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A perfect Mother’s Day gift

by Erin McClanahan Rainwater

Photography, makeup application and styling for clothing and props: Katie Klein; lighting: Johnny Davis; hair styling: Kandice Russell; clothing: Design Archives. Documentary photography by Johnny Davis.

Part of my job as a journalist is meeting and interviewing artists.

I love getting to know them, finding out about what they do and who they are. A few weeks ago I met Katie Klein, a Greensboro photographer with a background in fine-arts photography. Her studio is across the street from M’Coul’s in downtown Greensboro, and when I walked in for my appointment she was sitting on the small couch finishing up a consultation with a bride. They were enthralled in conversation about dates, ideas and the endless possibilities a wedding brings. Later Klein would tell me that the bride was a local costume designer and that she was thrilled to be able to shoot a fellow artist’s wedding.

While she was talking with the bride I used the time to look around the studio’s white walls at the kinds of pictures she took. I knew the basics about Klein, and the photos on the wall reinforced that information: theatrical photos of brides and images from weddings in her beautiful documentary style, smiling portraits of families and children. The photos on her walls were clear and crisp and full of vivid color.

I also knew that she had a background that included a stint working for David LaChapelle, the legendary fashion photographer, filmmaker and UNC School of the Arts alum responsible for, among other things, advertising campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger and Burger King, the video for Elton John’s “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” and trailers for the TV show “Lost.”

I was intrigued, and eager to learn more about her.

Her creative passion became apparent quickly. She explained that her background in fashion photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design and her time spent working with LaChapelle were early inspirations for a new project she had been working on: a series of portraits called The Original Sweethearts. The portraits, in keeping with

Klein’s artistic style, were of women and looked like something from a Hollywood photoshoot complete with makeup, lighting, costumes and themes.

I asked her if she had ever thought about doing a portrait of a mother and her children in the Sweethearts style. She was thrilled at the idea and we started furiously bouncing ideas off each other. We both wanted to focus on the mother and make her look beautiful and sexy, feel powerful and celebrated.

Katie asked me what my favorite decade in history was and I did not hesitate.

“Definitely the 1960s. I love ‘Mad Men’ and the Kennedys, anything to do with the 1960s!” With her hands scribbling notes she asked me what I would think about including my husband and creating a scene with the entire family. In less than an hour we hatched a plan to expand on her Sweethearts idea and do a portrait for me, family style. Countless phone calls back and forth to discuss ideas, props, times and locations followed and I was on ym way to getting the perfect Mother’s Day gift.

My love of family pictures began as a little girl. We used to visit my grandmother often, and during these visits my sisters and I were only allowed to play with the contents of one shallow drawer. It was full of little booklets on the joys of bird watching and identifying different types of flora, along with old-fashioned toys: decks of playing cards, Chinese checkers, a package of “rattlesnake eggs” and spinning tops. On one particular visit, after several exhausting rounds of UNO, I discovered something far more interesting than anything in our designated drawer: what seemed like thousands of pictures — stacks and stacks of them, some in envelopes, others in labeled plastic bags and still others bound by rubber bands.

The photos depicted several generations of my family, most of them taked in the formalized style of the day. And I loved them.

Over the years, visits to my grandmother’s house became more enjoyable. I spent hours lying on my stomach on her avocado-green carpet, listening to my mother and her explain the people in the photos. A story went along with each picture, and Mom and Grandmommi never seemed to tire of telling them. Their storytelling prompted endless questions from me.

A couple of portraits stood out. One was of my parents with my older sister Shawn. Shawn had Down syndrome and died seven years ago; I was pregnant with my little girl at the time. The picture shows my parents: young, beautiful, beaming and proud of the family they created. In the photo, Shawn, seven months old, isn’t sitting up. Instead my mom is holding her up. Despite the fact that my mother’s eyes become far away when she travels back to that time, she distinctly remembers the photographer repeatedly asking her why her child couldn’t sit up. “Shouldn’t she be sitting up by now, if she is seven months old?” he asked over and over.

Several of the older pictures were hilarious, though, reminiscent of today’s websites devoted to awkward family pictures, with dated hairstyles, clothes and poses.

Some brought sadness as I looked at the smiling faces of family members who were no longer with us.

Everything about those moments spent on the floor brings indelible memories.

Those visits only fueled my love of pictures, so naturally I kept my parents’ old picture albums in my room and would rifle through them at night in bed. I was obsessed with all of our baby books and the family portraits tucked inside. There was something so strange about seeing my mother pregnant with one of us or my parents on their wedding day, my mother in her velvet dress and my father handsome, with all of his hair, his fleeting and most regrettable mustache. There were pictures of beach trips and visits to our mountain cabin, birthdays and picnics, playing brides and putting on singing and dancing productions, family reunions and years and years of swim meets. Everything captured with the snap of a shutter. The albums were proof that my childhood will always be there, frozen in time.

By then I was starting to realize, through the evidence I gathered, that a family’s autobiography is best told through photos.

Every milestone in a person’s life can be documented in pictures. They are evidence of lives led, a visual legacy of where people came from and the experiences they went through to get there. They take us back to specific moments and conjure memories.

Later as I grew into adulthood, while thumbing through my beloved Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, I realized the difference between a regular picture and a portrait are lighting, wardrobe and location.

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I will always remember how elated I was when the day of our photoshoot arrived. My family and I had an 8 a.m. call time for hair and makeup. That day Katie and her team, consisting of Johnny Davis, her assistant photographer and lighting man, and Kandice Russell, her hair guru, took over our house. They pampered us and made me feel glamorous. We traveled back to the 1960s with our ensembles. While I was sitting in the makeup chair, Johnny was taking documentary-style photos of us getting ready. Klein, who frequently flashed a pretty smile, was clearly having fun. She told me in our preliminary discussions that this whole fantasy dress-up stuff is one of her photographic passions. Before the shoot we talked about her son and compared stories about little boys and their theatrics. The whole house was a bustle of activity in mid-transformation.

After everyone was coiffed and ready we headed out and politely invaded a neighbor’s lush, green lawn, looking like a classic family from the 1960s on an overcast Saturday morning. We filled up the space with lights and reflectors, cords, a generator and a topiary in the shape of a horse. We were outside for about 45 minutes with Katie patiently directing us to move slightly this way and that way taking what seemed like hundreds of shots. Katie spent a good portion of her time redirecting my four year old son Will, who was the only one who had a mark to stand on. From time to time

Kandice, who was responsible for our ’60s ’dos, would come over and reposition the ribbon in my little girl’s hair. Several cars drove slowly past to get a look at the big event on the quiet street. By the time we were finished it felt a little like a big family reunion, with everyone offering suggestions on what looked the best and laughing when the wind would whip up, or when Will whipped his sister with his lasso.

It is thrilling to have my children and our family momentarily inhabiting a simpler time, captured in a framed package that I will cherish and remember fondly forever. The first time I saw the portrait was in a restaurant with Katie. She brought the images with her for the big reveal, and when I saw them I couldn’t help tearing up a little.

There we were looking trying to look like our most glamorous selves, a family playing dress-up on a grand scale. The portraits made my heart hurt a little bit knowing that this would be something I will show my grandchildren. I thought about the stories I would tell them about the day we stopped time on the neighbor’s lawn.

It is my wish that everyone could have a Mother’s Day (or any day) photo session like the one I was lucky enough to have. The portrait on my wall is a longtime dream come true and one of the things I would grab in the event of a fire. Looking at the portrait of our family of four fills my heart with laughter and love.

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