The Simple Portrait Project is a family portrait experience. Experience being the operative word.
Fort Thomas resident, Jonathan Willis or Jon or Jonathan Robert, or Jon Bob as he's been branded by a friend's son, is a commercial photographer traveling the world doing a job that's as cool as the garage-chic studio he's built out at 842 Monmouth Street in Newport.
Just back from a solo commercial shoot for an eyeglass company in Australia hanging with indigenous peoples with interesting accents, Willis is in the midst of photographing 250 different families in a way that embodies creativity, simplicity, improvisation and beauty.
|Jonathan Willis. FTM file.|
The Simple Portrait Project sessions started November 6th and will end on December 8th. Willis said there are about 50 spots still available.
"I didn't seek out to be a family retail photographer, but the Simple Portrait Project to me is a creative marathon," said Willis. "How do I deliver 250 unique experiences in 30 minutes blasts, using all of the same creative rails without ever delivering the exact same end product? Professionally, it allows me to really stretch my boundaries. High intensity creativity in short bursts, great hospitality experience is our goal."
Willis said that he started The Simple Portrait Project as a way to avoid doing typical family portraits.
"I had people calling me to do photograph their families and I kept saying no because working that way in a traditional sense had never really worked for me. So I thought, 'what if I changed the rules so that this idea functions a lot like a commercial experience?' A big part of what makes this different is that we are putting on a great show and experience. The more we've learned about this and embraced the hospitality aspect, it's been a success," he said.
I ran through the process to get a feel for it. It starts by booking sessions on the website and getting a real-life call from someone confirming your time.
Walking into the studio, which also doubles as Borderlands creative and co-working space, the vibe is closer to a upscale coffee or wine bar. There are families hanging out and talking. Drinks, snacks and jazzy music fuel the atmosphere. Photo editors are posted up in the studio, expediting pictures on the spot. Dogs are sauntering in on leashes. We open up a vintage Tiffany-green refrigerator and grab a lager and a few animal crackers for Benny boy.
The studio is simple: one light, one prop, no descriptive backdrop and 30 minute sessions. We grabbed another drink and the editors were already editing after a painless shot. No tears. They helped us pick four of the best from the session and finished up editing and we left with a stainless steel flash drive. Easy.
It was comfortable, efficient and our pictures were stunning.
Willis said the atmosphere is by design. Offering up three values that his team strives for every session.
"We celebrate family in an honest expression. We reveal beauty in people. We place a lot of value on that. It's exciting for us to see moms crying because of how beautiful their family looks and how stunning they look in each other's company. We want the overall experience to be very welcoming. Music, bourbon and good beers and not good beers, just to make it fun and memorable," said Willis. "There should be space for people to do their own thing. We source really cool, textured elements and we want them to leave with an image that lasts. We aim for a timeless quality, which is why we lean towards black and white because it's very forgiving, but it's also looked good for decades and will continue to."
Willis said that atmosphere and beauty is enough to get mom in the door, but a roadblock to booking families could be figuring out how to get dad to buy in.
"This is so quick and raw. Good sprits, good beer. All of those things sort of play into enticing dad to come. Your husband will love this. And you're going to look great," said Willis. "I have built a team of the best photographers and support staff to really know how to work with capturing people of all shapes and sizes and shooting them in a way that's flattering and compliments their family."
Fort Thomas resident, Jennifer Heindl, has booked The Simple Portrait Project session twice and said that both times they left with phenomenal photos.
"The setting is minimal but artistic and always unique. I love the laid back vibe because, as a mom and the one in charge of getting everyone dressed and ready to go, which always stresses me out, they make the final product look effortless. The setups and poses are so unique and different from anything else I've seen from other photographers, but its far from feeling posed. We've tried several other photographers over the years, and this is the only one we've come back to. The final product is worth every penny," she said.
Laura McMurray, also from Fort Thomas runs the hospitality side of The Simple Portrait Project.
"Part of the essence of TSPP is capturing people in their element. Hospitality plays a big role in setting the tone setting people at ease, which can start with a friendly face at the door, some bourbon or coffee, and maybe an Oreo or two. It's about fun, simplicity and creativity," she said.
Dustin Sparks, who is one of the editors on site, said that Willis is extremely good at capturing emotion.
"I've worked with a lot of different photographers and the one thing that sets Jon apart is how loose he is. This format is right in his wheelhouse," he said.
Willis said that there are some families that are first-timers, but many are repeat customers.
"It's almost become a little cultish," he said. "It's fun when families see each other's shots on Instagram or on our website. But that's the thing with families, whether they are all broken or everyone gets along. When you bring a group of people together that are so connected, whether good or bad, things just come to the surface that are unique and worth capturing."
If you'd like to book a session for The Simple Portrait Project, there are limited spots available. Willis said that if you there isn't space this year, send him a note and you will get an invitation to book for next year.
Sessions are booked in 30 minute blocks, which includes editing. Your purchase comes with 4 black and white images, options to buy color, options to buy more prints. They will be shooting Black Friday through Sunday.
"If you want to skip the stores we have some availability left. Come have a beer and we'll create something lasting.