Simple Portrait Project captures personalities in 30-minute sessions

Commercial photographer Jonathan Robert Willis shares an almost stereotypical weakness with some fellow creatives: he hates artificial deadlines.

“I’m really good with hard, fast, we-need-it-yesterday commercial deadlines,” he says, describing the focus of his self-named photography business. When friends and family nagged him for photos, he launched The Simple Portrait Project, which mixes the speed of commercial work with traditional group portraits.

In sessions held once or twice a year, Willis gathers dozens of families or small groups, shooting each in the same space with the same prop. He spends just 30 minutes on each family from start to finish. “It’s great because it’s just enough time to get the best out of the kids before they melt down, and it’s short enough for dad who doesn’t want to be there to begin with in many cases,” Willis says.

That means that the family comes in and is posed, photographed and advised about prints, all in a half hour. For the last few minutes, Willis turns a critical eye to each set of photographs, helping subjects select a handful of the best photographs.  Still, he compares the sessions to a marathon, admitting: “It’s literally nonstop from about 9 am until 8:30 pm. I’m a little intimidated by it.” 

The project turns the angsty hair-pulling of traditional family photography on its head and, as it happens, yields eye-catching photos. The families don’t look like a J.Crew catalog, but they don’t look scruffy, either. Not everyone beams, and not everyone is even looking at the camera; Willis says his goal is comfortable, natural poses.

There’s one simple rule for participants: no matching clothes. “I can’t think of a single image where I’ve seen everybody in the same sweater where I’m like, ‘Wow, that was a great idea,’” Willis says. “You have to trust that I’m going to make something great, but you’ve also got to do your part, which is following that rule.”

Willis’ final session for the project in 2012 is Saturday, Dec. 8, with the potential for Sunday sessions depending on demand. He hopes to schedule the first session of 2013 around Easter.

By Robin Donovan

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