I'm so excited to be back with Smile Politely. I took a break from writing in 2015, after interviewing an incredible array of musicians for two years. The people I got to talk to during that time were some of the most hard working, generous, and talented folks to came through this community — and a lot of them live here permanently.

For my second maiden voyage, I talked to two local photographers. Libby Abbott has been a professional photographer for six years, and Wesley Huff is a self-taught hobbiest. They could not be more different in their styles and backgrounds, yet, at the heart, they both capture the beauty of family.

Smile Politely: Libby, do you remember the first time you used a camera?

Libby Abbott: I don’t remember the exact day, but when I was about five years old, I received my first camera. It was a Cabbage Patch camera, complete with flash bulbs and several rolls of film. I remember feeling very “grown-up” with my new camera. I was conscious, even at that age, that photography involved no small amount of magic.

I ran around taking photos of all of the really important things in my life: my toys, my best friend, my sister, my parents, and a few episodes of ThunderCats. My parents were great about replacing spent flash bulbs and developing rolls of film. The three or four days that the camera store or drug store spent processing those film rolls seemed to take forever.

SP: Film!

Abbott: I remember being so excited and proud to open up the white envelopes that held my photos. And my parents purchased a little slip-in album that I could put those prints in. I used that little camera all of my early childhood.

SP: Some of the great pleasures of my childhood were having full rolls of film and full rolls of stamps.

Abbott: My parents always pulled out their camera on special occasions, but they also took the time to capture some of life’s everyday moments: Their daughters digging in the dirt. Our first carved pumpkins, birthdays, and joyous moments with friends. I was incredibly excited to have this ability too!

SP: Do you prefer taking those candid shots now, or do you focus on posed subjects?

Abbott: Posed portraits will always have a place in photography. They’re so traditional, and in that respect, I think that’s what many people expect. But, if I’m being completely honest, what I crave in my portrait work is connection. I love telling the story of connection...and I feel that often reveals itself best during more candid moments. The moment a young child, being carried by their mom or dad, looks at me over their parent’s shoulder and then nuzzles into a neck, holds more meaning for me.

SP: That's what I like, personally, for family pictures. I want it to be natural.

Abbott: And I think a lot of families are really starting to prefer this style of portrait as well. There’s a kind of magic that happens when someone is so comfortable in front of your camera that they kind of forget you’re there. You get to see the beautiful reality of that moment. There’s no self-consciousness, there’s just them.

SP: How do you create that environment of comfort? Getting someone to feel natural in front of a camera is not easy!

Abbott: Point a camera at me and all of a sudden I’m worried about if I’m standing the right way, if I look ok, where I should put my hands, what are my kids doing, etc. What I’ve learned to do is set my families up for success by creating a setting...where they feel comfortable loving on each other. I might start with a posed framework, so that everyone feels confident they’re “doing it right,” and looking their best. Then I start to add in some suggested actions, and it’s amazing because almost instantly everyone seems to relax and smile and just really enjoy being together, and that’s the Art of Family, right there. Raising a family...that’s an art form in and of itself. What I like to do is just coax that art out of everyone and help them feel comfortable showing it.

SP: Where do your sessions happen?

Abbott: I just opened up a studio for my business, Abbott Images, near downtown Urbana early this spring! After years of working on-location and out of a small space in my home, I was so excited to be able to open up a more traditional studio space. It’s been absolutely amazing to have a relaxed, kid friendly space for newborn and family sessions! And with the sometimes unpredictable Illinois weather, it’s been great to have as an alternative to outdoor sessions when Mother Nature isn’t being so friendly.

SP: That's a good point. It's basically guaranteed you'll get something awful the one time you don't have a back-up plan.

Abbott: While I’m absolutely in love with my studio space, probably only about half of my work is done there. I am obsessed with getting families outdoors to any of the amazing parks we have in the CU area!

SP: I didn't realize how many great little parks we have until I got older and noticed that other places just...don't!

Abbott: We’re really lucky to have so many beautiful, natural spaces around us. When you mix a warm spring evening or vibrant fall colors with a great family and lots of snuggles, you’ve got all the best ingredients for a great portrait experience! Everyone seems to almost instantly relax during outdoor sessions as well. There aren’t any big lights or bits of intimidating equipment staring at you. It’s easy to feel like you’re just having a great afternoon or evening, exploring with your family. A successful session, to me, doesn’t just result in beautiful portraits but also a genuinely fun experience for my families!

SP: Right! Who wants a stuffy, tedious memory?

Abbott: When I think back to getting my first serious camera, I remember dreaming that someday maybe I could be a professional photographer, and, at the time, that seemed like such an impossible goal. I’m so incredibly grateful to all of my friends and family that allowed me the chance to learn, practice, and hone my skills. And so very thankful to all of the families that I have been honored to photograph over the years! It’s always such a joy to meet and work with these families. The session itself is always a blast, and I love helping clients figure out the best way to enjoy their portraits. I love that every day they get to walk past a piece of art that features their family, and I hope they get a little burst of pride and joy every time they see it.

I enjoyed hearing about Libby Abbott's new studio and the excitement she has for her work is inspiring. Speaking to Wesley Huff, I saw equal passion and respect for his subjects.

Smile Politely: Do you remember the first time you ever used a camera?

Wesley Huff: My first time using a camera (other than a disposable) was shortly after I started attending Parkland in 2012. I got a chunk of money from student loans, and I did what any responsible student would: I bought a Sony DSLR. From that point, it was an obsession. I would take my camera everywhere with me, often shooting 1,000-1,500 pictures a day. Many of them were horrible, but enough were good that it made me hungry to take more.

SP: So you were a full-on adult before you ever used a "real" camera.

Huff: I was. I grew up poor. We didn't have money for things like cameras.

SP: What made you decide to get that first one, in your 30s?

Huff: I decided to buy it after I started experimenting with an editing program called Gimp. I liked being able to manipulate photos. Getting a camera was a natural next step.

SP: Is photography a hobby for you, or do you work professionally at it?

Huff: I have never taken money for photos. I prefer to be uninhibited in my photography. When I place a price on goods or services it most often leads to expectations. I would prefer to take my own photos for enjoyment. If I sell some later, that's fine because I know it is my work, not my interpretation of what someone else wants.

SP: So do you just...not photograph people?

Huff: I do, but mainly candid photos. I do not care much for staged photography. To be sure, there is great staged photography out there. Many photographers are very good at it; it just holds no interest for me.

SP: What do you most often photograph? Has it changed much over the past 6 years?

Huff: Deer. Other wildlife would come in second. The only thing that has really changed over time is my ability to create the photo I see in my mind. I didn't take any courses, so there has been quite a learning curve.

I suppose these days I am much more comfortable putting out photos that others might not be drawn to. I used to be crushed when someone would make the statement that my photos aren't "realistic" enough. These days I am confident enough that I am not ashamed to say that staying true to the subject, as the eye sees it, is not something I care too much about.

SP: How can a photo of deer be unrealistic? You mean it doesn't look like a deer right away...

Huff: Oh no, the subject would be the same. I tend to enjoy a photography style called lomography. It's has a bit more saturation and contrast than other styles. It really makes the right photo pop, although it is not everyone's taste.

SP: It must take a lot of patience to capture images of deer! You have to be so still...

Huff: Taking wildlife photos does take quite a bit of time and patience. Fortunately for me, I spend a lot of time in the woods anyway. Around our local patches of forests, much of the wildlife has become accustomed me over the years. I can go out to Busey Woods on any given day and sit down among a herd of deer. I have gotten to know many of them individually and can even tell you a bit about their family trees.

SP: Do you have a special time of day or a favorite season for taking photos?

Huff: I prefer springtime, especially in the morning. Spring has always been my favorite season. I love the smell of earth thawing, and the colors feel so much more vibrant after a winter full of grey skies.

SP: How do you capture that feeling?

Huff: I suppose the same way I capture anything: I see it. A photo is captured in the eye and mind of the photographer before the camera becomes involved. A camera is just a tool for me to show others the beauty I see in the world around me.

SP: So where can we see the beauty you see? How can we see your work?

Huff: I have years worth of photos that have not seen the light of day. I hope to change that in this coming year. At the moment I am focusing on two sets: One for this year's Boneyard Arts Festival, and one at the Anita Purves Center, that is located at the entrance of Busy Woods. We will have to see where it goes from there.

SP: I'll keep an eye out for your images!

All images provided by Libby Abbott and Wesley Huff respectively.