Nothing says “Americana” like a front porch — especially one with a swing. And with these pandemic days swinging toward physical distancing and staying indoors, front porches offer safe havens for some fresh-air photo fun.
Photographers who would be busy capturing family milestones at spring and summer celebrations, are finding their professional lives on hold, too. So from coast to coast, and in the Corridor, they’re breaking out their long lenses and snapping “porchtraits,” capturing families as they live, work and play — on their porches.
Some local photographers are waiving their fees, accepting tips or donations, but not requiring them. They say it’s a win-win. They get out of their houses to pursue the creative outlets they crave, and their subjects get keepsakes from a moment in time like no other.
“I wanted to keep being part of the community,” said Travis Houck, 34, who operates Travis Coburn Photography out of his Springville home. “I felt bad for people that are stuck at home and just going crazy. I’m a stay-at-home dad of three kids under 3, so I’ve kinda gotten used to getting stuck at home with craziness all over the place. Now that I can’t take them to parks to burn off some energy, we’re just stuck with going outside to play.”
On Facebook, he saw others are “going a little stir-crazy,” too.
“I figured (the photos) would be something positive to put out there for them, to take their minds off all the craziness going on,” he said.
As coronavirus inched closer to Iowa, he was talking with other photographers in Florida and Washington state who reported they were doing porch portraits. They encouraged him to follow suit, put out the word on social media and see what happened.
That’s the same path taken by Alisabeth Von Presley, 31, of TINT in Cedar Rapids, and Jess Denton, 35, of Monroe+Co in Marion. All have had overwhelming response to their Facebook posts and word-of-mouth buzz.
In a month’s time, Houck shot 65 porch portraits; Von Presley shot 25 in her first two weeks; and Denton has shot 190. They all plan to keep going — at least through the summer — as long as the demand remains and it stays safe. They aren’t charging for their services, but are accepting tips and donations. Not all of the tips have been monetary. Houck has received Bruce Lee nunchucks, a one-ounce silver dollar and a six-pack of beer.
“That’s one thing about this — I really wanted people to look forward to it. I don’t want people to think, ‘We’re already not working, I don’t want another burden of a certain amount of money going out,’ so I wanted to make them free, and if they wanted to tip, I’d be happy with anything,” he said.
“A friend of mine started Michael Grobin photography, and he does them. We were talking about the whole tip process, and we both agree it’s not about the whole tips and money thing. We both are in it to help people out. That’s the biggest thing for us, and why we never wanted to charge a fee to do the images.”
While Houck technically offers one to three digital images, he said the clients “often get multiple photos,” adding that they are the same quality he would give paying customers.
He also gathers back stories from the families, and would like to create a tabletop book to document what other families have done during this time of self-isolation and physical distancing.
Houck, Von Presley and Denton take every precaution to keep everyone safe, including themselves. Masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and gloves are part of their gear, alongside their camera equipment. When the families are on their porches, the photographers are on the sidewalk, or even farther away, sometimes moving to the now-quiet streets to keep a safe distance.
If the families have furniture they want to position for the photos, they do all the moving, Houck said. He doesn’t touch any personal belongings. And among Denton’s rule list is to have any gates open so that she doesn’t have to touch anything at the site.
The hardest part, they all said, is not hugging the kids and petting the dogs. All three insist that parents keep the dogs on leashes and the kids close by, to prevent them from running up to greet the photographers.
“You don’t realize how much you do hug somebody or you shake their hand or you get close to them until you’re not allowed to do that anymore,” Von Presley said. “It breaks your heart — you want it even more.”
It’s especially hard, since she said she always has preferred being up-close and personal with her subjects, but she’s also enjoying the creative challenge that comes with physical distancing.
“I loves faces, I love emotions and telling people’s stories, so I definitely am based on photographing people,” she said. A storyteller on theatrical stages and a singer/songwriter who has toured and rocked many area venues, she’s also been working as a professional photographer for about 12 years.
“Flowers are beautiful, landscapes are beautiful, but I like to see and bring people’s stories to life through my lens,” she said, “and so in this time, offering portraits is the way to do that, so people have something to remember this crazy moment in time together.”
Time & travel
The length of the shoots vary. Von Presley might spend 15 to 30 minutes, trying different poses on porches or having kids climb into an interesting tree. And she may send the families up to 100 photos to use however they like.
Denton tells everyone to expect one to three photos, but calling herself “a huge overshooter,” she’s more apt to deliver three to 25 photos, with three to four poses shot over the course of 2 to 5 minutes.
“I work fast anyway,” she said. “I want them to get the most bang for their time.”
All are willing to travel, as well. Houck tries to stick within a 40- to 45-mile radius, including trips to his hometown of Vinton.
Von Presley will travel 45 minutes to an hour from Cedar Rapids.
”I’ve really got nothing else to do,” she said, “so driving around and experiencing new places in Iowa, then getting to meet new people and photograph new places has been really fun. So like, ‘You live an hour away? No problem, I’ll come to you.’ ”
Denton has gone as far as Des Moines, doing 15 shoots that day.
“If can get more than one house in an area to make it worth the drive, I’ll say yes,” she said. “What else do I have to do? It’s been awesome.”
None of them are worried about the naysayers in professional photo circles, critical of those offering porch sessions, saying they’re “putting too much at risk and should follow the stay-at-home, self-quarantine thing,” Houck noted.
“One thing I reply back with every time, is that I will continue to do these. I will continue to book these sessions as long as the people booking them are comfortable with me coming to do the photos,” he said. “I’m not going to force them to do it. I’m not going to beg them to do it. I want to really make sure they feel safe during these session. That’s my biggest concern during the whole process.
“As long as we’re being safe about it and following CDC guidelines, I don’t see a huge problem with it.”
• What: “Porchtraits” porch photo sessions
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