The Simple Portrait Project

842 Monmouth Street
Newport, KY

Jonathan Willis of The Simple Portrait Project

How did you start your business?
The Simple Portrait Project started almost by accident after I had number of friends and family ask for family portraits. As a commerical and magazine photographer, I kept saying no, but after about the tenth inquiry, I realized that I might be thinking about it all wrong.

I formulated a very simple system that was designed to look like a commerical shoot but with a strong set of creative boundaries that would force me to grow creatively. The rules I follow also allow me to minimize my time with the subjects, maximize the results and create a body of work that has a consistent look to it.

What makes this different from other photography ventures?
I think the really interesting piece of this little project is the system and the rules. Also, the culture that it has created. Creatively, it’s like running a marathon. I train all year for it. I invest in it. It pays off financially, of course, but the greatest rewards are not financially related. It a creative stretch, but it’s also an insightful look at family. Though it’s a biased set of families, it’s a lovely experience to see how they work together.  

What resources here did you take advantage of and how did they help?
I was renting a large studio in the West End and had one month left on my lease. I wanted to take advantage of the space for the last few weeks I had there. I was also able to take advantage of some of the reputation I have as a commercial photographer by making my work available to a consumer client base. As a working photographer, I had the resources and tools to pull this off out of the gate.

What would you do differently if you started your business again?
The beauty of the project is that it's annual, so I can reinvent it every year. Every year, I'm learning from my mistakes and changing it in small ways to keep it interesting so families are excited to come back. 

What’s next for you and your company?
I do hope to make this available to photographers in other cities and grow it. I’m limited by how many sessions I can do; this year my goal was 200. Beyond that it’s suicide and burnout. So if it’s going to grow, it will grow outward in that way. 

Interview by Robin Donovan