Kevin Paul, manager of Kinderfoto at Columbia Mall, was in fine form Saturday. Parents kept bringing their kids to him to be photographed for the traditional holiday shot. Saint Paul patiently and maturely addressed each wobbly child on his posing table.
"Why you looking at Daddy? Does he have stinky feet?" Mr. Paul asked 2-year-old Alex Wilson, a definite flight risk.
Sure, "stinky feet" is a hoot in itself, but imagine those words coming from a grown man (married without children) who is saying this in a high-pitched voice and laughing like Curley (one of the Three Stooges). Mr. Paul also works with his sidekick, Bear, which he tosses up in the air and drops for laughs.
Failing this, Mr. Paul does what any parent does with very young kids who won't move a smile muscle. Blow on their faces. Their fine strands of hair flicker, their eyes involuntarily close for a second, and then they hatch a smile. In this 250th of a second, Mr. Paul pulls the remote trigger on his tripod-mounted camera.
He got his picture. Alex got to get off the posing table and hit the carousel outside Kinderfoto in the mall. Alex's Dad, Martin Wilson of Silver Spring, got to get off his knees and stop playing peek-a-boo doggie and making raspberries at Alex. Dad and his stinky feet ultimately won this round -- with a huge assist from the photographer.
"The secret? You have to be a 2-year-old," says Mr. Paul, who has been getting kids to sit still for six years at Kinderfoto.
During the holiday season, he'll see up to 70 kids a day. This is Captain Crunch time for studio photographers, who rolled out the Christmas photo backdrops around Sept. 1. It's not unusual for parents to be waiting when mall doors open at 9 a.m.
The consensus among area photographers is that 2-year-olds are the most challenging. They fear strangers. They cling to their parents, who dress them in holiday outfits that have enough straps and snaps to scare Houdini. Then, there's that paper-thin line between laughing and crying and no visible explanation for why either erupts. A theory, however, has been formed.
"Kids associate the camera room with the doctor's office," says Kathy DeProspero, manager of the Sears studio at Hunt Valley Mall. She's expecting to shoot about 2,000 sets of pictures this holiday season.
To unwind uptight kids, Ms. DeProspero sometimes bops them on the head with her worm puppet, which she hides behind the backdrop curtain. In emergency situations, she will put Mom on the posing table with her child. You do what you have to do for the almighty smile.
"In this type of business, you can't get impatient," says Ms. DeProspero, 27. Although she was not forthright with this information, she did reveal that "stinky feet" works for her, too.
"I have a routine with a Daffy Duck," says Tri Bell, photographer at the Olan Mills Portrait Studios in Ellicott City. "I put the kid on the table and introduce him to Daffy Duck. Then, I talk to the duck. I put Daffy on the corner of the table and make him fall. The kids go crazy."
See the 25-year-old man talk to duck. See man drop duck on its head. See man use feather duster to tickle bare knees of #F unsmiling kids.
"We are told as photographers not to take it personally if they cry," says Mr. Bell, who boasts an 85 percent smile rate.
For the record, Mr. Bell does not ask kids to say "stinky feet." His words are "nice" or "yes." You don't get that cheesy smile with these words, he says. At the JC Penney Portrait Studios in Dundalk, the smile words are "pizza face" and "pickle nose." And Barney is a godsend.
Back at Kinderfoto, Kevin Paul seems to take small pride in the fact Barney is nowhere on the premises. Mr. Paul has Bear and his Curley laugh. He gets kids to give him five, which solves the problem of getting their fingers out of their mouths.
This Saturday afternoon, Mr. Paul is on a roll. His next customer is Samantha Fritz, all 20 months of her. She wears a velvety
green Christmas dress, her cheeks are naturally rosy, and she has no immediate plans to smile. Her grandmother, Dot Wehland of Ellicott City, waits on the sidelines.
"She usually beams ear-to-ear," Mrs. Wehland says, beaming at her granddaughter. And then, whispering, "I think he needs Barney."
Mr. Paul goes through his routine. He juggles the bear, he does his Curley laugh, he blows air on her. Samantha starts to crawl off the table.
"Noooo, it's not time to leave," says Mr. Paul, invoking an emergency patty-cake game.
Samantha shoots her mother the evil eye. Grandma is called in off the bench to sit by Samantha. It seems like everyone in the mall crowds into this cubicle to help the girl smile. She doesn't know which way to look or who to listen to.
"She's at her limit, Mom. We'll set you up a time to come back," says Mr. Paul, who has taken off his glasses to rub his eyes. He knows when it's quitting time.
Samantha's mother, Kathleen Fritz, starts picking up the diaper bag, but she isn't ready to concede defeat.
"Don't do this to me," Mrs. Fritz says. "I don't want to come back."
See mom look at daughter. See daughter ignore mom. See mom reschedule holiday picture.