Small Stone. Big Ripple. (A photographer’s tale)

Photography BusinessAn Photographer’s Unexpected Visitor.

It was a Tuesday afternoon in July, around 4:00 in the afternoon, in 1998. Here in Maine, that’s prime time. Gorgeous weather. Blue skies. My studio was closed for the afternoon. I was thinking of leaving early, and going to get an ice cream. “I work pretty hard during the summer months – I deserve this”, I remember thinking. Then there was a knock at my studio door.

My studio is open only by appointment. If there are no appointments, I close and lock the door, shut off the lights, and work “behind the scenes” in my back work area. I might be framing large prints, doing digital retouching, ordering supplies, answering email, or napping. OK, no napping, but one does have to be very disciplined some days when there are no appointments and you’re working in a home studio! (However I assure you, I NEVER watch Jerry Springer reruns.)

Usually, I do not answer the door if someone knocks or rings the doorbell.  I can easily get distracted or have my entire schedule for the week thrown off, simply by someone dropping by to “visit.” Sometimes it is someone looking for information, sometimes just a friend or neighbor dropping by for coffee. Sometimes it’s someone selling something. Working out of my home studio, it all seems so inviting. I  mean, to the outsider, it is tempting to think “he can’t be busy right? He’s home!”

She Looks Innocent Enough!

I peeked through a side window, and saw a tan late-model Toyota minivan. It was a little rusty, “well loved”, but clean.  I am always careful how I look out the window, because a door-to-door salesman told me years ago that he always waves at the windows of a house when approaching, so that the people perhaps hiding inside will say “oopss..he saw us, might as well open the door!”

There on my studio doorstep was a sweet little old lady. Dressed neatly, but like any Grandmother, with curly gray hair, soft skin, twinkling eyes and a pair of glasses on a gold chain, hanging around her neck. In one hand were her car keys and a little purse. In the other hand, oh that other hand, was something that was going to change my life forever.

Her gentle knock somehow convinced me that this time I should answer the door. I had lost my own Grandmother recently, maybe this would be a nice little visit to remind me of her, and also a chance to help out whatever her “cause” was. Church supper raffle tickets? Lost kitty? Trick or treat? (OK, it was July, I realize.)

Can You Help Me, Young Man?

I opened my door and said hello, “may I help you?”

“Hello, my name is Mrs. Green.  Are you photographer guy, Morelli?” she asked.

“Yes, come in” I said and she entered my waiting room. I kept expecting her to ask me to come to a “save the whales” meeting, or that she had knit some mittens for me. Was I wrong!

She took a 4×6″ black and white photograph out of her purse and handed it to me. It was a very contrasty and very grainy looking photo of a baby. It wasn’t very good quality.

“This is my first grand child, she’s three months old. I am from Florida, and new to Maine, and wasn’t quite sure who to hire to take some portraits of her. I have a beautiful garden and wanted some nice photos done there of her. But they turned out pretty awful, and they were in black and white even, I guess the photographer didn’t listen to me. I complained and he said he didn’t “do refunds”.  Her eyes went a little moist.

“I told him I’d pay him more to take more, and he said he was pretty busy but we set up a time for tomorrow. See, my grand daughter goes back to Texas in two days. I really need these to be good, I am missing her already.” She then got tears. “These portraits will be all I have until I see her at Christmas.”  (This was before Facebook and online posting, mind you.)

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect (another) $200

She explained that she had paid $200 for the sitting fee, and another $350 for these rather drab prints. I felt terrible, and knew I had to do something to restore her faith in professional photographers!  This may as well be my own Grandmother sitting here in tears! So I decided to make her an offer :

“Tell you what, Mrs. Green, I will come by tomorrow and photograph your grand daughter at NO charge – AND give you 1/2 off any portraits on your order. It might not make up entirely, but at least you’ll have SOMETHING to show for your money. AND some gorgeous portraits - I guarantee it.”  This other photographer wasn’t getting another $200 for a new session with this baby, that would simply not be right!

We Have A Winner!

She gasped and touched my hand as she leaned forward to hug me.

“You mean you’ll guarantee that I love my grand daughter’s portraits? How can you do that? I asked the other photographer if he had a guarantee and he said  ’no, children are very unpredictable, she might cry or have a bad day but I still need to get paid for my time.’ ”  I explained to her that I felt that, if I didn’t create photographs that exceeded her expectations, then I didn’t deserve to be paid.  I love what I do, and stand behind it.

I showed up at her “little garden.” It turned out to be a garden that was one of the grandest in the State of Maine, a horticulturalist’s dream, and VERY well kept, by a full time staff. The town gave tours of this garden, it was that large.  My “Grandmother friend” had been very humble and holding back. Her home, well, her estate, was fantastic. Her husband was an inventor, and one of his tiny inventions from years ago is inside EVERY hard drive in the world. This home on the water is one of six homes they own. Oh, and on the lake in front of the home, the airplane they would fly to Maine in, and land on the lake. Their plane.

All’s well that ends well. (And didn’t end, for 18 years… and won’t for a long time.)

Mrs. Green was thrilled with her portraits. Her order, including wall portrait, was well into four figures. As the years went by, and she and her husband returned to summer in Maine, the grandchildren kept coming, and soon there were ten of them, plus parents. That’s ten sessions a year plus groups, and with parents, and large and small family groups. In the third year, the portrait order was over $12,000. By year six it was $23,000. For two days worth of portrait sessions at their home. All told, thus far, it has been over $328,000 in portraits, wall art, albums and reprints. 

After eighteen years of going there every July, the grandchildren are all grown now, and no longer visit at the same time. The sessions are smaller, and less frequent. It’s kind of sad to see time pass, but I am happy knowing how many thousands of memories I preserved for them. I am waiting now for THEM to have their own children. They became like family to me, and always treated me with respect, but as a friend as well. (They keep telling me I can never retire.)

Did I Make The Right Choice?

I had a receptionist way back then, who thought I was silly to not charge this sweet Grandmother. But I had a feeling, I was making an investment. The cost of doing her first session for free with half price portraits was an hour of my time, and $98 worth of lab fees. $328,000 later, I think being kind was the right thing to do.

But not just for the money. What’s as important to me?  

…that generations of Greens will have fantastic portraits of their loved one to cherish all of their lives.

A little act of kindness on my part, done with no expectations. It was met with a return that I never dreamed. Keep YOUR ears, eyes and heart open. You just never know when YOUR “Mrs. Green” might drop by. It’s OK, answer the door.

-Thomas Morelli
Photographer & Contributor to the Charles Lewis Inner-Circle








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