Authentic child portraiture, dirt and all
It’s dirty work, and there’s nothing to smile about. Such is portrait-making truth for Pete Rezac, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, whose black-and-white fine art images of children follow a recipe: Get them dirty, tell them not to smile, and aim for authenticity. “That word ‘authentic’ resonates in everything I do,” says the Reno, Nevada-based photographer.
At his Imaging USA workshop “Black-and-White Children’s Character Portraits” in Nashville, Tennessee, next month, Rezac will demonstrate his techniques in lighting, posing, and getting kids dirty. The latter involves a formula he won’t reveal until his session, but he hints that the “dirt” is environmentally friendly, recyclable, and “has something to do with your liquor cabinet.”
Grime recipe aside, a key to Rezac’s portrait-making success may have more to do with his personality than technical skills.
Rezac’s portfolio includes a portrait of a girl wearing a knit stocking cap swelling like a beehive from her forehead. She has large, soulful eyes (think E.T. fondly recalling home), but the expression emanating from her slightly upturned grin is what fascinates a la the “Mona Lisa.” Which brings us back to Rezac’s no-smile rule. “Two things: When they smile, the eyes close down and we lose the eyes; two, these are low-key portraits, so a smile against those dark tones wouldn’t fit well.” And three, he too often heard parents complain, “It’s not your real smile.” “If you ask someone what their child’s real smile looks like, they can’t answer,” he says. “A real smile comes out in genuine moments, and parents see that a lot, but [their child] does it when they want to, not when you tell them.”
Despite—or because of— his no-smile policy, Rezac’s portfolio includes plenty of genuinely pleasant expressions of wonder-inspired joy. Take the painter girl, brush and palette in hand, wearing a French cap and a comfortable grin; and the boy in the Harry Potter hoodie smiling contentedly at the light-tipped wand he’s waving in the air. “I see it time and time and time again, and I don’t know exactly what I say to get that, but I get it,” Rezac says. “Most times I think people are looking at me like, Is this guy for real? I like it because it’s not a big toothy smile, but we see the eyes. But I couldn’t tell somebody to give me that expression.”
He credits luck, though, as baseball pioneer Branch Rickey said, “Luck is the residue of design,” and Rezac concurs that much preparation goes into his portraits. Meanwhile, our laugh-filled phone interview is evidence that rapport plays a part, too. At the initial consultation session (parents only; kids would get bored, he says), he describes his method and learns about the child’s favorite pastimes. At the photo session itself, he wins the child’s trust with his first two instructions: “When I tell kids we’re going to get dirty and, two, you do not have to smile for these pictures, those kids will give me anything I want.” If the portrait includes brothers, he tells them to “go tumble around in the front yard for a second to get mussed up a little more. And they’re, ‘Hey, wow! I thought we were going to get pictures.’” He further engages them with his props of old football and baseball gear and other nostalgic clothes and objects.
The sessions aren’t play times, however. He has subjects stand on a box “so they don’t go running around on me. If you don’t want a kid to go anywhere, have them stand on something.” He carefully and specifically poses them. “I’m cognizant of tilting their head just slightly,” he says. “I want them to look their best for the camera.” He poses for light angles, which often means kids batting left-handed for the first time, and he poses for composition, such as the boy wearing an old leather football helmet and shoulder pads, his back to the camera replicating a W with his upraised arms. The expressions are coached. “I’ll tell them to look in the lens, give me a you-just-struck-out look or you’re going to strike the guy out,” Rezac says. “My favorites are three brothers. I’ve had several of those come through—siblings of three. I love to have them leaning on each other, and I’ll ask, ‘Do you all get along?’ They’re like, ‘No.’ ‘Well, pretend for 20 seconds.’”
These dirty, athletic poses take place in front of a painted background in the studio. Rezac makes each image singly. He’s begun using 4x5 sheet film, a slow process resulting in just 12 images per session. He shows clients only his favorites: Presenting fewer images has resulted in a higher percentage of sales, Rezac says, and it also represents a paradigm shift. “We sell these as commissioned art pieces up front,” he says. Many photographers draw artistic inspiration from master painters, but Rezac also sees them as a business model. “When you commissioned a portrait painter, they didn’t paint 50 different portraits and say, ‘Which do you like?’”
Of course, you have to demonstrate the skills to be worthy of a commission. Rezac earned a mechanical engineering degree from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. While working as a maintenance planner and scheduler for the Alaska Pipeline in Valdez, Alaska, he signed up for photography classes at a community college, ostensibly to meet women. “I didn’t find a girl,” he says, “but I found a love for the art and science and craft of photography. I was immediately hooked when I got a roll of film processed and made a print from it.”
Various engineering job assignments hindered his pursuit of dark room photography, but he dove back into the hobby with the digital age. Then, rather than relying on photography to meet women, he met a woman who encouraged him to turn photography into a vocation—Molly, now his wife. In what he describes as a “come-to-Jesus meeting,” she advised him to start taking portraits of people. “I didn’t want to do that because people don’t like how they look in pictures,” Rezac says. Except babies, he realized. “They don’t care what they look like, and if they do, they can’t tell you. And there’s no ugly babies.” He succeeded with baby portraits enough that one mother asked about a second portrait the next year. “I wasn’t even prepared for anybody to come back. I made some really terrible family portraits for a couple of years: Nobody said how terrible they were, but they were.” His own children became models for practice.
But the career catapult came when Molly subscribed to Professional Photographer magazine. “If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be in business today,” Rezac says. “I’m seeing amazing imagery, and all this alphabet soup after the names. Being an engineer, I understood what registration training was.”
He attended his first Imaging USA in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2010 and describes what he learned there as “drinking from a firehose,” inspiring him to work toward his master of photography degree, which he earned in 2015. He also found mentors through PPA. It was one of his mentors who praised his portrait of an 8-year-old baseball player but said the boy’s stick-on eye black didn’t look right. “The word she used was they don’t look ‘authentic,’” Rezac says. Authentic became his mantra.
His PPA learning experience prompted Rezac to not only give back but also to teach the way he learned, with hands-on instruction. Participants at his Imaging USA session will take photographs and finish them under Rezac’s instruction as he demonstrates how he picks out props and poses subjects. And he will show them how to look real dirty.
Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.