Friday, April 12, 2013

Jade Albert

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

A sense of talking at cross purposes infuses this interview—me concerned with the commodification of children and the narcissistic culture of self-promotion that pervades social media versus well-established child photographer, Jade Albert, who is immersed in the field as a business. It makes for a something of an unsettling conversation perhaps, but it is also revealing. Jade has worked for, and still works for, the big names: Target, Disney, Tommy Hilfiger—the list is long and impressive and a real achievement in the world of commercial photography. And, perhaps even more impressive, she can work in a room full of two hundred babies (“it’s just a casting”) and apparently emerge reasonably sane.

I guess what I was curious to ask you off the bat, in terms of kids, this must be the most photographed generation ever – I’m wondering how that’s affected your work.

For one thing, everybody wants to shoot kids. At one time I was the leading, number one [photographer of children] and I hope to maintain that but anybody could be top of the list now! You have soccer moms … everybody in the suburbs.

I just came from my 11-year-old’s school concert and every single parent had an iPhone or a video camera …

And you know what else? These stores that are opening up, called Classic Photos. That is hard to compete with.
A wall of bookshelves by Barry Walz, brother of designer Kevin Walz, is filled with Jade's collection of art, design and photography books.
A Sri Lankan daybed now serves as an oversized coffee table. Facing in, a pair of Billy Haines chairs from Christie's is covered in sheepskin.
Looking towards the south facing windows, a Billy Haines chair from Liz O'Brien straddles the different seating areas.
But we seem to be compelled to photograph our kids’ every move. It’s become kind of crazy.

I have a reputation. If the parents really want professional photos … I really do advertising … but if I do personal shoots, I treat it as a job. I get the clothes and I have a hair person here. We don’t like to say hair and makeup—but we call it “grooming”.

The kids have so much fun. It doesn’t even compare to [amateur photography].

I don’t know. It seems kind of depressing—they’re so used to being in front of the camera. I remember when I was young, having your photography taken, well, you didn’t like it much. Now …

Kids love to do it because of all the social media. They love Instagram. They love tweeting and putting stuff on Facebook.
On the far wall an Indian painting hangs above a pair of Le Corbusier steel chairs.
Close ups of the living room bookshelves.
Sculptor James DeMartis designed the whimsical iron-and-glass sconces.
Jade admiring James DeMartis's sculptural sconces.
"The Charm of Charms" – a book about charm bracelets, was photographed by Jade Albert and written by Ki Hackney.
I worry about the whole narcissistic aspect of it—this constant taking pictures of yourself, promoting yourself, how you wish to be seen by others …

You mean on social media? There’s two types: there’s [the banal] “I went to Shake Shack and there was a long line.” But I try to go on Facebook a few times a week—and for my business it is mandatory. I’m getting work through it.

And the image-conscious side of it all? Doesn’t it worry you?

Yeah … the only example I can give is like, Lindsay Lohan. I photographed her—she was adorable. She was three years old. She kind of lived at my studio and I’m still in contact. See what happened? I call these kids who I happened to have photographed who became stars, “rehab kids”. We’re talking, Mischa Barton, Kirsten Dunst and Lindsay Lohan. I’ve photographed them all … and Jennifer Connelly.

How do you feel about that then?

I think it’s fantastic. I actually even discovered Emmy Rossum. She was having her hair done—she was like eight years old. I said to her mother, “I usually don’t do this but she is really gorgeous.” She said, “Oh, I know you!” So she let her come to the studio and she got a cover of a magazine right away.
A daybed by designer Kevin Walz stands atop a bold rug from Tufenkian.
A grouping of Indian prints of hands was discovered in a box from mini-storage. The standing lamp was purchased at the now-defunct store, Zona.
A small ottoman placed near the daybed makes climbing up easier for Jade's dog, Albert Albert.
An Anglo-Indian side table holds a vase that  belonged to Jade's grandmother.
A hanging fixture by James DeMartis floats above the dining room table. A group of candlesticks collected over the years stands atop shelves by Barry Walz.
Fuschia-colored fabric perks up the tobacco-colored Anglo-Indian dining chairs.
Looking across the dining area towards the living room.
The kitchen.
But isn’t that the beginning of the problem, say, like someone like Lindsay Lohan—that she became such a public figure in her childhood? It’s no wonder that she is where she is.

I don’t understand it. I think it has so much to do with the parents.

So what do they have that makes you notice them so early on?

Stamina—they pay attention. They want to do it. It’s not like the parents want to do it—they want to do it.

What about telling kids that they’re good looking—is that a good idea?

Lindsay wasn’t a beauty but she had personality. I don’t go for beauty. All kids are beautiful; all kids are cute. I go for stamina. I go for character, how they project.
Camera-ready: Albert Albert.
Jade and Albert Albert.
Albert Albert taking five.
Albert Albert's closet was built atop a former bathtub.
A laminated rubber floor mat from Jeffrey keeps the mud outside.
What about that Cute Kids competition that you judge?

I have to tell you there’s a group within that competition—they’re “pageant kids” and I have some pictures, which I can show you … do you understand how the Cute  Kids [pageant] works?

No, I don’t.

Okay. Each parent enters the contest. They send $20 for each picture they enter for the contest. They get two-and-a-half million hits a month and I am one of their judges. It takes a few hours a month to go through it. You have babies, you have toddlers, you have pre-school blah blah blah. And at the end of the year you have twelve favorites. And you pick the one out and she gets a $25,000 scholarship.

So it makes money. Isn’t there something a bit odd about getting an educational grant based on what you look like?

Yeah. [Jade is distracted, hunting through photographs of pageant kids]
A collection of photographs by various fashion and art photographers lines the front entrance hall.
Children in the Palais-Royal Garden, 1950 by Robert Doisneau.
A wedding dress fashion shoot by Gideon Lewis.
A couple looking out towards the sea by George Hoyningen-Huene stands next to a photo of two dachshunds and a woman, shot by Toni Frissell for Vogue, 1937.
Girls in the Window, 1960 by Ormond Gigli was purchased at Staley-Wise Gallery in New York.
These are very idealized images. This is not what childhood looks like.

[Laughs] I get a lot of commercial work. But now it’s edgy. That’s the word. It used to be warm and fuzzy, but now it’s edgy.

Tell me about pageant kids.

First of all their mothers are gigantic. Think of that Honey Boo Boo. And they curl the kids’ hair. There was this huge casting and I remember this mother putting electric rollers in the kid’s hair and blue eye shadow. I said, “Why are you doing this?” This is pageant kids. They have a different mentality. And too much sugar. I saw them walking in in the morning with a donut and a can of coke.

Are they doing it for money?

If it’s a great kid [and they make money] it does go into their college education but otherwise, it’s just ego. I could tell you stories for days and days.
In the entryway, a gilt framed mirror from Gill & Lagodich on Reade Street leans atop a painted cabinet from India.
Jade's bed was designed by Kevin Walz. The bench was purchased in Rome, restored and recovered in a silk fabric.
The carpeted steps are for Albert Albert.
A flat screen TV hangs above a metal dressing table from Wyeth. The paper floor lamp is by Isamu Noguchi.
Jade's shoes and accessories are organized in plastic storage boxes.
Cleverly designed pullout closets from New York Custom Closets maximize hanging space.
Is it only an American thing? Does it happen in other countries?

Japan—and they have Bon Bambini in Italy.

Can you explain why you like to photograph children?

It amazes me always. I am an only child. I never went away to camp. I never babysat for anybody. I was over in Europe—I was had the good fortune to go with Grace Mirabella and Polly Mellon—and that’s where I learned so much, as their photographer for the collections. I ended up staying there, working for Vogue Bambini. One of the assignments was a family. I thought, “Wow, this is interesting.” When I came back that summer, much to my surprise, my friends were having kids. I went to a christening and all these friends were nursing their babies—in the middle of the night it hit me: Bingo! That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to photograph these kids. This was in 1984. I took pictures of them—the kids weren’t smiling and [I had them] in oversize sweaters of their dads … I took a few more with lemonade stands and “Gone Fishing” as the sun was setting so I didn’t need lighting. Adult-wise I was working with Saks Fifth Avenue and they said, “What is this?” I said, “No, no. This is personal”. But they said, “This is phenomenal! I’ve never seen anything like this!” And they gave me the Back-to-School catalog. Jennifer Connelly was on the cover. And when it came out, I was booked from July to January. And the New York Times did a story on me on the front page of the business section. It was the beginning of the yuppie era—and I got the cover of Forbes and I got advertising work, Sony, pharmaceutical companies [and others].
Looking into the bedroom from behind the bedroom closet drapes.
Fresh flowers and a perfume tray are arranged atop a metal dressing table from Wyeth.
Assistant Rachel Rivera at work near a series of 'Fairytale' photos taken by Jade in Myrtle Beach.
Back to work.
So that was the beginning, I guess, of using kids to sell adult products.

Do you know what it’s called now? Lifestyle.

What do you think of Sally Mann’s pictures of her children?

Well, I wouldn’t expose my own children to that at all. I guess I missed the boat with the fine arts. What really determines fine arts? I don’t know. I guess they’re quite beautiful. They’re stark. But I certainly would not have my own children exposed like that.
Some of Jade's beautiful portraits.