To run a photo studio, you’ve gotta have Harte
Once reluctant to photograph people, local startup business owner and portrait photographer Bobbie Harte now can’t imagine doing any other kind of photography.
While it might not be accurate to say that Bobbie Harte’s entrepreneurial journey has been picture perfect, it has resulted in a respectable portrait of an entrepreneur.
The proprietor of Bobbie Harte Portrait on King Street, she got into the business well after the internet, digital photography, and social media lowered the barriers to entry, but she still had to face down a practical barrier — her initial reluctance to take portrait shots even after she fell in love with photography.
“I didn’t photograph any people,” Harte acknowledges. “I photographed flowers, clouds, the sky, dogs, food, and whatever caught my eye. To me, the real beauty of photography was that it’s a way of seeing the world more deeply.”
It took a while, but now Harte views portraiture as the deepest way to convey one’s personal brand, and she has no plans to do any other kind of photography. With her direction in much clearer focus, she’s come a long way since taking up photography a mere eight years ago. That journey began following a personal disappointment and after she had a little talk with herself.
“When I initially got into photography in the summer of 2010, I was going to travel and all of my plans fell through,” says Harte, a resident of Madison since 2004. “I was super disappointed and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got to find a way to be happy here where I am,’ so I started going on walks and taking a lot of pictures. It forced me really to start looking at the world around me, and the happy accident is that I realized that I loved where I lived. I didn’t want to move any more. I started doing photography for fun and one thing led to another, and 2016 is when I really started to train for business.”
For a long time, photography was just a hobby, and initially Harte had no desire to make it a business. It transitioned into a business-worthy passion after she photographed a random handful of people, and others saw and liked her pictures and the accompanying narratives on Facebook or on her blog and asked her to photograph them. It wasn’t the easiest “ask” for Harte to respond to.
“I’ve always been afraid to photograph people because you want to make people look good and that can be really challenging sometimes,” she notes. “If you get it wrong, you get it really wrong, but it was really fun.”
With the power of positive feedback from her photographic subjects and their friends and loved ones, Harte took the entrepreneurial plunge. “I still thought it was really challenging, but when I got it right, it was such a high,” she explains. “To post a picture of somebody on Facebook and then have that person’s friends and family just go crazy, saying things like, ‘Oh, you’re so beautiful inside and out. We love you. We miss you.’ Facilitating that connection was really exciting to me.”
Another factor in Harte’s decision to launch a business was her experience in graduate school. She was studying creative nonfiction in the residency program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In that program, she could do much of the work from Madison, communicating with her advisor via email and phone conversations. She would travel to Vermont every six months for an in-person residency, but mostly she worked from home, loved it, and in an age where many people crave collaboration with co-workers, Harte discovered she was good at working in isolation, a handy trait when starting your own business.
“I thought, ‘Well, alright, let’s try to find a way to be self-employed’ because I had discovered through that graduate program that I worked really well at home on my own. I was really disciplined and thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to start a business’ and I thought maybe I should try photography. It’s something that people had been responding to kind of organically that year. So, I did a bunch of research, found a business model that worked for me, and rearranged my apartment so that I had a natural light studio in my bedroom, built a portfolio, and launched the business.”
That was in March 2017. Given Harte’s former reluctance to take people’s photographs, and their corresponding hesitation to be photographed, her business model is centered on making clients comfortable — a crucially important step considering her clients’ interest in personal branding. Before a photo shoot, she spends a lot of time getting to know them and helping them to feel comfortable, and this is where collaboration enters the picture.
“That’s really important because so many people hate having their picture taken,” she states. “That was kind of a surprise for me when I started this business because it seems like we’re always taking pictures of ourselves and each other, but there is a vulnerability involved in having your picture taken by someone else and that makes people very nervous about being photographed.
“They’ve seen pictures of themselves that they didn’t like, so I try to spend a lot of time with people and create a safe environment in my studio so they feel that they can let their guard down a little bit,” she adds. “That’s when the magic happens. When people can relax, that’s when I can draw out those really genuine facial expressions.”
To further help clients relax before they come in, Harte encourages them to get their hair and makeup done. That reassurance prevents them from staring at their face in the mirror and dwelling on whatever perceived flaws they have. “During the photo shoot itself, we take a nice bit of time together before we take photographs, and then they come back to my studio within two weeks of the photo shoot and we show them the best photographs, and that’s when they choose what they want to buy. They only buy the images they love.”
Shining natural light
When Harte began to study portraiture, she realized that there is a way to photograph people to accentuate their attractiveness, and natural light plays a part in that, as do the proper camera angle, the distance between the camera and the face, and a general awareness of human anatomy. “One of the reasons you look funny when you take selfies is because the photo is too close to your face,” she explains. “Have you ever taken a selfie and thought, ‘Oh, my God, is my nose really that big?’ A lot of it is the distance of the camera to your face and the angle you are holding the camera at.
“That’s when the magic happens. When people can relax, that’s when I can draw out those really genuine facial expressions.” — Bobbie Harte
“Maybe it’s the way the light is hitting you,” Harte adds. “All of those elements come into making a good photograph, and I learned how to harness those different elements to make people look as good as possible. I just started to study portraiture to understand the different elements of a successful portrait. Oh man, I could study that for the rest of my career. Everybody’s face is different. Every person is different, so it will never get old.”
Among those Harte photographed were local businesswomen and others whose images were captured in a book that she created for networking purposes. The idea was that the book would be something she’d carry around to help explain what she does for a living. “The physical quality of the magazine just makes it a more interesting conversation piece, and it’s taken on another life of its own,” she notes. “I’m working on the second issue now, and I’m going to do four each year. It started out as just a simple thing, but it’s taken on a life of its own, so we’ll see where it goes.”
While most of Harte’s work is done in her King Street studio, her focus on portraits (including family photographs) has taken her on location more often. It also has put her in some inspiring company, including a woman who was diagnosed with cancer and wanted to be photographed prior to surgery, and a body builder who wanted to document through imagery the process of her competitive season.
“I really love doing projects like that where the person’s life is their art, where the subject matter for the art is somebody’s life,” Harte explains. “That’s a way of honoring your experience, honoring your life, and celebrating how far you’ve come or the fact that you are alive at all.”
For Harte, it’s a great time to be in business and not be afraid to learn from mistakes as a self-employed business operator. “I think there is so much opportunity right now for anybody who has the ambition and is willing to do the work,” she says. “I’m 100 percent self-taught. I think it’s an exciting time to start a new venture and to really find what lights you up and what you have to share with the world.”
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