Three-year-old Gregory Gonzales had had enough. For 35 to 40 minutes, he had posed for the camera, showing his mischievous grin, tilting his head and playing up for photographer Jenni Combs as professionally as any child model. All in all, he was being adorable. But with three more shots to go, he was suddenly having none it.
“I want a lollipop,” he demanded, as he refused to sit next to his 5-year-old sister, Gianna, for a pose. “I want to see the chickens,” he then said, pointing to the backyard, where there were, indeed, chickens in a coop.
When offered a lollipop to sit still, he agreed to the treat but would only pose by his sister if he could sit with the container of lollipops beside him. And when he was instructed to give his newborn sister, Gemma, a kiss, for another pose, he complied, but not without announcing, “She tastes funny.”
There was also the shoe incident. Did he want them on or off? Then a meltdown. Then a trip to the treasure chest, where he found a much-prized toy car. Then a few “Who has stinky feet?” chants by Combs, which was met by giggles and shouts of “We do!” from both Gregory and Gianna. And despite all of it, smiles, poses and, finally, stunning family photos.
Welcome to the life of a professional child and pet photographer. And it is the world of Combs, where patience and a sense of humor as well as lollipops and dog treats can go a long, long way. Combs recently offered Baltimore’s Child an opportunity to take a behind-the-scene look at her life behind the lens.
While W.C. Fields once warned to never work with children and animals, Combs has made a career out of it.
Even in this day of selfies with access to a camera only a smartphone away, many still seek out professional portraits to mark important milestones in their lives. “I love them,” Samantha Gonzales, Gianna and Gregory’s mother, says when she sees the portraits Combs has taken. “I’m so glad we do this. They grow up before your eyes, and you don’t even realize it. For us, it’s money well spent.”
Not that going into a family photo shoot doesn’t have its stresses.
“It’s always nerve-wracking,” Gonzales says. “You just want them to behave. Mostly Gregory. He’s in the terrible threes right now. But “Jenni’s good at diffusing tantrums or making him laugh. She’s good at taking control. That’s why we love coming to her,” she says.
“I buy a lot of lollipops,” Combs says with a smile.
Combs’s working relationship with the Gonzales family, like many of her clients, goes back a ways. She has seen their lives evolve through sessions for engagement photos, wedding photos and pregnancy photos, and, more recently, growing family photos. Where there had been one baby, Gianna, for that first family photo shoot, now there are three — Gianna, Gregory and the newest member and focus of the most recent photo shoot, week-old Gemma.
Gianna, now 5, is somewhat of a legend among Combs’s clients. The willowy, dark-haired beauty is known as the champion pooper. Not an easy record to hold, given the numerous times that bare baby bottoms have done their business on Combs. But “Gianna hadn’t gone in days,” recalls Gonzales of her first daughter’s newborn photo shoot.
Then she went right in the middle of the shoot. And kept going. And going. And going.
“We started out trying to catch it in a diaper, then Jenni was catching it in her bare hands, holding them beneath Gianna,” Gonzales says, laughing. “We were both cracking up.”
“You get used to it,” Combs says. “The parents will apologize, but this is just part of it. I wash everything after every shoot anyway. So, it’s not a problem. These are babies.”
For newborn poses, the babies are often tastefully photographed by Combs in bare skin, with a variety of props from books and reading glasses to sparkly headbands. Combs says the best age to photograph them is during the first two weeks — a window, she says, where they are easy to pose and before they are as prone to colic and fussiness. One trick of her trade saw Combs holding a portable heater, which blows soft, warm air, in front of Gemma when she did become restless.
“It reminds them of the womb,” Combs says. “Nice and warm.” Gemma responded immediately, relaxing and often dozing off, enabling Combs to pose her as she liked.
Combs works out of her home in Westminster and has a studio, Forever-Yesterday Photography, in her basement. Outside there is a large, roomy backyard, which Combs uses frequently for shoots as well.
Combs first picked up a camera as a 6-year-old in Germany. Not long after, “I remember going on a trip to the Black Forest, and I was taking these pictures of the mountains and the sunsets,” she says. Combs had a promising eye early on. And today, those first photos still hang proudly in her father’s home.
“I want to capture something beautiful,” she says of her love for photography. “And I want to make it even more beautiful by using a certain angle or lighting. I want people to see the beauty I see.”
She finds that beauty even among the chaos. “These are not always the most focused subjects,” says Crystal Bender of Eldersburg, who has had Combs photograph both her 4-year-old grandson and her French bulldog, Moose. But not necessarily together. “Oh, no,” Bender says, chuckling.
An animal lover herself, Combs and her family, which includes her husband and two sons, have four guinea pigs, who have posed for her (in sunglasses no less), a bearded dragon, two dogs, a cat and those 20 chickens that intrigued Gregory. Besides her own pets, Combs has taken professional photos of dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and even fish.
Mark Patterson of Bowie had Combs photograph his six Lionhead rabbits. That’s right, six rabbits. The photos show the fluffy bunnies all lined up nicely, looking straight at the camera. A perfect pose. “They were hypnotized by the flash,” Patterson says. But prior to that, “there was a lot of scurrying around,” he admits, adding, this was “pretty much what we expected.” “It was fun,” Combs says.
Patterson cherishes the photos and even used them to create a photo blanket. Combs will tell you there really isn’t much difference in photographing a toddler or the family pet when it comes to posing for portraits. “Both are driven by rewards,” she says.