By Cara Pesek
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
In a west Omaha living room, on an overturned washbasin draped with a furry blanket, Brandy Miller attempted to soothe a fussing 13-day-old baby.
Miller rocked, patted and shushed the little girl, who was dressed in a swaddling of rose-colored gauze, a pink-flower headband and nothing else. When the newborn, Kinsley, finally fell asleep, Miller settled her into the blanket and began snapping photographs of the tiny baby nestled in fuzz. Then she swapped out the headband for a crocheted white hat with ears, making Kinsley look vaguely like a tiny pink lamb.
This is Miller’s job.
Miller, a newborn, child and family photographer, has photographed infants sleeping on doll beds; swaddled and nestled into crates, baskets and bowls; and naked, seemingly suspended from, say, a rustic tree branch in a baby sling. She’s photographed them wearing nothing but oversized hats or flowers, their fingers, toes and bottoms prominently displayed. She photographs most when they’re between five and 10 days old, when they still sleep all the time and curl up like they did in the womb.
“You just forget how quickly that time passes,” she said. “The next thing you know, they’re like six months old.”
Miller’s helps parents remember what their babies looked like brand new — and with the addition of, say, a big bow or a pair of tiny butterfly wings.
Infant photography today is all about the props.
In the Omaha area alone, more than a dozen photographers offer infant portrait packages. Images of newborns hanging in slings, tucked into baskets and seemingly propping up their heads with their tiny hands (achieved through Photoshop) are staples of Facebook feeds and Pinterest pages.
The photographers — including Miller — are mostly moms. Most got their start photographing their own children, turning to Facebook and photography forums for inspiration and to learn tricks of the trade.
Parents — who likely employed professional photographers for their engagement photos, wedding days and possibly pregnancy portraits — are eager to capture this next milestone.
Photography websites offer tips and video tutorials on how to pose newborns. A search on Etsy for “infant photography props” yields nearly 30,000 search results — baby-sized teacups and bird’s nests, antique buggies and soft fabrics.
“I feel like the props really enable the photographers to illustrate how tiny the newborn is,” said Alice Park, co-founder of the National Association of Professional Child Photographers.
The right props can also make a newborn’s photograph — normally unremarkable to anyone outside the baby’s family — into something more attention-grabbing, she said.
“I’ve seen pieces set in a beautiful meadow when the sun is rising or setting, and where the newborn is tucked so peacefully into a bowl,” Park said. “Displayed in the right way, it can be a beautiful piece of art.”
Miller finds most of her props on the Internet. They fill two rooms in a space she is converting into a studio in Gretna.
“I’m always looking for stuff, thinking, ‘Could I put a little baby in that?’” Miller said.
Photographing babies in bowls and buckets — or with any prop — is relatively new, said Mike Bender, one of the founders of Awkward Family Photos, a website devoted entirely to unintentionally funny family photographs. He founded the site with a friend in 2009, and since then, he has become an accidental expert in American photography trends.
Beginning in the 1950s, babies — and children in general — were usually photographed against a plain backdrop, wearing their Sunday best, said Bender, who has received around 300,000 family photos since starting the site. In those days, baby portraits weren’t generally taken until the child was a few months old.
This remained the case, more or less, through the 1970s (though ghosted images of children’s profiles, or, in some cases, their toys, began to appear in the background of children’s portraits, Bender said). And, of course, some parents continue to opt for that.
In the 1980s and 1990s, though, props began to show up. Dolls, teddy bears, and, less conventionally, computers, were popular choices in the early days, he said. In the 1990s, oversized props began to creep into child photography — pencils and crayons, giant numbers representing the age of the child.
“It was kind of the age of the prop,” Bender said.
And then, at perhaps the height of the prop age, Anne Geddes entered the picture.
The New Zealand photographer dressed babies to resemble flowers or birds hatching from eggs. Her images, which were highly popular in the mid-1990s, “jump-started photographers to think outside the box,” said Park, the photography association founder.
It wasn’t until about five years ago, though, that the prop-heavy newborn photography really began to take off, something Park attributes in large part to the advent of inexpensive digital cameras, which allowed moms who enjoyed photographing their own children to step up their game.
At the same time, a photo revolution was in the works, Bender said. Straightforward engagement pictures gave way to photo shoots with location and outfit changes. Wedding photography documented every moment of the big day, plus behind-the-scenes moments leading up to the event. Many women have opted for boudoir shots, and some couples are turning to professional photographers to capture honeymoon moments.
More women also posed for pregnancy pictures, which often featured dramatically lit, black-and-white shots of their bare stomachs, perhaps adorned with either a pink or blue bow.
“It’s like each one is a layer deeper of intimacy,” Bender said.
Professional newborn photography was a natural next step, Park said.
The trend started small, Park said. But as new moms posted those photos on Facebook, interest quickly grew.
Facebook is, in fact, how Kinsley’s mom, Rebecca Carr, found Miller.
Their photo session was one of the first breaks Carr had from caring for her newborn. And it was amazing, she said, to see her baby swaddled and decked out with frilly headbands and hats.
At 13 days, Kinsley was a little older than many of the babies Miller photographs. But the routine was the same. The session lasted for around three hours, and involved photographs taken with a variety of props. Miller guessed she spent more time as baby whisperer than photographer — soothing Kinsley to sleep, coaxing her awake and easing her into the positions that she wanted to capture.
To be an infant photographer, you have to be good with babies, Miller said. And you have to be patient.
“It’s not just putting the baby in a bucket,” she said.