When New York-based baby photographer Jade Albert thinks about how she’s stayed in business for the past 20-plus years, Madonna comes to mind. From the disheveled dirty-blonde waves the diva wore in 1984 to the poker-straight, jet-black hair she sported in the early ‘90s to her most recent wavy crimson do, the pop/rock/hip-hop wonder is constantly reinventing herself to stay fresh with the times.
Similarly, Albert’s ability to evolve is what keeps clients like Target, Dillard’s, Frito Lay, Pepsi, T.J. Maxx, and Buy Buy Baby coming to her to satisfy their commercial youth portrait needs.
When Albert first started photographing babies, she had just returned from Europe, where she had been working for Italian Vogue. She had a unique idea to incorporate the magazine’s fashion-focused style into her baby portraits. “What I did back then, which no one else had done before, was a lot of grooming and accessorizing,” says Albert. “Instead of the usual one pair of shoes and a single hair ornament, I wanted 10 different pairs of shoes and a dozen hair ribbons.”
Not only was she the only one doing children’s portraits with attitude—being fresh out of Europe also put her in high demand. Albert saw her sudden popularity for what it was: “I was like the new kid on the block, the flavor of the month,” she explains. “I knew in order to maintain that level of success, to keep riding the wave, I’d have to kick hard.”
A drop ahead of the competition, Albert quickly recognized when people began aiming for more simple lifestyles and changed her photography accordingly. “Obviously, in a decade, things change,” she says. “Before, people wanted more controlled, complicated, studio portraits. Now they seem to like things cleaner and simpler, because that’s how they want to live.”
Her new, more whimsical style propelled her business success, but spending 12 hours a day, every single day, singing Elmo songs, clapping hands, squeaking toys, and blowing bubbles soon grew repetitive. Time for another change.
Inspired by the childhood charm bracelet her mother had returned to her shortly after September 11, 2001, she considered starting a personal project. “It was like art versus commerce,” she says. “Do I make a lot of money and sell my soul to the devil, or do I do something for myself that comes from within and expresses my passion?”
In spite of her concerns about breaking out of her niche for several years to work on something product-oriented, the resulting coffee-table book, The Charm of Charms, brought her nothing but positive exposure. “I was featured in The New York Times, Advertising Age, Harper’s Bazaar, Life & Style, Metro, and the New York Daily News,” says Albert. “I was on the CBS TV “Early Show,” and Accessories named it ‘Best Coffee-Table Book of 2005.’” Cleverly, she photographed children wearing the charm jewelry, so the book not only resulted in a few product assignments (a nice change of pace)—it also provided a segue for returning to her niche.
Think Out of the PlayPen
According to Albert, occasionally renewing her passion is just one way she gets her characteristic warm and whimsical photos at every session. For instance, when shooting children, Albert tries to put herself in the child’s shoes and never talks down to him or her.
She explains, “By the time a child gets to me, he or she has already seen five different people going through hair, makeup, and the dressing room. So by then they are like, ‘And who are you supposed to be?’” For this reason, Albert tries to have her support team take care of the technical setup, while she sees the child through every stage of preparation.
“By sharing in the experience with them, I try to make them feel important and boost their self-esteem,” she says. Additionally, the common history transforms her into a familiar face the child feels comfortable with.
Albert finds it helps the creative process if she doesn’t have to worry so much about the client’s vision. Her motto, “Cover it their way first,” is a great method she uses to mentally free herself about midway through the shoot. After she’s certain she has a good sampling of images that fulfill the client’s request, she shoots according to her own taste. One time, on an assignment to photograph two little girls for a Target fashion ad, Albert recalls, “One of the girls had to go potty, and while she was in the bathroom, the other sat down, took her shoes off, and started playing with a puppy; I kept taking pictures, and that was the ad.”
Bundles of Joy
It’s tough to predict a toddler’s behavior, so Albert figures, “Your best bet is to work around them, take advantage of their best timing and what they like, and keep a good atmosphere.” The trick to setting up a good environment is to keep the parent out of it, which can be difficult at times. “I hate when the parents sneak onto the set—they are supposed to stay behind the curtain, but they always want to see their kid. All of a sudden, the kid’s attention is elsewhere.”
Scheduling the shoot for the time of day when a child is at his or her liveliest works well. Albert simply asks the parents what that time is and has them bring the baby’s favorite “binky, blankie, or baba.” One time, a baby who had won a scholarship from Enfamil was scheduled to be photographed at 9 a.m. When Albert noticed that the baby was dressed, happy, and fresh far in advance of that time, she fired off a few shots. “By 9 a.m., when the shoot was actually supposed to start, the kid was so bored he was chewing the diploma.”