Company Party

by Jessica Gordon

Aaron Morris

Ben and Erin Chrisman’s own wedding in Campeche, Mexico, photographed by Chrisman associate photographer, Aaron Morris.

February 11, 2013

No one captures a party quite like Chrisman Studios. With five young destination photographers all working under one uber-collective, Chrisman Studios’ home base (a big house in San Francisco) has the atmosphere and collaboration of an Internet start-up.

The studio—more specifically Ben Chrisman, Erin Chrisman, Dave Getzschman, Aaron Morris and Mauricio Arias—doesn’t rely on the cliché wedding photography trends that many up-and-comers find themselves copying. They also don’t rely heavily on marketing tactics, aside from a sturdy website and reliable communication. Instead, the studio is defined by quality photography; not stuffy or formal, rather a fun, authentic view of a modern wedding that’s beautiful at the same time. Each photographer—talented individually—is especially adept at capturing the emotion of the day, and the sweat on the dance floor, right alongside party-goers (even if it means jumping into a pool at 2 a.m.).

“The people who tend to hire us aren’t super-wealthy, they’re just young professionals who splurge a little bit on photography,” Ben says of their client base. “They’re really cool, interesting people who generally like to have a big party.” Ben says the studio—whose members remind each other to seek the shot that’s “all-out weird”—narrows down clients by featuring some of its wilder events (like late-night, hot tub after-parties) on its website. “Couples that want a subdued, low-key wedding don’t generally hire us; the people who want something different are the ones who connect with our photography.”

Early Engagement
The business all began when Ben, a trained photojournalist working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, applied his story-telling instincts to nuptials.

“I came into shooting weddings wanting to do everything differently than what normal wedding photographers do,” Ben says. “That was in 2005 before the big boom of extremely talented wedding photographers, and it really helped separate us from everyone else. Coming from more of a creative, documentary standpoint, we were instantly able to get people’s attention, and that allowed us to get this client base, which is not only in San Francisco, but all over the country and beyond that.”

He met Erin, also a photojournalist then shooting weddings with LaCour Studios in Atlanta, at the wedding of mutual photographer friends in Mexico. Ben—then splitting his time between Santa Fe and San Francisco—kept in touch with Erin, and the two slowly developed a long-distance friendship, fully realized when Ben convinced Erin to move to San Francisco in 2008. The duo immediately started traveling and shooting together, naturally combining their photography and business knowledge into one studio, and marrying in 2010.

Five’s Company
The addition of photographer Dave Getzschman to the studio was equally natural. Getzschman, an editorial shooter, had been an acquaintance of Ben since their early newspaper days in New Mexico. When the two both found themselves living in San Francisco in 2006, a friendship grew. As Ben’s name got more popular and business picked up, “I would just ask [Getzschman] to second-shoot with me and come to the weddings,” Ben says. “He wasn’t interested at first because he was a newspaper photographer, but eventually he got more into it.”

Getzschman’s motivation was spurred even more when editorial budgets and assignments turned sparse in 2009; it was Ben’s wedding overflow that kept him afloat. “Ben was just sending me weddings that he couldn’t shoot, and we just decided to make it a little more official in 2009,” Getzschman says. Although he didn’t set out to create a multi-photographer studio, according to Ben, [Getzschman] “was the first person who you could consider an associate.”

Following Getzschman were Aaron Morris and Mauricio Arias, who originally started as post-production interns with limited shooting experience. “In a year of doing post, working with Photoshop and coming to weddings with us, they got really good really quickly and started shooting their own weddings,” Ben says. “Now they’re both traveling all over the place—Aaron has been to China once and Greece three times, and Mauricio has also been to Greece and Mexico. For 25-year-olds, they’ve done amazingly. I think they’re two of the most talented photographers in the country, so it’s total luck that we’re able to work with them.”

And in the past four years of working with Chrisman Studios, Getzschman has developed into a sought-after photographer himself: he was named one of the Top Ten Wedding Photographers of 2012 by American Photo, and listed among the “Rising Stars of Wedding Photography” by Photo District News in 2011. He’s shot weddings in China, Croatia and Colombia, and says that all of the accolades are a testament to Ben’s leadership.

“I would not have achieved that on my own,” Getzschman says. “It’s a benefit of belonging to Chrisman Studios. When you start a [wedding] business, you do a couple of years of really mediocre, low-budget weddings—that’s kind of inevitable. I did a little of that, but mostly because of Ben’s success, I’ve had to do less because people trust Ben’s reputation and we’re the beneficiaries of that trust as well.”

Getzschman says that Ben’s photojournalistic style applied to weddings revolutionized the industry—and each shooter on the team follows his lead. “It has very little to do with marketing,” Getzschman explains. “Ben is one of the most humble people I know—it’s more about his consistent ability to make breath-taking pictures, and to do so in a way that other people are incapable of doing.”  

Business Division

As far as daily worklife, Erin Chrisman thinks of the home she and Ben live and work from as “an artists’ commune where we’re all together every day.” According to Erin, “Mauricio works with us every day here, and lately Dave does too…my brother is a videographer who works downstairs. We’re always exchanging ideas, getting advice and help with our photos and videos…there’s a lot of running up and down the stairs, yelling each others names!”

Ben and Erin cover the business end, with Erin handling all of the initial communication with clients, booking every photographer’s travel plans and organizing all meetings; coming from LaCour where she also handled sales, she’s mastered extreme organization.

“It’s exciting and invigorating for me to have everything in my head and in one place,” Erin says. “I found it’s better to streamline everything through one person, rather than having five people answer emails, and none of us ever knowing what the status is with certain things.”

When a couple first visits to book a photographer, Ben says the studio’s advice is, “Find a photographer who you really connect with and go from there. We give them information for all five of us—sometimes they’ll choose a photographer based on price, and sometimes it’s because they really love Mauricio’s weird photos or they like Ben and Erin’s portraits, or Dave’s sophisticated look or Aaron Morris’ dancing photos.”

Each associate photographer shoots solo with an assistant unless a couple hires two (Ben and Erin primarily shoot together). After the wedding has been shot, the individual photographer takes over communication, organizing the delivery of prints, albums, etc.

“We have a system down, and our workload has been increasing every year, so we now have to figure out how to adjust for that,” Ben says. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Big Studio Benefits
When the Chrismans speak at their WPPI seminar “Starting Small, Going Big,” their message will be that you can start a business humbly, with one person, and grow from there, as long as you do so in a way—style-wise—that’s  your own.

From a business standpoint, Ben says one of the biggest benefits is that with five shooters, Chrisman Studios’ client base has multiplied by three every year. “The biggest fear of being a wedding photographer is going out of business,” Ben says. “We have a client base that is potentially much larger than other wedding photographers, so we can always pull from that down the road. It’s not just the referral base of one photographer, it’s the referral base of five.”

Having multiple photographers also helps development on a skill level. “We push each other a lot and are always trying to outdo each other,” Ben says. “It’s a constant evolution of trying to become better photographers every single weekend. It’s never stagnant. All of us want to be the best.”

And most important, say all Chrisman photographers, is the studio’s camaraderie. “It’s like working in a newsroom again; we’re all together a lot, like a big family and we all really like each other,” Ben says. “We’re not looking to be bigger than we are right now; the only reason that we’re five is because [Erin and I] found three people who we really love working with. If it weren’t for the personalities of Aaron, Mauricio and Dave, it would still be a two-person operation. It wasn’t a goal to be Chrisman Studios, but we would never want to turn back from where it has led us.”

Ben and Erin Chrisman will present their WPPI  2013 Platform Class, “Starting Small, Going Big,” on Wednesday, March 13, from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m.

Dave Getzschman’s Platform Class, “Motion, Emotion and Storytelling Images,” takes place Tuesday, March 12, from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m.

Jessica Gordon is associate editor for Rangefinder magazine, based in New York City. 

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