“Good morning, Christian,” I said to my part time employee, neighbor and best friend, as we stood in front of “E.T.C. Photography” on Monday morning. “Happy ‘Day after Easter’.”
“Thanks, Van, you too.”
“Here, can you hold these?” I handed him my lunch bag and Thermos as I searched my purse for the key to the studio.
“I know it’s here somewhere. Ah!” I slipped the wayward key into the lock and turned it. Reaching in, I quickly disabled the alarm, pressing five code keys on the metal box just inside the door.
I switched on the lights and we stepped inside. Sighing, I turned to face my assistant.
“Okay, Christian, I’m ready now. Who’s there?”
“East or west, home is best.”
“Ohhh,” I groaned and shook my head. “You’re a nut. Did you know that?”
He grinned, his hazel eyes twinkling.
“What did the walnut say to the peanut?”
“Enough. Enough! We need to get to work. Let’s get those tanks in the dark room cleaned today, so we’ll be ready for the next flood of photos to be developed. Ha-ha!”
He saluted and clicked his heels together. “Aye, aye, Captain.”
Christian and I went way back. We grew up in the same neighborhood – going to the same elementary, middle and senior high schools. He shared my passion for photography, and joined me in every photo class and photo club our schools and parks offered. After graduation we took the same advanced courses at Valley Junior College. His forte was in the dark room, while mine was behind a lens, although we could each do the other’s job when necessary. It was a perfect working partnership.
At lunches and on assignments from school, we planned what we would do “when we became professionals”. We entered contests, and won, using the small cash prizes to upgrade equipment or buy supplies.
On weekends, we practiced on every friend and family member who would agree to sit for us. We experimented with films and composition and lighting and darkroom techniques.
We offered our services to those same friends and family members for whatever event they could possibly want photos for – almost for free – making money only on the orders we later received. And we got orders. People seemed to like the way we portrayed them. Soon we were getting real jobs – referrals from our freebie clients.
And that’s when we began to dream of our own studio.
It was my Dad who found the vacant storefront and located the owner. And it was my Dad who put up nearly all of my parents’ life savings to finance our dream, co-signing on a three year lease and insisting that we had to buy the best equipment and supplies available.
Christian moved the darkroom he’d set up in his parents garage to the back room of the studio, and I brought the lights, backdrops, and cameras from my house. It all looked meager in our new studio, so we fearfully took Dad’s advice and money and bought the best. I cringed now as I thought about the amount of money we went through that first month as we set up and furnished the studio. It would take us forever to pay off the loan. Especially if business didn’t pick up.
Mom had helped set up the front space or ‘Greeting Area’ as she like to call it. She bought the sky blue carpet, the lamps and tables, several colorful beanbag chairs for children, and the two large, overstuffed chairs for their parents. She placed these with their backs toward the window, facing away from the hustle and bustle and noise of everyday life. She wanted my customers to be able to relax and appreciate the beauty of my portraits. (Thanks, Mom!)
She also bought a photo album, one of those thick, leather bound ones you use for wedding pictures – except this one was navy blue – and put it on a low, heavy, child-friendly table in front of the chairs. I let her choose the shots from my portfolio to put inside, and I wasn’t sorry I did. She packed it with portraits of people in happy places.
Among others, she’d picked a bride and groom in a sunny, flower strewn garden; a young couple holding a baby in a long lace christening dress; a cheerful family around a Christmas tree; a beaming graduate wearing a gold robe and mortar board cap clutching a ribbon-wrapped diploma; a proud young man in an Air Force uniform: a silver haired couple and a dozen family members around a fiftieth anniversary cake. All of them were first viewed and appreciated through my camera lens, and then expertly enticed onto pearl finish paper by Christian.
Anyone who perused the pages in Mom’s album ended up smiling. Honestly. I’ve watched it happen a dozen times. If we could get customers to come into the studio, sit on one of those comfy chairs, and start looking through that album, we could usually count on a sale.
Mom, you did an awesome job! I wish I’d thanked you more often.
On the wall opposite the chairs, and visible through the front window to any sidewalk traffic, we hung a display of the best of my best portraits. These are mostly of children; alone or with their families – in natural color, sepia or black and white tones.
My favorite portrait is in the center. It is a twenty by twenty-four print of my niece, Julianna in a white eyelet summer dress, running with joyful abandon through her mother’s flower garden. She’s wearing a straw hat on her strawberry blond head, its white ribbons caught in the wind, and she’s carrying a bouquet of golden poppies in her pudgy fist. Almost everyone who enters “E.T.C. Photography” comments on it.
I sighed. Enough procrastinating! I stashed my lunch under my desk and unscrewed the Thermos cap. An inviting aroma of hazelnut coffee filled the air. Eagerly I poured a steaming cup and took a sip. I needed all the fortification I could get, because today I had decided to attack the books. Were we going to make this business fly or not? If so, what strategies could Christian and I come up with to accomplish the miracle? Beautiful, artsy photos were one thing, but what could we shoot for cash?
Stoically I opened the ledger and looked at the bottom line. My shoulders sagged. And then the phone rang. Saved by the bell, I thought and reached for the handset. In my most friendly and positive voice I greeted the caller.
“E.T.C. Photography. Can I help you?”
“Hello Precious, are you busy?”
“Hi, Dad, I’m about as busy as a honey bee in Alaska in the dead of winter. What’s up? Are you looking for someone to accompany you on a critique to a new classy restaurant? I’ve packed a lunch, but I’d gladly forgo peanut butter for pasta or portabella mushrooms?”
I could hear laughter in my Dad’s voice. “Not this time, Sweetheart. There’s someone here at the paper that you might like to meet. He’s looking for a photographer, and I think you might be the one. Can I send him over?”
“Sure, my morning is free. Does this guy work at the paper too? Is he a journalist? Does he want me to do a portrait of a famous person he’s interviewing? I don’t do burning buildings or car pileups on the freeway, you know. I especially don’t do dead bodies!”
“Whoa! One question at a time, please. Yes, Dennis is a journalist, and he does work here at the newspaper with me. But this isn’t a newspaper job. He’s also a serious author. He’s got some idea for a book about children. I told him that children were your specialty. He wants to come see your work and talk with you.”
“You’re serious, Daddy?”
“Wow, that’s exciting. Send him right over. Meanwhile I’ll get out my children’s photo file and dust off the furniture.”
After I hung up, I hurried to the back to tell Christian about my father’s phone call.
“It’s a new direction for E.T.C. Photography. And maybe, just maybe it’ll be the miracle we need to kick off the business.”
“I’m excited if you’re excited,” he said. “But remember to ‘look before you leap’ into something this big.”
“That’s why I want you in on it too, Christian. Please come out let me know what you think of him and his project.”
Christian wiggled his eyebrows. “Shall we speak in code or sign language? Let’s see, one pull on my ear means yes, three sniffs means no, a scratch under the arm means…”
“Means you’ve got lice. Christian, be serious. Just behave normally and we’ll decide together what to do. Okay?”
“Oh no! Okay, who’s there?”
“Aardvark a million miles to see one of your smiles.”
Guffawing, and feeling as excited as little kids waiting in line for a Magic Mountain ride, we locked pinkie fingers and counted, “One, two, good luck to YOU!” and broke apart.
After that, I really did dust the furniture and straighten my desk. You never knew who was a neatness freak these days.
The door alert bell sounded thirty minutes later, and in walked one of the most handsome men I’ve seen. Medium height and build, thick sandy brown hair, crinkly laugh lines around gray blue eyes, and a ‘it’s so wonderful to see you’ smile that made me gasp with pleasure.
To be Continued….