Kid Portraits with a Twist
by Theano Nikitas
July 21, 2012 —
Wedding, family and child portrait photographer Jason W. Lee first started taking creative, slightly surreal photographs of his own two daughters, Kristin and Kayla, back in 2006, after his mom was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. His motives were simple: Lee wanted his mother to see her granddaughters without catching their kid germs, so he started a blog to share snippets of their lives with her. Little did he know that the images—and his daughters—would become an online sensation.
“It was hard seeing my mom in her condition,” Lee remembers, “and I didn’t want to put her at risk during her treatments by having the girls visit her.” But Lee didn’t take simple snapshots of the girls. Instead he’s created a portfolio of imaginative, playful scenes of the girls looking adorable and mischievous at the same time, including shots of the two in the kitchen, with one girl riding a bike over the other’s head; big sister Kristin taping little sister Kayla to the wall as both of them grin from ear to ear; both dressed up as couch potatoes in one scene, soccer stars, Mario and Luigi (from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros) in another, and so on.
The images got more creative as the girls got older. In 2010, My Modern Metropolis—a site which, according to its “About” blurb, is “where art enthusiasts and trendspotters connect over creative ideas”—featured a series of Lee’s photos and an interview with the California-based photographer. “That was the first time the images had gone ‘viral,’ ” Lee says. “It was a pretty awesome experience at the time to see my project being shared and getting positive feedback.” During the following eight months, Lee’s images received more than 1 million hits on My Modern Metropolis alone. Now, almost two years later, his photos continue to spread across the Internet with renewed excitement as different blogs and sites post them online. (While this story was being written in late May, links to and comments on his images appeared on Twitter at least once every couple of hours.)
Although Lee hasn’t been keeping track of all the coverage his images have received—an impossible task to be sure—he is collecting links and articles to share with his daughters. “I don’t think they know too much about their photos being popular, as they tend to focus more on the reward aspect after taking the photos,” Lee explains. That may be, but as they get older, Kristin (almost 9) and Kayla (almost 6) will certainly appreciate looking back at these wonderful photographs and the enthusiasm with which the photos were shared from site-to-site and person-to-person.
Lee explains that “most of the photos begin with a simple idea—from something the kids may have said or done, to current events,” including holidays such as Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. Before he sets up lighting or picks up his camera, he pre-visualizes the shot “either by drawing it out first or just in my head.” Lee has, he admits, “been resorting to the more eco-friendly [paperless] method as of late.”
Using a variety of lighting equipment (see the sidebar on his gear bag), Lee sets up the shot before involving the girls. On average, setup takes about 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the complexity of the scene.
Because the shot is pre-planned and perfectly set up, actual shooting takes only a couple of minutes at most. (He photographs Kristin and Kayla for each concept or idea to keep the lighting consistent rather than accumulating images at other times and stockpiling them for later use). The girls are sometimes dressed in the same outfits, adding an even stronger visual connection between the two.
From there, Lee spends another hour or two in post-processing as he edits and composites the final image. Far too modest about his outstanding Photoshop skills, Lee quips that he’s “hardly an expert in Photoshop, but I do know enough to be dangerous.”
For the shot of Kayla attached to the wall, entitled “101 Uses for Gaffers Tape,” (opening spread) Lee explains that “it’s a composite of my older daughter in one exposure and another of my younger daughter” in a separate exposure. He goes on to say that, “I duplicated a few sections of the gaffers tape and rotated [the image of] Kayla around a bit to ‘fit’ the scene.” Similar techniques are used for his other images and while Lee makes it look and sound easy, it’s quite evident that his imagination and photographic talents are extraordinary.
Although it’s been almost six years since the project’s inception, Lee reports that his daughters “still enjoy it, for the most part, since they know a reward is waiting for them at the end.” However, he adds, “As they have gotten older and their schedules have gotten busier, I have not been able to photograph with the same frequency as before. That said, I would love to continue this project for as long as possible but I don’t think bribery with candy and iPad time will work for much longer!”
Lee bought his first digital camera, a Sony F717, 10 years ago—about a year before his first daughter was born—and still remembers the camera quite fondly. “Prior to that,” he says, “I had been using film point-and-shoot cameras and [with the Sony digital camera] really liked the idea of being able to see images instantaneously.”
It wasn’t long before Lee started his own wedding photography business. He recalls, “I started my photography career by assisting a few local wedding photographers.” Eventually he was hired as an associate for a large wedding studio and, after a year, went out on his own in 2004.
Not surprisingly, Lee also offers family and creative child portrait sessions along with complete wedding coverage. And it’s also no surprise that the popularity of his daughters’ photographs have helped his business. “The positive feedback on the project has been wonderful and has definitely brought more attention to my photography business,” says Lee. “I have actually photographed quite a few couples and families that have discovered me via my children’s project. I do get the occasional request for similar [creative children’s] photos from other parents as well and always love doing them.”
Even though Kristin and Kayla may soon require a little more than iPad time or candy as persuasion to participate in their dad’s photo projects, we hope that Lee (who has been called “The World’s Most Creative Dad” by many online fans) and his daughters continue to delight us with more of their fantastic images for a long time to come.
To see more of Jason W. Lee’s work, visit: www.jwlphotography.com, www.kristinandkayla.blogspot.com and www.flickr.com/photos/jwlphotography (or just Google “Creative Dad” and you’ll get pages of hits).
Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 18 years. Although she loves digital, she still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film, thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras.
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