very carefully. You put up a $250 security deposit for the equipment. You pay $25 a week for insurance and service on that equipment. You pay all your own car expenses. You pay for any film you lose or waste. You take a penalty for any reshoots. You get paid something less than minimum wage for shooting the pictures. What money you do earn, if you earn any money at all, is in sales. You’ll start at 14 percent. And if you’re good, and you hang in there, you can graduate to 28 percent, and later 30 percent, and finally 32 percent.
“It’s all up to you,” he says. And he means it. If you don’t make the sale, no skin off his nose. The company can’t lose, you see.
It works like this. If you don’t make the sale, tough. The company just sends in an outside sales rep when the proofs come back. They make the sale. They get the commission. You’re out of the loop.
And if the pictures aren’t any good, the company just sends in another photographer to reshoot. You get charged for his time and film and the process begins anew. You’re still out of the loop. You get nothing.
Phil doesn’t say this, but as soon as you listen to the money picture, it’s got to dawn on you: if you don’t have that predatory instinct, that not-so-mysterious x factor, you don’t have what it takes to be a babyman.
Of the 20 or so people Phil talks to in that room of his, maybe 2 or 3 have ever used a camera to make money. Most are in their 20s, a few in their 30s, one or two over 40.
Sixty pounds of equipment is a lot to lug around all day. Slight women and older men drop out first. Those not mechanically inclined, too morally principled, or unavailable six days a week are next to go. For the most part, people who don’t like kids haven’t bothered to show up.
That just leaves the stupid, the morally bankrupt, and the ones with genuine potential for Phil to weed through. In a five-minute personal interview, Phil can find out everything he needs to know about you. If you’re one of the two or three he thinks have potential, he’ll tell you to show up at 8:30 the next morning. That’s when your training will start.
Say you answer that ad. Say you get through round one. Say it’s the next morning, 8:30 AM. A Wednesday, sunny. Things are already humming at the office. A couple of hopefuls are filling in applications out front. Three or four sales reps are at their desks. Edith, head of telemarketing, a burly bleached blond who’s one of Phil’s generation, is busily delivering route sheets.
Phil is in his glass office conferencing with Kurt, head of photogs. They’re planning who to stick the new trainees with. Can’t be with someone who’s got a bad week going, they’ll just rag on the business. Can’t be with someone who’s having a spectacular week, either. It’ll kill momentum, dampen their incentive.
The back room is full again, all the photogs this time. They hit the home office every Wednesday morning. Time to turn in their film and money, and figure out what kind of week they’ve had. Time to share horror stories, see how everybody else is doing, get keyed up for the next hunt.
The back door is open. There’s no smoking in the building. Half the group is outside on the back stoop sucking Luckys. The place is like a caddy shack, everyone waiting, nervous.
Inside, Tim is by himself, standing, looking at his sheets. He’s upset. He’s already looked at the board. He’s last this week in dollar amount sold. “The thing that gets me,” he says, “I sold more packages than anyone else.”
But he sold the small ones. You’ve got to sell the big ones to get the big bucks.
He looks at you with tired eyes. “I don’t know,” he says. “I think I’m getting sick of this again.”
Tim has done this before. A couple of years ago, he worked for six months then quit. He’s been back now for two months. Maybe he hasn’t got what it takes. It’s hard to say. Of the 12 or 15 photogs in the room and out on the stoop, only 4 or 5 have been doing this for more than a year.
Gene’s one of them. He’s relaxing in a corner with a magazine. He’s in his late 30s or early 40s, kind of sloppy-looking, a little like Uncle Buck. This is his seventh or eighth year. His sales are average, but he does more shoots than anyone. He’s settled in. He’s comfortable.
Kurt’s been here awhile, too. He’s head of photogs now. Kurt and Gene look a lot alike. But Kurt’s got an edge to him, like he’d cut you if you got in his way. He says, “We’re gonna send you out today, kid. But first, go get checked out on the equipment. See Art in the basement. Then get back to me.”
Art’s been around awhile, too. Ever wonder where all those hard-core hippies ended up, the real cynical ones? Art’s one of those. They still tease him about finally cutting his hair. The last remnant of his angry youth is a tiny patch of beard just under his lower lip.
Art shoots babies now and again, but his main job is keeping the photogs’ equipment functioning. He has a couple of pet peeves. One of them is disorder in that heavy case the photogs lug around all day.
“First of all,” he tells the group, “disorder destroys equipment. Lights get broken, cords get damaged, umbrellas get ripped. And for Pete’s sake, clean your camera once in a while.
“Look,” he says, “we all do it. Mommy’s got baby all cleaned up. You’ve got everything set. Just then baby starts to spit up. You’re not gonna let a little vomit spoil the shoot, so you stick your hand in and catch it, before the kid gets himself all messed up. We all do it. But guys, you gotta wash your hands afterward, and clean your equipment once in a while. That stuff builds up.”
Art’s got another handy bit of advice, too. He warns that occasionally static builds up on some of the equipment.
“You wanna get along with that kid, don’t discharge static on him.” But then he pauses, and sort of winks. “But if the kid’s been a real pain, feel free. Zap him one. Tell mommy it was an accident.”
By 10:30 Kurt’s assigned you to a photog for the day. You follow his car until you get to the general area of today’s shoots, then you park and ride with him. He’s a young guy, early 20s. Thin, tall, dark hair, bright eyes. His name is Mark.
Mark’s been at this for six months, now. He’s doing well. But reports from some mothers are that he’s loud. His antics sometimes scare the babies. First house, you see what they’re talking about.
Outside the door he’s nervous, jittery. It’s begun to rain and he’s getting drenched. Inside, he’s all over the floor on his hands and knees, trying to dry out while playing peekaboo with the kid. All the while he’s setting up his equipment. The kid is Greek, a girl, about three. She has curly blond hair and adorable blue eyes.
Mark never stops talking. He’s like a toy you can’t turn off. Even during his spiel he hardly gives mommy and daddy a chance to think. He just marches them through it, over and over again. Until finally, to shut him up, to get rid of him, they pick something and give him a check. Forty minutes later Mark’s out the door, packing a $140 sale.
Mark’s actually a design student from the U. of I., working on a concept for a comic book and a few toy designs while looking for a position with a design firm. You ask him if he’s ever considered theater, or working as a clown.
He laughs, and wonders if you’re joking. Mark lives with his parents. He’s not married. Between shoots, he girl-watches. He never stops for coffee, or even lunch.
“Once I get started,” he says, “I can’t stop. Maybe I’ll buy a banana or an apple. But that’s it until it’s over.”
Mark likes working-class neighborhoods best. “Some guys wanna just work the North Shore. I don’t. Those people wanna see the pictures first. They won’t buy from the photographer. These people wanna save money, so they’ll buy from me.”
What Mark’s talking about is the part in the spiel where he tells customers they’ll save about a third if they buy up front from him. And he backs that up by promising satisfaction. “If they don’t like the pictures, I tell them I’ll reshoot.”
Among ethnics, Mark has favorites, too.
“Greeks buy lots of pictures,” he says. “So do Hispanics. And blacks, they like big pictures, 16-by-20s. I’d shoot more blacks, if they gave them to me. But we don’t do some zip codes.
“I’ve only had trouble one time,” he says. “I came back from a shoot and this guy was sitting on my car. I got in the opposite side, so I wouldn’t have to deal with him. He was still hanging on my door handle when I drove away.”
Just so happens Mark’s next stop is a black family. Mom’s home alone with a two-year-old and a pair of six-week-old twins. Mark shoots them all, separately and together. The little girl is adorable and the twins are a trip. They’re too young to hold their heads up, so Mark leans them against each other, and they teeter dizzily, looking like they’re about to throw up. Mom buys a $180 package with a postdated check. “My husband’s going to kill me.”
Mark feels no remorse. “I wouldn’t wanna take their rent money. But they’re both working. She’s got a job part-time with the phone company. They got a stereo and a TV. There’s money around.”
Mark’s next house is a tough one. The lady wants him to take his shoes off at the door so as not to track on the white carpet.
“Don’t you have anything but blue?” she asks Mark, as he unfurls his backdrop. And after he’s set up for the usual head and shoulders, she asks, “Can’t you do a full-length?”
When Mark’s all done with the shoot she says, “I don’t know why you came today, anyway. We just had pictures taken a few months ago. If only the background wasn’t blue.”
Mark gets credit for the shoot, but it goes down as a no sale.
“About a third sell themselves,” he says. “Another third won’t buy no matter what you do. That lady’s one of those. The middle third you’ve got to work for.”
By work, Mark means seduce, manipulate, wheel and deal. That’s the part that tests your mettle, proves if you’ve got that x factor, really are a predator by nature.
The hard work, the song and dance, goes something like this: “We’ve been in business for more than 50 years. I mean, my parents have pictures of me taken by this company. We do good work, and we’ve done it for a very long time.”
He’s selling you on tradition. It’s cultural, he’s telling you. He’s implying it’s practically un-American not to buy baby pictures.
“Now, obviously we make money by selling the pictures we take. You have a coupon for one free five-by-seven. No matter what else you decide to do, that’s yours.”
He’s telling you you’ve already won the jackpot, proof positive the streets of America really are paved with gold. And that gold even comes with a guarantee.
“Now, if for some reason you don’t like any of the poses we did today, I’ll come back and reshoot them until we get something you do like.
“This is a service business,” he assures you. He’s selling you on his integrity. (Integrity? Well, maybe, sort of.)
“We shoot pictures of hundreds of babies every week. We wouldn’t be in business if people didn’t like what we do.”
You’re listening, but perhaps not to what he’s saying. He has nice eyes. That’s what you’re listening to. They are welcoming you to the club, legitimizing your status as a mom, a real live, honest to goodness all-American mom. You start to daydream.
He’s watching your eyes glaze over. And he’s ready.
“And, if you want extra prints, some of the other poses? Duplicates for grandma and grandpa? The relatives? You have two chances to buy. You can buy from me, or you can buy from the salesperson who shows you the proofs.”
That’s nice, you think. But then he cautions you.
“If you wait until later, the prices will be higher. You can save money, about one-third, if you buy from me.”
Uh-oh. The pressure’s on. Buy now or lose something. Your baby’s soul is being held in the balance. The only question is how much you’re going to pay.
He’s watching you. You start to squirm.
“Now, obviously,” he says, “some people feel uncomfortable making a commitment to buy something they’ve never seen. I understand that. If you’d rather wait until later, that’s fine with me. No pressure.”
He’s schmoozing you, getting you to relax, lower your defenses.
“But you were here,” he says. “You know what we did. You know you’re gonna want these pictures.”
He’s building your confidence.
“Let me just show you some of the samples I have, and you can get an idea of how your pictures are going to look.”
He’ll then pull out a 14-by-17-inch mat board, with five gold-edged oval windows displaying someone else’s baby in five poses. Your baby sees the pictures and wants to touch. He lets her. And you smile.
“Now this could be for you,” he says. And you begin to think, imagining what it would be like to see your baby in gilded edges on your living room wall.
“And for the two sets of grandparents–because you know they’re gonna want pictures too–we have something like this.” And he holds up an 11-by-14, printed with five vignetted poses.
Oops, you’re not impressed. Perhaps not enough gold? That’s OK, he’s got something even better, and even more expensive.
“Or this.” He holds up a tri-fold album frame, with a center eight-by-ten and three-by-fives in each of the two wings. “We call this our TV album,” he smiles, “because people like to display it on their TVs.”
It’s nice, actually nicer than the gilded 14-by-17. “How much is that?” you ask, pointing to the TV album.
He grins. He’s got his nibble.
“If you buy it later,” he tells you, “you’ll pay $90 apiece. That’s $270: one for you, one for each grandparent. If you buy from me, they’re $60 apiece. And I throw in a five-year membership in the Birthday Club, where we come out to your house five more times, usually at six months, at one year, at age two, at three, and again at four. You pay only a small film fee each time, and from each of those sessions you get one free eight-by-ten.”
He’s still watching you. That’s good, you’re taking it all in. How much was that film fee? Your brow wrinkles a bit.
But he’s ready for you. He throws you a curve. “And if you have other children, by then . . . ”
“If?” Is that a challenge? Just who does this guy think he is?
That’s good, your juices are flowing. And he’s watching. You’re getting ready to bite and bite hard. And he’s ready to reel you in.
“We’ll even include them in the picture.”
Them being your other children. He’s giving you the benefit of the doubt, a chance to prove yourself. And he’s even got a little payoff ready for you should you succeed in jumping through his hoop.
“If you asked us out separately each time, you’d have to pay $50 to $100 for each sitting, and there’d be a separate charge of $80 for each of the eight-by-tens. If you bought the TV albums and the Birthday Club all later, you’d have to pay over $900. But if you buy from me now, you get the three TV albums, one for you and one for each of the grandparents, and you get the five-year Birthday Club, and five free eight-by-tens, all for only $180.”
He’s smiling broadly now, like he’s doing you a big favor, like he’d be oh so pleased to sign you up as an all-American mom of true distinction.
And his eyes are making you feel so welcomed. But then you start to think, “$180?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “My husband.”
He doesn’t even give you a chance to finish.
“You know what husbands say most of the time? “She does that.’ That’s what they say. “She buys the kid’s clothes and all the pictures. I just pay for it.’
“Believe me, husbands trust their wives in these matters.”
He knows you’re interested. He knows you want to bite. But he also knows he’s got to build your confidence.
“You were here,” he says. “You know they’re going to be wonderful pictures. And if they’re not, we’ll reshoot them until both you and your husband are completely satisfied. That’s our guarantee: happy moms, happy babies.”
It’s those eyes, his nice eyes. “OK,” you say. And he’s got you for $180.
Not bad, from his point of view, for 30 minutes’ work.
But it’s tiring work, very tiring work. By the end of the day Mark’s worn out, testy, reclusive. He’s worked hard on that middle third. And as day one draws to a close, you’ve got to ask yourself if you’re willing to work that hard, as hard as Mark does, to become a babyman.
Only about half the trainees manage to make it to day two. Phil gives them all a call late at night. “Got my report on you. We’re wondering if you can hack it?”
You get such a call. His plan is to put you on the defensive, cover you with doo-doo, see if you can take it. He’s got to know if he’s wasting his time with you.
You’re feeling ambitious. You’re game. So you pitch him. “I can do it, Phil. And here’s why . . . ”
And if you do a fair job of selling yourself he tells you, “Be there again at 8:30 AM tomorrow.”
Day two. Phil hands you a three-by-five card with a name and address on it. He tells you to meet up with Ron, another of the photogs, by 9:30. He tells you Ron drives a gray Escort.
The address is in Uptown. You hustle. It’s already after 9.
Traffic’s heavy–9:35. You spot the Escort outside a high-rise apartment building, rear axle sagging. No Ron. You buzz the name on the card. No answer. You wait.
A fat lady, a really fat lady, in fuzzy pink pants comes out of the building. She’s leading a large mongrel on a leash. You buzz again. No answer.
The fat lady leads the mongrel along the sidewalk to just past the edge of the building. She watches the dog as it circles a spot on the pavement before taking a dump, a really big dump. You buzz again. Still no answer.
The fat lady in pink pants watches patiently as the big dog circles another spot on the pavement a foot and a half over. He takes another dump and a guy walking by complains loudly. The lady ignores him and so does the dog. Eventually, the lady waddles back into the building, leaving the dog’s crap on the pavement. Still no answer. You go back to your car and wait.
About 10 AM, Ron comes out. “You didn’t miss nothin’. She didn’t have any money. Tracks all up and down her arm. Drug baby. Stiff as a board. Could hardly get it to smile.”
Ron takes it in stride. He’s smoother, calmer, more reserved than Mark. “Hop in,” he says.
You leave your car. He’ll bring you back later.
Ron’s got a car phone. Mark didn’t have one of those. “It comes in handy,” he says. “But no. I don’t use it to call ahead. You don’t wanna give ’em a chance to tell you not to come.”
Next house, you see what he means. A four-year-old answers the door. Mommy and daddy are in bed. They don’t want to be disturbed. But Ron is persistent. Finally, the husband comes to the door in his bathrobe, flushed, hair mussed, breathing irregularly.
“We just had pictures taken last week. We don’t need any more goddamn pictures. Now get out of here.”
Ron’s feathers remain unruffled. “They don’t want to buy,” he says. “Fine. I ain’t gonna beg. Some guys’ll take out pictures of their own kids. “You don’t buy,’ they say, “my kids don’t eat.’ Gene does that. I don’t need any sale that bad.”
Perhaps Ron’s coolness derives from his background. He used to be a professional bowler.
A professional bowler? That’s right. Before that he managed a dating service, one of the expensive ones, until one of the VPs left the country with all the assets. Ron was out of a job for a while, then decided on professional bowling. He took a solid year to train, then went on tour for five years. He earned enough money to buy a couple of laundromats and a couple of apartment buildings. He says he could have retired at age 30.
“But all my friends work. I had to do something. So I took up baby photography. I’ve always enjoyed selling. The rest of it I thought I could learn. Four months after I started, I was earning more money than anyone else in the country. Last year, between October and Christmas, I earned $18,000. I know how this business works, that’s why I don’t get rattled easy. I know I can just coast, and still bring in seven or eight hundred a week.”
Ron is certainly a smooth salesman, but that’s not the whole story. Ron’s good with kids too. He’s gentle, encouraging. Late in the afternoon, a three-month-old East Indian girl is putty in his hands, a glowing delight of giggles and squirms.
He decides to let you try. After all, this is day two of your training. But when you take over, the little girl turns fearful.
Grandma is watching carefully. She’s impressed with Ron. She makes the sale for him. He doesn’t have to do a thing.
“For the really difficult ones,” Ron tells you, “I use bubbles. Kids really light up for bubbles. You make the kids light up, and the parents are gonna want the pictures.”
It’s a comforting thought, believing all you have to do is take good pictures and they’ll sell themselves. And after watching Ron work, you can almost believe it. But then you remember how hard Mark had to work. And you remember the look of discouragement in Tim’s eyes. And you remember the cynicism in Art’s and Kurt’s voices.
Either way it falls, you’ve got to admit, it takes a certain breed to be a babyman. And as day two draws to a close, you’re going to have to ask yourself again, are you one of that particular breed?
For those who are, who can do the job and do it well, the money is good. Phil says their top photog earned $55,000 last year.
That’s why these guys do it. That’s why they’re willing to drive around all day, six days a week, lugging 60 pounds of equipment in and out of apartment buildings and up and down stairs. Not for the joy of being with kids, who sometimes cry and scream and puke all over you. And not for the opportunity to court cute moms, who most of the time are tired, harried, and irritable. And not for the love of photography. Most of these guys don’t even think of themselves as photographers. They’re predators, pure and simple.
The number of companies that do in-home baby photography is dropping. Lullaby, Peter Pan, and most of the rest are gone now, out of business, gobbled up.
Should you decide to give this gig a try, your competition will come from neighborhood portrait studios, and from a few high-volume in-store studios run by companies like Sears and Marshall Field’s. And there are a few chain studios popping up in shopping malls. But in all of those places customers have to wait in line for a five-minute chance to have their babies photographed in front of the same blue background you’ll use.
They’re forced to listen to the same sales pitch you’ll use too. But it’s not in the customer’s own home, and it’s not with the baby’s own blankets and toys.
In all those chain-store studios babies are photographed with somebody else’s blankets and somebody else’s toys, blankets and toys handled over and over again by hundreds of babies. Somehow, it’s not as personal as a guy invading your home.
In-home baby photography started up as the Depression was ending and the baby boom was just beginning. To make a buck then, you had to hustle, you had to work hard, and you had to never give up. Notions of craftsmanship, artistry, job security, pleasant working conditions, and four-day work weeks never entered the picture. In a very real sense, the sweatshop traditions that began with the industry continue today.
But in the meantime, Kodak, Canon, and Sony have all tried their best to nudge such operations out of business by putting cameras into the hands of parents. But not every parent can manage the socially legitimizing ritual that includes a blue backdrop and shadowless strobe lights.
To be photographed against that backdrop, with that special lighting, has become a benchmark of acceptance into our culture, like learning to ride a bike, learning to drive a car, getting a college education. Every parent wants the best for his kid. Every parent wants to touch those benchmarks.
The eagerness of first-time parents and first-time grandparents, and their knowledge that babies change so fast, all that is what keeps the money rolling in for these guys, these babymen. It’s the scent they thrill to.
But they don’t last long. The turnover rate in baby photography is astonishing. That’s why nearly every week you’ll see that ad in the Sunday job guide, encouraging you to give Edith a call.
And if someday you feel particularly predatory, perhaps you will.
An epigram is like a jingle. It sticks in your mind because it’s simple and blatantly clear. While the epigram “Man is predator” may be the necessary operational mindset of baby photographers, the extraordinarily high turnover rate is probably adequate evidence the epigram is invalid.
There may be a few pariahs who actually manage to find their calling in this and similar professions. But the overwhelming majority test the waters only to turn away.
In honor of those who have tried but failed, and in equal homage to all this profession’s innocent marks, the babies and their adoring parents, who are seduced by the need to feel like legitimate members of our society, a more apt epigram might be: “Predators maybe, but victims mostly.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs of babies by Cynthia Howe.