Up Country Perspective

A picture of a portrait artist

by Rosalyn Graham

Martin Lavallee makes memories. With an artist's eye, a craftsman's attention to detail and a psychologist's determination to find the essence of his subject, Lavallee uses a camera to capture the images that become the pages of a family's history book portraits to preserve past years and happy times.

At his studio in Essex Junction and on location throughout northern Vermont, Martin Lavallee, the owner of Up Country Photography, has captured family memories for nearly 30 years.

In his Up Country Photography studio in Essex Junction, and on location throughout northern Vermont, Lavallee puts his almost 30 years of experience into producing portraits that speak from the heart. "We are producing records and memories," he says. "I want to pull out as much of that as I can and put it on paper."

That's what he has in mind when he begins the process of creating family portraits. Sitting down with the clients in his cozy sitting room, its walls lined with images of people of all ages, Lavallee draws out not only their preferences black-and-white or color, in the studio or on location but also the relationships, interests, characters and the personalities that will make a personal record.

"I say, 'If you could have any portrait you wanted, and it was on your wall, what would that image be like? Would it be early in the day, would it be later in the day, would it be formal, would it be casual, misty, sunny?' I tell them that we have an opportunity to create an image and that anything is possible," Lavallee says.

Then there are the relationship questions: How many people are going to be in the portrait, what are their ages, who are they, what are they like, what is their relationship with each other? "I can use that in the session," he says. Knowing, for example, that a child is more of a daddy's boy could prompt Lavallee to suggest a shot with father and son.

The answers he hears and the friendly connections he establishes in the planning meeting become the basis for a portrait session that can capture the essense of the family relationship.

On the day of the shoot, Lavallee looks for relationships. He encourages parents to play with their children, snapping images of moms cuddling their children, rubbing noses, obviously enjoying one another's company. He also knows that the "best behavior" parents expect of their children when they come for a session might not produce the best portraits.

"Parents come in and want the 'big smile' portrait, but 'big smile' is not how people really look," Lavallee says. "I'll do a couple like that for them, and those may be the ones they choose to send to Grandma and Grampy, but nine times out of 10, it's the other image, the pout, the trembling bottom lip, that they'll buy. The ones they want for their home are like this little gal up there," he says, pointing to the pensive child in the portrait hanging on the wall.

For 19 years, Martin Lavallee's photography business has operated out of his family's home, where he and his wife, Louise, have created a photographic park in their back yard.

Drawing out those real images, whether in self-conscious adults or shy youngsters, calls on all the interpersonal skills Lavallee has honed over the years and learned in seminars led by top professionals in his field. "Very seldom do things just go like that," he says, snapping his fingers.

"I photographed a child once who came to the studio four times before we could photograph him, he was so shy," says Lavallee.

Earning that child's trust was an exercise in patience. "His mom had tried to bring her 2-year-old son to other places where they just wanted to do the job and get it done and be gone. I suggested that they come here, say hi and just look around. That first time they just stayed for five minutes. Next time we talked a little bit more, and she was able to put him down. The third time he came, I was able to talk to him. The fourth time he came, we did a session and got some fabulous shots."

"I do have a lot of patience," Lavallee says, adding with a laugh, "I've had moms ask if I baby sit."

This patience also shows up in terms of the leisurely pace of the photo shoots, which take up to an hour and a half, with time for conversation, changes of pace, leg-stretching breaks for youngsters and the decision to "try something a little different."

"It isn't just snapping pictures," says Lavallee. "That's the back end of it. It's getting people to relax and pull out whatever is in their heart so I can capture it on film. That's where I'm at, so obviously we're not a volume studio."

It's evident that Lavallee enjoys his work. "You have to have that in your heart. If you don't have it there, how can you expect to get it from your clients?"

Darlene LaRose was so impressed by a portrait Lavallee had made of her husband, Tom Hallett, she automatically thought of him when they decided to have a family portrait made last fall. LaRose, Hallett and LaRose's daughter, Kate, visited Lavallee for a planning session, decided on black-and-white for their portraits, and set up a time for a shoot.

"It was so comfortable in his studio," LaRose says. "Like family." Lavallee combined an impressive attention to detail and demand for perfection in the quality of the shot, with a great willingness to involve the family in the process. "He even invited us to look in the camera to see what he was shooting and what he wanted to get out of the picture," she says. "He was wonderful and gave us all the time in the world."

The portraits, now hanging on the walls of the Hallett-LaRose home in South Burlington, had brought great pleasure to the family, but it was the reaction of a visiting repairman to the portrait of 17-year-old Kate that convinced Darlene that the portraits had merit far beyond her maternal pride. "He saw the 16-by-16 black-and-white portrait of Kate and he stopped in his tracks," she says. "The emotion, the quality Martin had captured in that portrait is breathtaking."

The Burlington native has been honing his artistic skills since he was a teenager, one of those fortunate people who found the work that would give him such pleasure very early. He began shooting photographs when he was in junior high school, but when a teacher introduced him to the mysteries and magic of the darkroom, he was really hooked. After high school, he took a two-year course in photography at the Rhode Island School of Photography in Cranston and returned to Burlington to work for Howard Hammer and Dr. Edward Koehler, the owners of Up Country Photography on Battery Street. In 1979, after two years as an employee, Lavallee bought the business.

He moved from the Burlington waterfront to studios above 197 Pearl Street in Essex Junction, and for 19 years has been in his current location, the ground floor of his family's home on Pinecrest Drive in Essex Junction, where studio, production room, waiting room and a room for planning sessions with clients fit snugly.

Having a small business in his own home fits well with Lavallee's commitment to the relaxed approach he fosters for his clients.

"We don't have a lot of people lined up waiting," he says. "My clients appreciate that. They don't feel rushed or distracted."

During his time in the photography business, Lavallee has seen an amazing evolution in the technology from his early years, when cameras were manual and film was the medium, to the latest digital equipment and computer-aided processing. Today he blends the best of both, offering the artistry of black-and-white portraits using traditional darkroom techniques and hand-printing as well as the advantages of digital for many color applications.

One of the most dramatic shifts Lavallee has seen is the move back to black-and-white as the medium of choice for portraits. "Right now, black-and-white is taking over," he says, estimating that 75 to 80 percent of his portrait work is now in that classic medium.

Black-and-white portraits are shot on traditional film, all hand-printed by Lavallee. "The technology for developing and printing hasn't changed," he says. "It's a very lengthy, time-consuming process to do correctly. Lavallee's black-and-white work is printed on fiber-based paper to maintain quality with a 175-year life.

For clients who want color portraits, Lavallee is an enthusiastic proponent of digital photography. "Digital is here to stay and I embrace it," he says. "I think the quality is there. I can make large-size portraits and the color is fantastic."

Digital photography and the wonder of computer software have given the photographer control over his own product, Lavallee says. Although he had his own color darkroom and did his own processing and printing, many photographers sent their color film out to be processed, and somebody else would finish the image by retouching. Now Lavallee and many of those photographers who did not want to be darkroom technicians are spending their time at the computer, controlling their own images, changing and refining them.

As efficient as this might seem, it doesn't save time for the photographer, who has simply traded the time spent in the darkroom for time at the computer, but it does have advantages for the client.

"We no longer have to wait a week or two weeks to get the photographs back," Lavallee says. "We usually have a viewing session within two days."

Although digital technology would give the option of looking at the results as soon as the session is finished, Lavallee finds that it is better to give everyone a chance to rest after the focus of the shoot. "It's too hard to photograph a session for an hour or an hour and a half and then ask clients to sit down for another hour, with tired kids, to make up their minds. Everybody needs a break, so we make an appointment for maybe a week later." On the other hand if the family is in from out of town, or someone in the group is leaving on a business trip, they could choose to view things right away.

While his black-and-white photos are still hand-printed, for processing his color shots, Lavallee has traded some of the hours previously spent in the darkroom for time in front of the computer.

The vagaries of Vermont weather and today's lifestyles dictate that studio sessions are a good choice for many of Lavallee's clients. For some, a portrait in the home or on a favorite beach or woodland trail fits their vision of the perfect image. For Lavallee, this typically involves a visit to the location before the shoot to make sure it is going to give him what he envisions for the portrait. He looks at the topography, the colors, the angle of the sun at different times of day, all factors that his artist's eye knows will affect the pictures he will take.

Sometimes the desire of a client for an outdoor location can be met in the lovely photographic park Lavallee and his wife, Louise, have created in their back yard. It's amazing to look at photographs of subjects posing in front of a waterfall, leaning over a pretty bridge, surrounded by a mass of daisies or black-eyed susans, and to realize that all those images were shot in the confines of a suburban back yard.

Louise, who has a full-time job as a respiratory therapist at Fletcher Allen Health Care, brings her energy and landscaping talent to keeping the photographic park beautiful throughout the summer and fall. Lavallee's only other assistance in the complex business is his part-time assistant, Sandy Rounds, who comes to the studio to do production work and answer the telephone. The many other aspects of the business shooting, processing, selling, the darkroom work and marketing Lavallee does himself.

While portraiture is Lavallee's biggest market and his true passion he does offer a broad range of photographic services. No one is more aware of the breadth of his talents than his long-time friend (and one-time landlord) Randy Parker, owner of 197, the outdoor power equipment dealer at 197 Pearl Street in Essex Junction. "I've known Marty for 20 years," he says. In March this year, Lavallee spent time at 197 shooting pictures of the store and its Toro machines for a presentation Parker was making to a dealer meeting in another state. Randy and Nancy Parker's home is a showcase of Lavallee's portraiture.

"We've got a gallery of wonderful pictures," Parker says. A special favorite is the portrait of his daughter, Abby, at age 2, sitting in a rocking chair that belonged to Parker when he was little.

"He has a real gift, a sensitive flair for catching the expression that is exactly the person, and he's so good at picking up the communication between two people in a picture and capturing it," says Parker.

For Lavallee, capturing the relationships and the person's true self is paramount. Capturing it now is important, too. "I hear so many stories where people call and say, 'I'm going to do it, but I have to lose a few pounds.' Then I see them and they say, 'We were going to do it, and then my father passed away, but we're coming in now before anything happens to anyone else.' It's funny, but people say, 'If my house was on fire, the first thing I'd grab would be my photos.'"

As a plaque on the wall of Lavallee's studio says: Photography turns back the pages of the book of memory, brings forth thoughts of past years and old-time friends and keeps forever green the happy hours of childhood.

Originally published in April 2003 Business People-Vermont