Photographing an Heirloom

Back in May, when my mother-in-law came to meet Gillian, she whipped out a beautiful, terrifying surprise: her christening dress and a dress she’d worn as a toddler. “I thought you could photograph the girls in them!”

After scraping my jaw off the floor at the beauty of the detail, and how well the dresses had held together after 70 years, the cold fingers of fear crept into my gut. I am not a graceful person. I am not a professional photographer. I have an infant who throws up as much as she eats, and a toddler who thinks peanut butter is the new black. And I now had in my possession two heirloom-quality dresses of exquisite detail. From my mother-in-law.

I folded them carefully and put them in a box, and promised I’d do my best, and if my skills weren’t up to the task, we’d find a photo studio that was. And there they languished for three months, occasionally rising to the surface of my memory at 4 AM, leading a team of WhatIfs like so many trombones in the big parade: What if Gillian throws up on it? What if I try to iron it and burn it? What if Eliza grows out of the dress before I put it on her? What if the delicate material shreds on contact?

Earlier this week, with the sun streaming into our apartment and Eliza napping, I made a snap decision: today was the day. Our bedspread: the backdrop. The boppy: a bolster for the baby. The baby: mostly between feedings, so hopefully not too barfy. The dresses: to my relief, both already had a stain or two. So what’s a little barf?

Here’s my studio.

Klassy with a K.

I whipped Gillian into her dress lickety-split, which, to my relief, fit her; I also found out that a christening dress–at least this one–has an open back. (Maybe not to get the back of the dress wet?) Gillian proved to be an excellent model.

Yes, dahlink?

She laid still, looked at the camera, and my only complaint was that the more she kicked at the dress, the more it slid down and gave her a bit of a boatneck. But I did manage to get a full-dress shot that was (mostly) uncrumpled.

Tiny baby, big dress.

And a few personality shots, as well.

Mmm. Antique dress.

No, the photos are not naturally sepia-toned. I did a lot of correction on Picasa, because the indirect sunlight made for a flat, if evenly-lit, photo. So I played with the brightness and contrast, and used the “warmify” feature to give it a bit more of a antiquey feel. The un-warmed photos felt a bit too harsh, with the white-on-white. If we decide we like them enough to print, I’ll probably try to correct a bit more.

Eliza, on the other hand: not so ANTM. What can I say, she’s a toddler. We had “Tangled” going on the TV so she’d at least look somewhere other than at her feet, but the Tyra phrase “dead eyes” definitely applies to toddlers watching TV. She also lets her mouth hang open, which is not an entirely attractive pose. Even worse, I hung the bedspread up over the couch, and as a result, big ol’ wrinkles abounded. David says it adds “texture,” but I think that’s optimistic. And we didn’t find a useable toy for distraction until we were halfway done, at which point, she was completely done.

But I got a few shots I like.

Her demure look.

The little angel.

And I swear, I couldn’t have made her put her chin on hand if I’d tried. She just did it.

Her senior picture.

All in all, not a bad photo shoot, but given the fact that 1) Eliza’s photos look like they’re taken on a couch covered in a bedspread; and 2) we didn’t take any pictures of both girls together; I think we’re going to have to do some legwork and find a professional photographer who actually knows how to work with toddlers. Especially toddlers in delicate antique organza. And I need to do it fast, as the dress just fits her now, and will likely not get around her chubby little arms in another few months.

On the upside, I’m not afraid of the dresses anymore. Mostly.

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5 Responses to Photographing an Heirloom

  1. Melinda says:

    Those dresses mostly only come out at night. Mostly.

    Great shots! I think they look adorable.

  2. Dottie says:

    What beautiful pieces and great photography! You should be totally proud of yourself!

  3. Rachel says:

    I wish I lived closer than central Wisconsin, because I’d do pictures for you for free. I’ve been photographing kids from newborn to 90 years old for about 4 years and love it!

    Good luck if you do decide to find a professional though I think yours turned out very beautiful!

    • Jody says:

      I wish you did, too! :) We have a friend who’s building a portfolio who’s going to try doing it for us. And thanks for the compliment.

  4. Esme says:

    My friend Carrie is fantabulous with the 2 kids thing:

    in case your other friend doesn’t work out. She’s reasonably priced, too.

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