The Brood in Black and White
by Allison Valencia
July 08, 2013 —
All photos © Justine Ungaro
Justine Ungaro’s portfolio reveals an esthetic that is classic, elegant and clean—a technically sound and creatively executed approach to photographs of the family. But the Southern California-based photographer says her image making beginnings were a bit more colorful: she once followed trends like diffused glow, then textures and a “grungy” phase, color shifts, and added props and styling. She spent a lot of extra time after the shoot, working to emulate what others were doing a the time in her digital darkroom, as well as striving to fulfill her clients’ requests for the latest in post-processing techniques.
In 2006, a year after a cross-country move from the D.C. area to L.A., Ungaro took a step back to re-evaluate her work and thoughtfully create a brand that screamed her name. “I asked myself, ‘what’s my style?’ I was having a bit of a personality crisis,” she confesses. Not wanting her style to be defined by the latest craze, she started listening more to the descriptive words that clients and photographer friends used to describe her work. And there were certain key terms that stuck: they were drawn to her simple, natural, unenhanced images; they were also struck by the timelessness and nostalgic feeling evoked by her photographs.
And her efforts have paid off; marketing is essentially a non-issue for Ungaro. Her weddings are a “funnel” for the rest of her business, as the couples she wins over with her wedding work start having children, and come back to Ungaro to capture their growing families. In other words, she establishes strong, long-term relationships with her clients, and offers them timeless family portraits—largely because of their simple, monochromatic look.
In these planning sessions, Ungaro also gets ideas for a shot list from the parents and determines which poses are must-haves for the family. Anything beyond these shots she considers bonus material.
The hazards of the job, however, are more “parent-related than child-related,” she says. Parents often want to “coach” their kids, and she says that a quick pep talk prior to the actual session can really help. She encourages parents to “let the child go,” and do whatever it is that he or she is going to do. In a one- to two-hour time frame (the typical length of her family sessions), a lot can happen, and she’s most interested in the non-posed shots, saying it’s “important to be ready for unpredictable moments” when it comes to kids. Sometimes, once everyone is comfortable with Ungaro and her camera, she’ll even ask the parents to leave the area for a while, which often allows the children to relax more. Sometimes a “snack break” helps when a toddler starts getting squirmy; other times, you just know when you’re done (the kids always let you know), and Ungaro knows not to push it.
Although in-home sessions have become popular in recent years, Ungaro is thinking ahead: she recently completed renovations on an 800-square-foot studio space (complete with furniture and décor?) that reflects her clean style of photography. While Southern California homes are generally open and light, they’re not always perfect, and some families (read: moms) love that they don’t have to prep their home for a shoot. Ungaro, in turn, loves the control and simplicity her studio offers. It helps avoid the unpredictability of lighting on a given day, she doesn’t have to move furniture around in her studio, or avoid background “noise,” such as play sets and toys. She says, “The [studio] is kind of a long-term dream finally realized.”
And when the shoot is finished, in lieu of slideshows she once assembled to show clients their images, Ungaro has been using an app called Preveal. It allows her to take a picture of the actual wall in which clients will hang the images they purchase, and then drag the images into various mats and frames to come up with a perfect arrangement of family portraits. She is a master at creating entire “walls” of her work, and it helps steer her clients into ordering more than just the traditional 8 x 10 for themselves and 4 x 6 prints for the grandparents. It’s especially helpful for those long-term clients who want to continue adding images over the years. “It’s great to be able to show them their own wall and what it’s going to look like when we’re done.”
In the meantime, clients like Jen Middleton have no complaints. Middleton, whose relationship with Ungaro began seven years ago when she and her husband, Eric, hired the photographer to shoot their wedding, says Unagro’s style is what keeps them coming back. “Staged, posed pictures are not our personality; Justine's style fits perfectly with how we want to remember the amazing moments we are experiencing raising our children,” Middleton says. “When we look at the family pictures she has done, Eric and I are taken back to the moment they were taken: the way we were holding the baby, or what we were thinking as we looked into each other's eyes. It's amazing the emotion her photography evokes in us.”
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