My purpose here, of course, is to write about my experience photographing one of the sweetest little girls in the world, but I also need to acknowledge that this post is also a kind of love letter to the location where most of my twenty-some shoots with this family that have taken place over the last decade.
If you’ve never heard of Why Not An American Ark, let me tell you, you’re missing out. Part animal boarding facility, part petting zoo, part riding lessons provider, and part party venue, the Ark has a little something for pretty much anyone, and for kids, it’s a fantastic chance to spend some time in a safe and invigorating natural environment. Paul and Deborah, Abigail’s parents, used the Ark as a boarding facility for their two horses, Teddy and Braxton, so there was a practical reason for using it as a backdrop for our shoots. Now that the family has moved into their new home—which will have enough space to house Wilfred, their current horse—we won’t be meeting at the Ark anymore, and despite the 45 minute early-morning drive to get there…I’m really kind of sad about it.
The focus of this shoot is Abigail. She’s 9 now, but counting Deborah’s maternity session, this is the 10th time I’ve photographed her as my primary subject, and she and I have formed a connection that I treasure more than I can express. Seeing the same children year after year is one of the best parts of my job, and Abigail is so familiar with me that when I show up at the Ark, she just takes my hand and leads me and her sister Clara off into a field full of sunflowers. For whatever reason, these flowers haven’t been planted in this spot for years, but I’m glad to see them again, and so are the girls. As we walk, both of them blurt out little tidbits of information about sunflowers and bugs and the animals at the farm, and like I always do, I find myself charmed by these girls. Their connection to nature has always been so strong, so primal, and I know that Deborah and Paul have really encouraged their daughters to love the natural world all around them.
We make our way around the farm from location to location and, as we walk, we pick up a little entourage of once-abandoned dogs who have found a new lease on life at the Ark. Between little bursts of shooting images, the girls take turns holding my hand and leading me where they want me to go, and we talk about whatever comes out of their mouths—sometimes it’s school or their family, but usually it’s something about the animals.
Abigail and Clara have always amazed me, and now that Abigail is in elementary school, her world is exploding outward—this kid, a 9 year-old, is practically fluent in Mandarin. Insane. But it’s their courage and security around animals that I’ve always marveled at the most. They ride on the backs of horses with more confidence than I could muster even as an adult, and they cradle baby pigs and goats in their arms as though they were kittens. In fact, it seems like most of our shoots end up with all of us gathered around whatever pen holds the most recently born babies on the farm.
I hope I’m lucky enough to be able to watch this beautiful family grow and change from another decade (and beyond), but I’m already so thankful for the experiences I’ve shared with all of them. When I’m with these girls, my heart is full.
Happy 9th birthday, sweet girl.
Life works in mysterious ways. Sometimes, you walk into a bar and meet the gaze of a tall, handsome stranger in the corner; sometimes, you drop an avocado in the supermarket, and as you’re bending over to pick it up, you knock heads with another kind soul just trying to help you out. And then, every enchanted once in a while, you’re a kindergarten assistant sharing a little desk with another assistant and, you know, one thing just kind of leads to another. I love hearing these stories about how my clients get together because they’re all so unique and strange. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Mitchell and Rachel are the ones who shared a desk. I can’t think of a more adorable beginning for one of the sweetest couples I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
It was Mitchell who initiated things, but his game was so strong Rachel didn’t even know the game had started. Their first date was a simple meet-up to play tennis. It was only when his follow-up suggestion was dinner and a movie that Rachel started to suspect these might be dates. Not that she was opposed. Pretty early in their burgeoning relationship, Rachel began to realize that Mitchell really got her; in his presence, she felt totally at ease and comfortable being herself without judgment. Mitchell loved that he didn’t need to act like someone he wasn’t when he was with Rachel, and it didn’t hurt that she laughed at his jokes.
Mitchell’s proposal was perfect. They had taken a Thanksgiving trip to Rachel’s grandparents’ farm in Kentucky, and since the whole family was there, they decided to take a walk around the property, which was their custom. They had walked most of the way around the farm and had reached the tobacco barn, which has some beautiful views. Rachel suggested they stop to take a picture together, and Mitchell commented that if Rachel agreed to be his wife, it would make the view even better. Then he got down on one knee and officially proposed. Afterwards, they made their way back to the farmhouse and Rachel’s family—all of whom knew exactly what was going on outside. The ring with which Mitchell proposed was a beautiful family heirloom—originally, it had belonged to Rachel’s great-grandmother. Rachel’s mom had it tucked away and she kindly offered it to Mitchell, which was an amazing surprise for Rachel since she had admired the ring since she was a little girl.
For their engagement shoot, we met at the Midtown Greenway. It was a windy day, and my most vivid memories of Mitchell and Rachel’s shoot are of her hair flying in her face, and lots and lots of laughter. I loved how tender and sweet these two were with one another. Mitchell had Rachel laughing almost constantly, and I could see in everything he said and did just how much he adored her. During a wardrobe change in the middle of the shoot, I got to spend some time shooting the ring, which was so beautiful. I am a sucker for the wedding details with a long and meaningful history.