Myra Klarman doesn't like having her picture taken. (Even her photograph on her website is one of her wearing large sunglasses.) When you browse through her blog entries at Relish.com, or look at samples of her portraiture work, you can begin to understand why: Klarman's genius lies in how she captures her subjects – whether they've paid for the shot or are one of her spontaneously captured snapshots. In her photographs you can find a person gazing back, a real person who is unstilted, vivacious, vibrant. And that's where you get a glimpse of who Klarman is.
A different lens
Before founding Myra Klarman Photography four years ago, Klarman was a graphic designer for almost two decades. Not content with the work, after her son was born Klarman decided to pursue something that would make her happy. Indeed, the impetus behind her decision to shift gears - her young son – occupies a place of honor as "punk goose" on her business card. Klarman had always liked photography, but disliked the chemicals involved with developing. "I would never have been able to become a professional photographer prior to the digital revolution," she says.
Today from her Main Street loft studio Klarman does three types of photography for clients: family portraits, high school senior portraits and professional headshots. She makes a point of meeting with clients ahead of time to plan and learn more about them. If her client is a child, you might see her hiding, singing, or (a constant crowd pleaser) balancing a rubber duck on her camera. "Anything to help everyone relax and enjoy," she says.
"I'm totally not slick and it puts people at ease," says Klarman, who works each job as a collaborative project with the client, showing them pictures as they go. "That way they have assurance it's going well and it's a collaboration of goals and vision."
And business is good. After four years, Klarman has earned non-stop bookings, most of which she gets through word-of-mouth and presence in the community. In 2008 she was booked through the end of the year by August. And because she handles every aspect of running the business, from marketing to proof selection to sales, her full capacity hovers at between 16 and 20 sessions a month. She's busy.
"If someone cancels, I'm taking a nap!" she laughs.
And she's a prime example, she says, of how quickly Ann Arbor embraces new talent. Ann Arbor already supports several long-established photographers, and yet she was still able to flourish when she started her business. Her advice to aspiring Ann Arbor business owners is to team up or "dovetail" with complementary businesses and organizations.
"The success I've enjoyed has a lot to do with the quality of these relationships," she explains. For example, she works in collaboration with Red Shoes Home Goods on Ashley Street, which has been her pickup location for clients' portrait orders for the last year and a half.
"My customers love it there," she says. "Now I don't have to worry about setting up mutually workable times for customers to pick up their orders. And Red Shoes gets additional foot traffic (which translates into increased sales)."
She also works with Elephant Ears, taking pictures of local kids wearing the shop's clothes. The store then displays the images, which both markets businesses and pleases local families to no end. She also photographs the Selma Café, has contributed to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, snaps candid shots of the Kerrytown Motherfest (Kerry town also displays her child's work), and works with Pioneer Theatre Guild.
Relish: Framing the Community
All of these collaborations are fodder for Klarman's well-known photographic blog Relish, which details her meanderings through the city's many nooks and crannies. Based largely on her community involvement, the blog got its start when Klarman volunteered to crew for the Burns Park Players, taking pictures behind-the-scenes.
"I needed a way to archive the images and make them available to other people. All this good will was not getting archived anywhere. It wasn't going to live," she says.
"It's sort of like I get to be the cheerleader for these great things in the community. I‘m not coordinated enough to be an actual cheerleader so I can be a promoter with my pictures and my blog."
And while Relish doesn't have "a gazillion" readers, says Klarman, it's certainly elicited a response from the community. It's gathered a loyal population of readers and references from other local blogs, especially "link love" which Klarman makes sure she reciprocates with her own links to local blogs, companies, etc.
Her vision for the blog in the future?
"Not to let it kill me," she quips. Like everything she does, Klarman puts a part of herself into the creation of Relish. She's not alone in her endeavor, working closely with her husband to achieve a satisfactory layout and edited copy for each entry. Indeed, a single blog entry is hardly a lightly taken-on task. One entry, Klarman remembers, took a total of 24 hours, "just to get everything perfect."
"Hopefully people will be into it and appreciate it," she says. "I hope that people will feel pride in the community and check something out that they didn't know about before – and if someone decides they want to hire me for portrait work – then it's all good!"
Indeed, if you search for Klarman on the web, you'll find her business is among the top results returned. She attributes this not only to her success in the community and with the blog, but with a well-designed and coded site and lots of high-quality inbound links.
Portrait artist to the community
As the Ann Arbor Summer Festival's official photographer, Klarman has the opportunity to serve the community and gather great material for her blog entries. She also has an annual exhibit on display at the Power Center, which will later be shown at Café Zola.
"I literally wander around the festival," she says of the job. "I won't just take pictures of the act, but of the audience and their reactions and excitement." One of her best pictures, she says, is of the audience reacting to Lady Sunshine as she sang "The Way We Were." Some people are crying, and those of every background are responding to her as a community.
Klarman likes the "informality" of the assignment, adding that she feels that it is an experience unique to a place like Ann Arbor. She is involved with a variety of community events throughout the year, including last week's Motherfest in Kerrytown, where she snapped pictures of generations of mothers and their children. She also participates with the Pioneer Theatre Guild, Ozone House, Make A Wish and the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation.
"In Ann Arbor you can be casual. You can be real," explains Klarman. "People appreciate the honesty – you don't need a facade." She values that her clients accept her going to work at her Main Street studio in old hiking shoes. "Here, getting respect is about having talent – not how you dress when you shop or go to work."
And she adds, you can find interesting people who are into interesting things in Ann Arbor.
"You can easily find people who have standards, ideals or visions, and who put themselves into it 100%, and be quality because of that commitment."
Business as unusual
Klarman spent 13 years running her own graphic design business, which focused on five to 10 large projects a year. It meant big invoices and a small number of clients. Today, her set-up is very different. She has had to learn how to handle more clients and smaller invoices. And of course, like all new business owners, she made some mistakes: namely, accepting projects she didn't really want to do.
"You feel like you don't want to turn down business," she says. "But then that project is taking away time and energy from what you want to do."
There's not a lot that Klarman can't find pleasure doing, but there are limitations to what she wants to handle. She's discovered, for instance, that she doesn't like to do family reunions because inevitably there are some people in the group who just don't want to be photographed.
"I also discovered that my voice doesn't project," she says with finality.
And like any new business owner she was unsure of what her work was worth. "At first I just really underestimated the demand for my work," she says. "It's not easy to find out what people charge, and I didn't want to call and pretend I was a potential customer – it didn't feel right. I continue to seek the balance between demand and the amount of energy I have."
Klarman plans to continue the blog and her portraiture business, but has no plans for expansion. She does believe in constant self-improvement, however.
"One of the excellent things about photography is that you've never finished learning. There are always new things to explore. I could be doing this my whole life and never be at the end of my learning process."
As for near future growth, Klarman is content with where she is. "I think I might be happier if I could just keep the business at the current level – an artist who is on her own."
Artists, she points out, pace themselves.
"That's what I'd really want to do."
Leia Menlove is an Ann Arbor-based writer and regular contributor to Concentrate. Her previous story was Cool Spaces: Loft Living in Downtown Ann Arbor
All Photos by MYRA KLARMAN(Except Klarman's portrait and Studio shot(which were retouched by Klarman))
Klarman Portrait and Studio shot by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He likes having a story about another photographer so he can take a break.