Zee Wendell, Los Angeles based lifestyle photographer has been creating spontaneous images of kids and families for twenty years. We caught up with Zee last week to talk to her about how she captures the spontaneous moments that she is known for.
What do you enjoy most about photographing children/lifestyle?
Photography is about capturing a moment. Babies are really fun because they are not yet self-conscious or concerned about how they look when they get emotional about something. They just emote, no-holds-barred, which is great for me when I am trying to capture something really real (maybe not so great for the parents). Not too long ago we were photographing a baby in a high chair set in a beautiful, white modern kitchen. We gave the baby a bowl of mashed sweet potatoes to eat. Naturally, he dived into the bowl, smearing sweat potatoes all over his face and screaming with delight. He was having the time of his life and we were getting wonderful spontaneous images. I also really like to shoot at birthday parties or events where there are several children. Kids forget that they are being photographed and get absorbed in the action which allows for some amazingly candid moments.
How do you handle a situation where a “child” model isn’t giving you what you need?
My crew is made up of great problem solvers. The toughest challenges get solved with creativity, patience and a lot of laughter. The trick is to make everyone on the set feel part of the production—like they’re on a big team. Recently we had a child who was incredibly reserved. The set was somewhat intimidating and we didn’t have a backup. Before we began photographing the talent our stylist spent some one-on-one time talking to him and getting to know him. Once he was warmed up to the crew he felt like he was part of the team. He just needed time. We ended up getting wonderful spontaneous shots of him. That said, sometimes babies and children have “off days” and nothing works except a backup baby or kid. You have to know when to move on because the clock is ticking. A good policy is to have at least one back-up baby for every primary baby model on the set.
What are the major influences in your work? Aside from many photographers who I have admired over the years my real influence comes from real life, my children, my friends, my family. I am a mother of two young boys so I have a community of moms and kids around me at all times. I get inspired by watching moms and kids, or siblings interact. I love watching what kids wear to school. You can tell who dressed themselves, they are the most creative and interesting (future stylists). Kids come up with great ideas. One day my son took a few licorice sticks, put them in his mouth and pretended he was a walrus. It was a fun moment that I ended up recreating on a shoot. I am not sure a stylist would be inspired to do that but whimsical little moments come naturally to kids when they are just living life. The trick is to be there when it happens and to pay attention.
What is the trick to getting the most natural “non-posed” shots? I am a naturally quiet person, I try really hard not to intimidate my models but to just be there with them as they move or slip into a pose. When a model is posing, I try to capture the moment that happens before or after the pose is set. That’s when they look most natural. I also like it when two or more models are interacting, then they sort of forget that I am there, instead they focus on one another or the conversation they’re having. If there is good chemistry between the people they begin to riff back and forth. It’s all about their reactions to one another.
If a model is alone I prefer to have her actually doing something that distracts from the photoshoot. The other day we had a model fry an egg. I shoot very fast during the action. When the model giggled or reacted to her own actions her expressions came alive resulting in some wonderful images. On that same shoot we photographed a glamorous woman lying by the pool, sunbathing. Behind her a male model cannonballed off the edge of the pool creating a mini tsunami over her head. We were rewarded with a priceless expression when she was caught off guard by the wave. I don’t think she could recreate that face if she tried.