At a time when the favourite buzzwords being bandied around by photographers include ‘relaxed’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘reportage’, it’s interesting to come across the work of a photographer who has determinedly gone in the opposite direction, who has set out her stall under the banner of fine art to provide pictures that are designed over time to turn into priceless family heirlooms.
By producing child portraits that are sensitive, classic and timeless, Lisa Visser is offering the antithesis of what the crowd is doing; there’s no laughing on cue for the camera, no blurry movements, no playing with toys or dressing up as fairies and very often no colour either. What’s left is just an extraordinarily beautiful study that hones in on the exquisite face of innocent youth to capture a moment that will all too soon be gone forever. The look has become Lisa’s trademark and it’s an approach that’s earned her an army of admirers, both inside and outside of the business.
“I’ve always loved photography,” says Lisa, “and the way things worked out I naturally found myself working with children from the moment I started. I sat a GCSE in photography at school and I wanted to take it further, but at the time I couldn’t afford to. Instead I got myself a job working for an in-store portrait photography chain where I set up the lights and the backgrounds and eventually learned how to take a professional quality portrait in a short amount of time. I had to take 12 shots in five minutes when I was working with children. It gave me no time at all to be creative, but it did mean that I learned how to work quickly and efficiently. I also became very good at dealing with children and putting them at ease in front of the camera.”
When Lisa got married and had children of her own she took a break from her career. However, it was only natural for her to photograph her own children and it gave her an opportunity to think a little more about her style and the look she wanted to capture.
When she was ready to go back to work in 2004, she took a position as a photographer at a high street studio in East Grinstead. At the same time, she also joined industry bodies such as the MPA and the BIPP and started to study for their qualifications.
Lisa Visser became a Fellow of the Master Photographers Association and in doing so, she became one of only a handful of women to achieve that status in the UK – ‘twins Leah and Aimee’, winning Award of Excellence, Epson B/W competition 2015 at the Master Photographers Association Awards © Lisa Visser
At the time the MPA’s chairman of admissions and qualifications Kevin Wilson commented that “she is the only photographer I know in this country to create a truly inspirational moment in time. Her signature portraits are compelling, thoughtful, evocative and yet truly timeless.”
She has won numerous other awards, including most recently the UK Under 5s Photographer of the Year title from the MPA in 2010 (a year in which she was also second in the WPPI Children’s Category), while in 2009 she virtually swept the board in the MPA Awards, winning no fewer than three of the categories, including Portrait Photographer of the Year.
“I think that a lot of photographers don’t believe the public pays much attention to qualifications and awards,” says Lisa, “but I’ve always made sure I’ve shouted about the things that I’ve achieved and have talked to the local paper to get stories featured. It’s added credibility to me as a photographer and to my business. People do take notice of what you’re doing: I put details of the things I’ve done on my website and Facebook page and this often attracts favourable comments from current and prospective clients.”
Lisa followed her instincts and started to specialise in child photography. The natural rapport she has with her subjects ensured she was able to achieve distinctive portraits that would have been beyond the reach of others who had less empathy with those in front of their camera.
“You have to learn to read the mood of a child when they come through the door,” she says. “Sometimes they walk in and they’re happy and confident straightaway and, if that’s the case, I can probably complete the shoot in around an hour. At other times, however, the child might be nervous and will be clinging to its mother, and there’s no point trying to take pictures until they are a little more relaxed. Then the toys come out and they will be given time to get used to the environment and only when they are happy with the situation will I try to start taking pictures.
“I try to take pictures of children as they really are: I don’t really do the more contrived ‘jumping about’ type shots. The lighting is usually simple – maybe just a reflector and a hair light – and I set it up and decide how directional I want it to be according to the look I want to achieve. Most of my work is deliberately low key, as opposed to the high key approach that was also offered at the studio, and people booked for whichever look they wanted.
“I always favoured a fine art approach where the child would be encouraged simply to look into the camera and not to pose or to smile artificially. To me it was just more natural and more real.”
People’s reactions to what Lisa Visser does, is interesting because a lot of people don’t really know what they want until they see it. Some would simply stumble across her Fellowship Panel and it would just resonate with them. In the beginning Lisa didn’t know how saleable her work would be, but it turned out that it was exactly what people were looking for
When she started out Lisa was shooting on medium-format film cameras and would often be restricted to just two rolls or 24 shots. With a move to a Hasselblad H3D she found herself with the luxury of being able to shoot virtually unlimited numbers of images, and the temptation was to simply fire away to make sure she got the pictures she wanted.
“Things did change when digital first arrived,” she says. “There was no longer the fact that you had reached the end of a roll of film to stop you. Suddenly there were more options. I have found that I’m shooting a lot more pictures now, but it’s still within reason. For a baby shoot I’ll maybe take 70 shots, while a child portrait session will be more like 120-130 pictures.
“Although it’s tempting, one thing I try not to do is to invite a child to come round to see their pictures on the back of the camera. They are often quite self-conscious and it can distract them: if they ask I’ll tell them that they have to wait until I’m ready to show them their pictures and I’ve never really had a problem with that approach.”
At the start of this year Lisa started up her own child photography business, working from a studio in Copthorne, West Sussex. She’s moved over to a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which she generally uses with a 24-105mm zoom, and she’s been delighted with the images that this smaller outfit produces. “I’m very, very fussy about quality,” she says, “and even though I’ve moved down from medium format I’m still very much getting results that I’m more than happy to show my clients.”
Much of Lisa’s work entails dealing with a child model agency, and she’s kept busy producing portfolios for their new models. “This kind of client tends to want the images supplied as files on a disc,” she says, “because ultimately they won’t be printed out but will be put online to generate model bookings. With other clients I’m providing small unframed prints and canvases: I’m not offering any albums at the moment.”
With a vibrant website and blog behind her, Lisa’s photography and her business are thriving. She’s proving that an upmarket and traditional approach to child portraiture can still have mass appeal in this more hard-nosed modern era.
“As a mother, I just tend to take the sort of images I like and that I think other women will like,” she says. “At the end of the day it’s the women who are bringing their children in to be photographed and they are the ones I’ll be selling to.”
Having taken GCSE photography at school, Lisa Visser began her career learning the ropes with an in-store portrait photography chain. Since then she’s become one of the few women in the UK to gain a Fellowship in Child Photography and set up her own studio in West Sussex.