Simcha photographers juggle ever-evolving technology and trends

A bar mitzvah portrait of Ari Hoberman Photo: Yana Hotter/Spoonful of Sugar Photography.

BY BILL MOTCHAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Veteran St. Louis photographer Joel Marion was in the midst of shooting one of his bread-and-butter simchas — a bar mitzvah celebration — when he entered a dark room. Not a darkroom that photographers use to process film. It was a special area at the bar mitzvah party.

“The room was completely dark, except for these neon lights,” Marion said. “The kids wore a special type of shirt and shoes that glowed in the dark, techno music was blaring out of the speakers and it was a lot of fun for the kids. But for us as photographers, it becomes a bit of a challenge to shoot, because you can’t use flash, since it would blow out the neon effect.”

Marion had encountered what’s known as a glow mitzvah, a sensory extravaganza for teenagers. But even a professional-grade digital camera with its sophisticated full frame sensor can get out of sorts in bizarre lighting conditions.

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Photographers who document weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs in St. Louis have learned to adapt and get the shots they need regardless of ever-changing trends. They also, by and large, keep doing exactly what they’ve always done. That’s the mantra of Yana and Christian Hotter, whose Spoonful of Sugar Photography & Videography studio has been a fixture in the St. Louis simcha scene for nine years. The Hotters work as a team covering bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings, expanding to four shooters when necessary.

“We continue to use the same approach that we always have,” Yana Hotter said. “We capture the happiness of the moment, the tradition, the culture, the history. That is our mitzvah, preservation of the traditions, dor v’dor.”

At large events, it’s not unusual to see two photographers. In the trade, the junior member of the team is known as a second shooter. But Jonathan Pollack, owner of J. Pollack Photography, generally works solo. As a result, he gets the bonus of a full cardio workout while shooting a simcha. That means Pollack also has to be nimble and quick on his feet.

“What I’ve been seeing at bar and bat mitzvah celebrations especially are a lot of little vignette events,” Pollack said. “It’s usually consistent with whatever the theme is. They might have a candy station or a pizza station, and the challenge for me is finding time to photograph everything, because there are all these little areas where the kids can let loose. I always arrive at the venue a little early to make sure everything is ready to go. It’s so important to know the timeline. I have to know sometimes down to the minute what is going to be happening at the party.

“Another trend is the end-of-night surprise,” Pollack continued. “I was shooting a bar mitzvah, and they had a confetti cannon toward the end of the party. I had to be at the right place and know what was going on, so if I were wandering around photographing people, I would have missed the action of that dramatic flourish to cap off the night. There’s no second chance for that.”

Zach Dalin, owner of Zach Dalin Photography, echoes Pollack’s observation.

“There’s a lot going on,” Dalin said. “I think there are lot more vendors than five or 10 years ago. I’ve seen the doughnut guys, setups from ice cream places like Clementine’s, snack places, pizza shops. It’s not just food but also different activities, like photo booths and green screen booths. DJs aren’t just doing DJing anymore, either. They’re doing a higher level of production. You’ve got interactive dance floors with LED walls and TVs. Each vendor is trying to rethink what’s possible.”

The wide variety of bar and bat mitzvah entertainment themes is a natural evolution, Marion said.

“Today, kids want to have fun, so they’re having a lot more theme parties,” he said. “They may be into sports or Star Wars or dinosaurs, whatever the kids enjoy, they want their parents to plan the party around that, which influences the decorations and music. Another trend I’m seeing is the parents may have a Kiddush for a few close adult friends, and there’s a separate party for the kids.”

Wedding venues are also expanding beyond traditional options, Marion said.

“There used to be a few hotels and the country clubs where most of the receptions were held,” Marion said. “Now you have wineries, places like Third Degree Glass Factory, the Wild Carrot, which is a converted movie theater on Shaw. I’ve seen variations on the traditional food service model, too, like bringing in food trucks instead of a sit-down dinner. For me, it’s fun to be able to document an event like that as opposed to a formal dinner at a hotel. Not many people want table pictures like they did 20 years ago.”

Photographers who specialize in simchas have found with the level of entertainment options escalating, they have to prepare for any eventuality. Marion and Pollack said they bring backup  camera and lighting equipment they never plan to use at the event. But if their primary camera seizes up, they’ve got it covered. The Hotters said they frequently make use of backup shooters.

“The events we shoot can’t be re-created, and it is our responsibility to make sure that memories are captured, immortalized, without a moment skipped,” Yana Hotter said.

Preparation is everything for these photographers. That may mean getting critical dramatic shots a few days before the actual ceremony, according to Dalin.

“Before the ceremony, I have to determine whether my coverage is going to be just that day or earlier,” Dalin said. “It sometimes depends on what synagogue we’re working with and their rules. Generally, at the ceremony, I want to capture everything that’s going on, but one thing I’ve been doing that separates me from the pack is I take a little more artistic approach. I’m trying to find some artistic moments with the bar or bat mitzvah reading from the Torah with dramatic lighting.

“I’m trying to capture some of those more intimate moments and create a more artistic shot than I could get during the ceremony itself,” he said. “That really makes the photo stand out and the family will enjoy having it in their home. Anyone can take a photo with an iPhone. I’m trying to capture some more unique artistic photos, and clients seem to really like that.”

The Hotters also plan far ahead of the actual event, sometimes as early as three years before the simcha. They often help clients set up a schedule and advise them on locations, vendors, choices for party favors, even what to wear.

Each simcha photographer has his or her own visual approach. Marion considers his style a form of photojournalism: He’s capturing the important milestone for participants and family to look back on fondly.

“For the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, when I get to the synagogue, it’s been the same as it’s been the past 40-50 years,” he said. “We can either photograph during the ceremony, or sometimes we have to go in a couple of days before for the rehearsal and stage all the photos with the child holding the Torah, with parents and grandparents, wearing a tallis up on the bema.”

While Yana Hotter is the principal photographer at Spoonful of Sugar Photography & Videography, the studio is also known for its stylish and dramatic videography, with Christian Hotter as the principal videographer.

“Everything has to be movable, nothing stationery, and we do have to keep up with technical aspects of videography, evolving on a daily basis,” Christian Hotter said.

That means the Hotters are always on the lookout for new video techniques. Their primary focus is to preserve the integrity and tradition of the simchas.

“Moments that we capture, driven through our ability to draw the human emotion and intertwine it with tradition of generations past, give us opportunity to showcase a movement of that raw life’s force through film, giving our clients a continuous memento of simchas, big and small,” Yana Hotter said.

Dalin said many clients are interested in keepsakes that he can provide with photo imagery.

“I’m finding a lot of clients are really interested in the physical products that I offer,” Dalin said. “It could be gorgeous handcrafted Italian leather albums, it could be a canvas or metal acrylic wall print. Or we can do a cluster of images on your wall, a bar or bat mitzvah photo next to a gorgeous photo of the whole family, so wall art is becoming a trend. Clients are loving to use these as decorative pieces in the home.”

One increasing trend all simcha photographers have experienced is the role of wedding planner. Pollack said they make his job easier.

“In the absence of the planner, I end up doing a lot of planning, and the wedding couple relies on the photographer to fill in the gaps in the schedule, and that’s an additional layer of things the planner does that I really appreciate,” he said.

Marion agreed and said planners definitely keep things running smoothly at the ceremony.

“I did a wedding a couple of years ago, and they had a wedding coordinator, and she was walking around with her clipboard and at the end of the evening, I said, ‘Hey it was great working with you,’ and she said, ‘No Joel, it was great working with you. You’re like a well-oiled machine!’ ”