Artistic portraits at a bar mitzvah influenced by Andy Warhol or incorporating an iPod-themed ad? It's not such an outlandish idea if you're familiar with the work of Clay Blackmore (www.clayblackmore.com). And not only does this Washington, DC, photographer specialize in shooting on-site portraits at rite-of-passage events (bar/bat mitzvahs, sweet 16s) and family occasions (reunions, weddings)—he's also cornered the market in providing the special photo décor that often finds its way onto the dance floor, sign-in boards, walls, water bottles, and mint boxes. With themes from pop art, pop culture, pro sports, and even rock-'n'-roll, Blackmore's creative graphic art makes each party he does stand out from the crowd
"DC is one of the most happening event markets in the world," Blackmore explains. "And there are a lot of party planners who can create the type of party art that we do, but if a party planner does it, it's for one-time use only, and then you throw it out. If we do it, it's an investment in art for your home."
For one recent party, Blackmore and his assistants came up with the idea of creating pop-art images for every kid at the bar mitzvah. "Clay set up a colorful portrait studio, and I set up an event imaging station running ExpressDigital and a custom Photoshop filter action," explains Ben Banks, one of Blackmore's top assistants. "Clay would take the pictures and I'd get them into the computer using ExpressDigital; I'd find the best picture, export it to Photoshop, run my custom actions, and then paint in details with the paintbrush to really give it the unique feeling we were looking for. Then it went back into ExpressDigital, where we applied a frame border and printed them out." To pick up their photos at the end of the party, young guests would simply stop by the 7x10-foot magnetized photograph of the bar mitzvah boy (printed by Blackmore on his Epson 9600), where all the just-printed photos were hanging under magnets.
"Party planners in the area often help us—it's a collaboration of many of the vendors," says Blackmore. "Top party planners leave nothing to chance. We can't show up on game day and make last-minute decisions."
The Full Monte
Blackmore, who has been a pro photographer for more than 25 years, got his lucky break while still pursuing a photography degree in college. "I met Monte Zucker, and he introduced me to high-end social affairs, big parties, and big budgets," he says. "I fell right into it."
After studying under his famous mentor, Blackmore opened his own studio in 1993—around the time that the seeds of his event photo specialty were planted. "Kodak asked me if I would learn to use its event-imaging station," he recalls. "When they wanted to take it back, I said, ‘No, you've got to leave it! I see a lot of potential here.'"
Blackmore started doing on-site portraits at charity functions, black-tie affairs, and corporate events, which mushroomed into a huge shoot-and-print specialty for him. "Next I started coming up with clever ideas for the bar/bat mitzvah market," he says.
"That soon turned into an incredible following of clients wanting something different from what everyone else was doing—and price wasn't a factor." Word-of-mouth in this relatively small but affluent community spread, and Blackmore was in business.
But while Blackmore can keep the ideas coming until the parents start to close their wallets (and some of his clients don't seem to have a limit, he acknowledges), he doesn't cater only to the wealthy. "We scale down all the time," he says. "I can tailor a package to meet budgets. I have a lot of room to play with my own printing and mounting ability."
If he's creating tailor-made decorations for the party, Blackmore and company will shoot as far as 12 weeks in advance (though you don't want to shoot too far ahead, since you want the kids to look the same). "We've done it in less time, but that's my recommendation," he says.
To come up with party themes and transform them into appropriate photo adornments, Blackmore has discovered that simplicity is usually best. "We don't reinvent the wheel," he says. "If we've used an idea for one client, chances are another client hasn't seen it. Plus, if we give our clients too many choices, they can't make up their minds. I tell them, ‘Ready, fire, aim! Let's just get started, and we'll see where we end up—we can't overplan this thing.'"
Blackmore and his crew try to make the session as fun as possible—no small feat when you're dealing with often-awkward young adolescents. "We'll have the sound system playing music they like, and we often shoot clean high-key with a lot of light so they can move around and get into the posing," explains Banks. "I can work wonders with the computer, but nothing can compare to getting the client into it."
Having parents around during the shoot, or even the whole family, tends to add to the excitement. "Many times we pair the pre-event session with a family portrait session," continues Banks. "Having the family there is good because they can coax expressions out of the kids."
Blackmore transports all of the décor to the party (sometimes borrowing a neighbor's van to carry some of the larger-sized murals), and after the event is over, clients get to take their custom-made artwork home. "The posters we print and frame so that they can keep them and hang them as art in their house," says Banks. "When we're doing event coverage, the finished product is a leather-bound album, with additional loose prints for framing."