Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 18, 2014

Williams making pictures for 35 years

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The expression is a picture says 1,000 words, and John Robert Williams knows it does so in every language.

That’s how Williams starts the photography presentations he gives around the country. He shows slides with a phrase translated into many languages, then asks audience members if they understand the meaning. They usually don’t.

He then shows a picture of the phrase, a crying baby, and everyone understands.

“My story is whatever I put in that frame,” Williams said. “I have to make that succinct and believable and understandable and instantaneous.”

Williams opened his Traverse City photography business, John Robert Williams Photography, in 1979 and saw the transition from film to digital photography. Embracing new technology helped Williams’ business flourish to its current stock of computers, printers, lenses and lights.

He specializes in personal portraits, business portraits and product photographs for businesses selling new wares, and takes photos in his studio or on-site. He often photographs campaigning politicians and said he has a “.900 batting average” for getting those candidates elected.

He sees his job as a service, not sales. The camera is a recording machine, and he is an artist.

“It’s not about taking pictures of people. Nobody’s ever going to pay a penny to anybody to take a picture,” Williams said. “Not only do I write with light, I make the photo. You don’t take a painting, you make a painting. You don’t take a drawing, you make a drawing. I make photographs, I don’t take pictures.”

Williams’ creativity stretches beyond photography. He makes custom lights for his studio, sped his process so he can get finished photos to customers quickly, connected a computer screen to his camera so customers can see poses immediately and designed the “perfect portrait” process.

The perfect portrait starts with a half-hour massage from a massage therapist who rents space in Williams’ studio. Customers get their hair and makeup done by a professional stylist, then dress in their favorite outfits.

“When you’ve never felt better and you know you’re never going to look better, you’re ready,” Williams said.

Running a successful business doesn’t just happen in the studio and editing room, it happens in the community. Williams helped found the Traverse City Film Festival and renovate the State Theatre, he helped form TART Trails, presented at TEDx Traverse City and teaches digital photography at Northwestern Michigan College.

Making Traverse City a great place to live helps the community, which helps business.

“Whatever you do in whatever community you’re in, just give,” Williams said. “Don’t look at Traverse City as some place you just come to make money. You have to give a lot. It’s a very small town. Very small. How it’s on the map and recognized for as many things as possible is only because of the spirit of the people here.”

Williams felt the touch of economic swings in the last decade. He saw fewer people hired and promoted starting in 2008, which led to fewer business portraits. Industrial clients like auto manufacturers folded or cut back on product portraits. Many of his consistent clients just avoided marketing expenses like professional photography.

“When you’re on the marketing side of things you see the money tumbling off first,” Williams said. “It was a really rough six years, but 2014 is roaring back. Businesses are spending because they realize they have to market, they have to look good. People are image-conscious.”

Williams expects to keep making pictures as the economy swings upward, and even after 35 years in business looks forward to a future of creating, inventing and making people feel great.

“Skeptics walk in here every day and believers float out,” Williams said. “It’s just so dreamy, it’s so affirming and it’s so comforting to see the psychologically perfect version of you, caught in your best expression, your best eyes, with your nicest, comfortable smile. There’s nothing fake. It’s the real you. That’s what I do.”