Father to Son

Don and Drake Busath: Two lives in portraiture

By Jeff Kent
Images By Don & Drake Busath
First published in December 2006

From traditional to contemporary, Don and Drake Busath follow the path of classical portraiture. Theirs is a story of transition and growth, of a changing of the guard with the changing times.

It’s the house that Don Busath built and Drake Busath continues to add onto. Don’s career in photography began in 1955 with a of portrait, fashion and even aerial photography. In 1973, he and his wife,Donna, opened their own portrait studio in Salt Lake City, Utah. They worked tirelessly to establish a name and a trademark style that would last for generations.

Their son, Drake, grew up with the business and joined full time about 25 years ago. After 15 years following his father’s footsteps, he purchased the studio from his parents, who phased into retirement. Drake has since expanded into a second studio in Provo City, and established an in-house digital lab to handle all of the portrait work. The business continues to build on its foundation in classical portraiture, while adding new elements and updating styles to appeal to the 21st century customer.

Don Busath: Building images that stand the test of time
Don Busath, M.Photog.Cr., F-ASP, derived much of his concept of classical portraiture from a photograph of his grandfather. Captured near the turn of the last century, the image is a faithful portrayal of the subject that has withstood the test of time. From the first, says Busath, “We wanted to produce images that make a statement to posterity, images that are a pleasing rendition of the subject with the addition of certain artistic elements. That’s the whole basis of classical portraiture.”

Busath concedes that today’s viewers are more sophisticated after daily seeing spectacular images on TV and in magazines. Often, that’s what they want for themselves, but Busath feels modern images can also be classic. “Classical portraiture goes back to the idea of lasting images, images that should be around for your grandchildren to see.”

Busath credits his son Drake with taking the studio in new directions. He’s put his stamp on both the art and the business aspects of the studio. One of the major differences between the style of the father and son is their approach to lighting. Don calls his lighting “specific,” created with several light sources, while Drake says his is a “beautiful wash” of light created with one source. “Drake’s lighting gives unity to the subjects,” says Don. “The main purpose of lighting is to give dimension and shape. Drake’s lighting works every bit as well as mine, but it gives more of a clean, pleasing look. I’d started to work with those techniques, but he’s taken it to a new realm.”

Busath feels the ship is in good hands as it sails into the 21st century. “Drake deals with people well,” he says. “I’m good at reading people but not as good at communicating with them and putting them at ease. Photography is a service that depends on communicating with people, and Drake’s very good at that.”

Busath says his son is “his own man, not influenced by me,” yet his work is still very much in sync with the idea of classical portraiture. “A classical portrait is a statement of persona that demonstrates the significant attributes of a person in a lasting image,” says Busath. “Drake understands that well, and in that sense we’re very similar.”

Drake Busath: Interpreting the winds of change
When Drake Busath, M.Photog.Cr., took over the studio from his parents, he had an ambitious agenda. He wanted to revise and modernize. He wanted to change styles, downplay formality, and produce a new look. He soon realized it would be tougher than he’d anticipated.

“It wasn’t like starting a business from scratch, and I sort of expected it to be that way,” says Busath. “I thought we’d be writing new price lists, changing the names of products and coming up with fresh concepts, [but] it was a pretty slow transition. The only thing we could change instantly was the décor.”

So that’s what he did, immediately remodeled the studio, giving it a look more compatible with his idea of a contemporary portrait studio. The other changes would require patience. “Business is like a big ship; changing directions is a slow process,” says Busath.

Gradually, he incorporated changes in the style of the studio’s work, making it more progressive and experimental. With the studio’s long-established, loyal clientele, he had to navigate carefully. “Customer attitudes don’t change that quickly,” he says. “You have to ease them into new ideas.”

Over time, the younger Busath has succeeded in introducing a variety of new looks. He still considers the studio’s work classical portraiture, but now with different styles in posing, color and perspective. “We always start classical, but we end with something fresh,” says Busath. “I usually end the session with a handheld camera, shooting from a ladder or lying on the ground to get a different angle. Our sessions typically move from traditional and formal to casual. Lately, we’re using more black and white and bohemian color [desaturated, glowing color]. We also employ a lot of window light looks.”

Busath sets up the lighting arrangement from scratch for each session. In making his images more diverse, everything he does now is individualized for the client.

Posing has also changed in recent years. Even with subjects in formal outfits, he uses leaning and relaxed poses, rather than rigidly upright. “Fifteen years ago we did a lot of very traditional poses, especially in family portraits,” he says. “It was a lot of frontal, smiling, well-posed, well-grouped families. Now our customers are choosing alternative styles.”

Those “alternative styles” include panoramic images and three-quarter rather than full frontal posing. Busath also digitally composites images of different groups he photographs individually. The goal of the new techniques is to turn the traditional family group portrait into a kind of art installation. He wants his portraits to be able to compete with paintings and other artwork for prime space in the family’s living room.

“It’s less of a literal representation of the family and more of an interpretation,” he explains. “I’m trying to offer more interpretive images, and people have been starting to accept them more in the last five years.”

In Busath’s mind, the move toward on-location, photojournalistic portraits is an interesting but temporary trend. “I’m counting on it coming back to the studio,” he says. “But when we come back to the studio as a profession, we’ll use it as an experimental lab more than a locked-down, standardized situation. The photojournalistic style is probably a good correction for our profession. It’s encouraging us to do different things. In the end, though, I think it will come back to finely crafted, simple images that focus more on style and less on props.”

Visit Busath Studio & Gardens online at www.busath.com.

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