Documenting Childhood with Jess Rotenberg

little boy sitting at fast food booth spilling photo by jess rotenberg

What does childhood remind you of? Is it the posed family photos you have from holidays or special occasions? Or is all those in between moments — the real life– the barefeet, the spilled food, the laughter and the crying? Jess Rotenberg decided to make her photography be about the real stuff of childhood. From Jess:

“I can sum up what I’ve learned as a photographer in two simple statements. First, that people want more family photos than they currently have. This is always true. I’ve never met an exception. Second, that people dislike the traditional process of posing for photos with their children. Traditional photography is just not particularly compatible with the nature of children. Most families just deal with it, like they deal with the DMV.

My job as a photographer increasingly requires that I become a problem solver above all else. I’ve spent the last few years developing ways to make the entire client process as simple as possible–from contract signing to picking out which photos to hang. More than anything, I’ve worked to get the photos parents want while ensuring their kids want me to come back the following day for more. Photographing children CAN be joyful for parents…and an experience enjoyed over a hot cup of coffee on Saturday morning. I take photos for families who don’t like being photographed and change their mind.

Nothing has driven this point home more than working with my own children. They don’t enjoy the camera when it comes out and they refuse to stand where I request–especially when I ask them to stand side by side. Smiles on demand? Forget it. My goal became to capture them doing the stuff of childhood without disrupting them. For the most part, I shy away from posing my children and work around them. It’s rare for them to notice or be bothered that I am photographing them because I don’t make any demands to smile or stand a certain way. I try to keep a camera loaded at all times and within reach so I can grab it at the perfect opportunities and that trick alone helps me great beautiful images. Using the camera at “unusual” times is also a nice trick. For example, I took a great series this year at Trader Joe’s. The kids were so busy with the chaos of the grocery store that they didn’t really mind me.

With clients, however, that can be a bit more difficult because we have usually just met and I’ve never seen their home before. My favorite places to use integrate film into my sessions in a “lifestyle” way are in the kiddos’ bedrooms because there is usually beautiful window light. Children are at ease in their rooms and tend to very naturally interact with their things (and me). This also allows me to build a rapport with them so that I can grab a few natural smiles when I pose the family for one traditional portrait. In my opinion, the best place for light in a home is front door light. Open that front door, pose your family in the foyer all snuggled together, and BOOM. For my sessions, I also ask parents to plan a few simple activities, including a few outside, and do my best to locate those in the areas of their home with the best light. Over the last 6 months, I’ve integrated more and more film into my family sessions and am shooting about 50% film right now. About 90% of my personal work is on film and as I improve my ability to work with all sorts of light, I hope to increase my use of it with clients.

About a year ago, I began shooting film and it’s allowed me to be even more deliberate with my choices while shootings, more aware of my surroundings, and more present with my family when we are out and about. The ritual of picking a camera, then selecting a film stock, then choosing how to rate the film and meter the light, and then making choices about camera settings has taken the therapeutic effects of photography to a different level. Although my primary two stocks for shooting client work are Portra 400 and Delta 3200, I enjoy experimenting and keep a “buffet” of film in the refrigerator where any normal family keeps their vegetables.

Here are images that represent what speaks to me as a photographer as seen through the eyes of my children, once they are old enough to appreciate the visual documentation of their childhood.”

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photo of little boy with hose by jess rotenberg underwater family photos by jess rotenberg two brothers eating at table in black and white photo by jess rotenberg mom and little boy up in the air photo by jess rotenberg little boy on porch shot through photo by jeff rotenberg two little boys in tub black and white photo by jess rotenberg little boy on bicycle at airport photo by jess rotenberg photo of little toddler in grass under tree by jess rotenberg little boy on sand running around photo in black and white film by jess rotenberg family on beach by motel film photo by jess rotenberg little child on swing on black and film film photo by jess rotenberg little boy sitting at fast food booth spilling photo by jess rotenberg

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