By Patrick Roberts
It is school picture day, and the little girl in pigtails won’t stop crying. Perhaps she thinks the camera will steal her soul. I am tempted to reassure her with a firm and pointed “Relax!” but fortunately for her (or actually her parents), photographer Brian Warling has far more patience than I. “Peek-a-boo,” he says from behind the oval light reflector. Sitting on a low table in front of a white backdrop, the sobbing girl turns her head in Warling’s direction. He steps out from behind the reflector and hoots like a monkey. It’s the smart move of a professional who takes pride in his work because, well, who doesn’t love a monkey? Warling’s ploy is just enough to get the girl smiling, sort of, and he quickly takes some photos. When finished, the little girl climbs off the table, gives one last cathartic sob, and then turns her attention to a helium-voiced kid banging on the foosball table in the corner of the room.
“Anyone who hates children and animals,” W. C. Fields is said to have remarked, “can’t be all bad.” For me it depends on the children and the animals. I personally hate ferrets and the Little Rascals. Brian Warling very much likes children (and animals too from the sound of it), which is a good thing because over the next few months he will personally shoot more than three thousand of them. A commercial photographer who specializes in children, Warling started his company Picture Day five years ago with one school. Today he shoots school pictures in more than thirty. Add in summer camps and other youth-oriented gatherings, and all told he and his part-time staff will photograph approximately 20,000 kids over the course of a year.
As part of the collective experience of schooling, most of us probably remember an assembly-line approach to our school pictures—line them up and get them through like a cattle brand. Warling’s goal is to change that approach, and he is motivated by a genuine, if not contradictory, impulse to honor childhood and treat children as the individuals they are. “I think kids are these beautiful, sort of pure souls,” he says. “I believe that fundamentally, but I also believe they are human. If they can be photographed with some complexity, so much the better.” And that is the challenge Warling sets before himself in both his commercial and school-picture work. A commercial client interested in packaging childhood for resale seems not too unlike a parent interested in preserving for future consumption the memory of a particular child. In both cases, Warling must balance the client/parent’s implicit need to objectify children and idealize childhood with his own creative impulse to present children as the complex and contradictory entities they in fact are. Sexualized in their innocence and neglected in their privilege, few things in the United States are viewed with as much conflicted ambivalence as are children and the photos we take of them.
With roughly 58 million children in pre-k through twelfth-grade schools, the school-picture racket is big business. One of the biggest players is Lifetouch, which bills itself as “the world’s largest employee-owned photography company.” According to Forbes.com, Lifetouch’s self-described devotion to “capturing precious memories” earned the company 1.07 billion dollars in revenue in 2005. Not only are memories precious, they are lucrative too. “School pictures are a commodity,” Warling points out. “Lifetouch is very profitable because they have a system that works.” But as with most any system of mass production, quality and distinctiveness can suffer. “We sell pictures by taking better pictures,” he says. Warling’s personalized, aesthetic approach to school photos seems well-suited to his market, which by his own admission tends to skew toward more affluent private schools. Such an approach is likely to be valued among middle-class parents determined to view their children as uniquely unique.
Warling distinguishes himself from his competitors in a variety of ways. Most of the competition uses a camera setup that is stationary. “The camera has a little outline of a person on it,” says Warling, “and they point it at you and they say ‘smile’ and they take your picture, and then you move on.” Warling and his staff use hand-held, full-frame cameras and shoot on average between ten and fifteen photographs of every child. He tends to hire one photographer for every 150 kids, and he hires only freelance professionals who have proven comfortable working with children. Of the dozen or so photos shot of any one child, Warling only sends to the parents what he determines to be the best print. Such attention to detail is time consuming and costly, but it allows him to establish and control quality. The younger the child, the more likely it is that the parent will buy the picture, with sales generally dropping off as the child ages. Judging from his sales, Warling says that by the second or third grade parents “begin to despise their children.” He’s joking, of course.
I know Warling because, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, I recently approached him about collaborating on a children’s book. At the moment, that project is still largely speculative, but curious to see how Warling works with children, I visit with him one morning at a pre-school where he is shooting. When I arrive, he and his photo assistant Caree March are doing final checks on the lighting. Warling shoots only against a white backdrop, which is actually the painted underside of a roll of linoleum flooring. Since it is picture day, I am wearing a nice pair of slacks and a button-down shirt. I decided against a tie, but it turns out that even without the tie I’m overdressed. Warling and his assistants look nothing if not casual. At this particular school there are two photo sets in two different rooms, with a photographer and an assistant manning each. Warling anticipates shooting about 250 kids over two days, a relatively small number. Close at hand is a large dispenser of hand sanitizer (children carry lots of germs) and a package of wipes (children carry lots of snot).
Warling’s first group of the morning is six chattering pre-school children who enter the room with their teacher and sit squirming on red and yellow plastic chairs. Warling welcomes them with genuine enthusiasm and asks what they had for breakfast. “Blueberries,” says one little girl. After confessing he himself had birthday cake, Warling asks, “Who wants to take their picture first?” Raucous shouts of “Me!” echo in the drab basement room. Warling selects one volunteer who seems especially eager and outgoing, leads her to the set, and helps her onto the table. “What’s your favorite animal?” he asks her.
“A sheep! I love sheep. Do you know why I love sheep? Because they go ribbit, ribbit, ribbit.”
“No they don’t,” she laughs.
“What do they do?”
“Who goes ribbit?”
And so we float gleefully along in the warm flow of silliness. The banter is intended to keep the child attentive, relaxed and genuinely happy. Like any good fashion photographer, Warling talks to his subjects as he shoots them, often asking them to say silly things that loosen their mouths and brighten their eyes. “Say, ‘Squeaky, squeaky!’ Say, ‘Yea!’” Warling finishes with his first volunteer. “You have to smile at the camera,” she says, “that’s the rules.” It’s a telling comment, and one can almost hear her parents informing her of the same thing over the breakfast blueberries. It’s this kind of over-parenting that Warling is working against. “It’s easy to tell when it’s a fake smile. A kid is not a good fake smiler.”
As Caree continues to entertain the group on the plastic chairs (two of whom are sucking their thumbs), Warling suckers his second subject into looking up by asking, “Is there a monkey on my head?” When he asks her, “Do you have a pet?” she tells him she has a cat named Julie, but something about that makes me suspicious. ‘Julie’ doesn’t sound like a cat’s name, and pre-schoolers are notoriously confused. As Caree introduces one little boy she says to Warling, “He likes cars.” “What’s your favorite car?” Warling asks. “Animal,” says the boy.
The kids come and go. They are all cute and adorable, of course, and there really isn’t much more to say about that. Watching them I am reminded of that brilliant scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” in which Allen’s childhood classmates speak as their future selves. “I used to be a heroin addict,” says one nerdy boy, “Now I’m a methadone addict.” “I’m into leather,” says a bespectacled girl. Which of the children I see before me will be into leather and which into methadone, I cannot say. But surely their photographs will offer hints as to what kinds of passions and perversions might dominate them as adults. Creepily, that thought gets me to wondering about Jeffrey Dahmer’s school pictures.
After the first few groups of pre-schoolers has come and gone, babies are carried in and a Bumbo baby seat is fetched. A Bumbo baby seat is a little chair of molded plastic that allows babies who can’t sit upright to sit upright. Caree tells me that Bumbo seats are the hot new thing in infant seating (the Bumbo website refers to them as “revolutionary”), but honestly, with their lolling heads, vacant stars and open mouths, babies in Bumbo seats look like propped-up nursing-home patients. Warling decides to photograph them out of the seat. “They tend to look a little lazy in the seats and boppies,” he says. It’s a statement I think only a professional photographer who works extensively with children could make. Don’t babies always look lazy? With the teacher holding on to the back of the baby’s “onesy,” Warling lifts his camera. “Hi beautiful,” he coos. The baby spits up and wipes are fetched. Warling talks soothingly, but really the babies aren’t trying too hard to give anything back.
Teachers and staff members arrive throughout the morning to get their photos taken as well. Warling doesn’t show the teachers the pictures of themselves as he often does with the children. When I ask him why, he tells me, “Adults are vain.” One teacher casually remarks to her group of children that she “put on a little makeup” this morning, and another uses a compact to check her hair. Warling handles them expertly. Within seconds he reduces one dour teacher to blushes and giggles. “Sit with your feet on the floor and your butt on the very edge of the table,” he tells her. “Beautiful.” Like his banter with the children, Warling’s use of the word “butt” is a calculated attempt to loosen up his subject. “People are afraid of pictures,” he says, “adults more than anybody.” This year, Warling isn’t asking anyone he shoots to make fart noises, despite the well-established fact that fart noises are “universally funny.” There is too much collateral spittle involved, and what with swine flu and all, fart noises just seem like a bad idea.
Warling, his wife Lisa, and their two children live above the Logan Square studio where he shoots much of his commercial work. His clients include Kraft, McDonald’s, Pampers and other large companies in need of children for packaging and advertising photos. He notes that big clients often ask for child models who are “ethnically ambiguous.” “Certainly not white,” Warling says, “not black, not Hispanic. So what they tend to do is get kids who are Greek.” Warling also does the advertising photos for the Goodman Theater, most recently their production of “Animal Crackers.” You have probably seen hanging on the back of CTA busses his photograph of three actors in character as the Marx brothers. He also recently shot Mayor Daley’s family portrait.
While studying film at Columbia College, Warling became a freelance photo assistant, then moved into freelance editorial work, shooting mostly corporate portraits and photographs for trade magazines. He developed a specific interest in children while shooting for specialty children’s books. He shares with me his commercial portfolio, which contains only shots of children. Some are linked to products—a boy and girl eating a grilled cheese sandwich, a toddler in diapers, a freckle-faced boy grinning over a large bowl of macaroni and cheese. One photo in particular strikes me as different from the others. It is of a little boy standing next to an adolescent girl. While the boy is visible from the shoulders up, the girl is visible only from the neck down through her thighs. Her abdomen and hips dominate the photograph, and her pink, terry-cloth shorts are pulled up almost to her belly button.
For me, the photograph carries a certain sexual tension, which leads Warling and I into conversation about the work of Sally Mann, the controversial photographer known for deconstructing childhood innocence and exploring themes of emergent sexuality in her black-and-white, sometimes nude photographs of her own children. Warling pulls Mann’s book “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women” off his shelf. Similar to Warling’s photo, though with a much more explicit sexual connotation, the cover of “At Twelve” is a photo of an adolescent girl’s midsection, her shorts pulled high up her thighs. “They’re just such brilliant pictures,” says Warling of Mann’s work. “There is something there in those pictures that I think only a mother who is a great artist shooting her kids could have done. I don’t think an outsider could have gone into that family’s life.” “Forget about sexuality,” he continues. “It’s uncomfortable intimacy.”
Warling’s comments bring me back to the last little girl he shot in his first group on the morning I visited the pre-school. This little girl didn’t cry, but she was very afraid and very sad. Refusing to look at the camera, she sat slumped on the table with her chin in her chest as though she were being scolded. “Is there a monkey on my head?” Warling asked her. But for the only time that morning the monkey-on-the-head bit failed. The little girl’s teacher sat with her on the table and told her quietly, “You look so pretty.” Warling also talked to her quietly, patiently, but the little girl resisted with haunting passivity. It was painful to watch. It felt intrusive and most certainly uncomfortably intimate. No photograph was taken, and the little girl departed silently amid the excited babble of her small peers.
Back in his home studio, as he discusses his own conflicted aspirations to push the boundaries of his creative work, Warling confesses, “Maybe I’m defeated by my own romanticism for children.” It strikes me that such romanticizing of children and of childhood is precisely what makes the school picture trade a lucrative one. Having all been children, most of us can readily acknowledge the dark realities lurking behind childhood innocence. We’d just rather not be reminded of those realities in the pictures we send to our grandmother. In this sense, not only does a school photograph capture a child’s soul, it stuffs it against rot and nails it to the wall like a hunting trophy. Smile, goddamn it. Warling harbors no such cynicism. For the record, I never once heard him tell a kid to smile. He didn’t need to. He talked them into it. And whether or not his motivating belief in the complex innocence of children is naïve and contradictory, it is clear Warling fashions the cold utilitarianism of school pictures into a pleasant experience. A little sincere flattery, artistic flair and genuine interest go a long way. Add to that a willingness to indulge one’s own inner child, and you too might make a good school picture photographer. “You either embrace the fact that you’re going to spend six hours that day jumping around being silly,” Warling laughs, “or you’re like, ‘I can’t do this. This is the stupidest job.’”
Quick, somebody give that man a monkey.