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Longtime photographer grows and learns with the times

Photographer Rick Singer runs a studio in the building his father purchased in the 1960s. (Jesse Tinsley)
Photographer Rick Singer runs a studio in the building his father purchased in the 1960s. (Jesse Tinsley)

Who remembers third grade?

Rick Singer, for one. That’s the year he began working in the family business, Dutch’s music and pawn. He also took up the drums. And most importantly, it’s the year he discovered photography.

“I had an Argus C3, which was kind of like a brick with a lens on it,” he recalled. “A buddy had a darkroom in his basement, so I’d take pictures, then develop the film and make little prints.”

Darkrooms have since gone the way of the Argus C3, but Singer still takes pictures for both business and pleasure. He discussed his career and the evolution of photography during a recent interview.

S-R: How do you describe what you do?

Singer: I’m mainly a portrait photographer. There’s a person or people in the majority of pictures I take. I also do some food photography, architectural photography and photo restoration. But mostly families, high school seniors and weddings.

S-R: Where did you learn your craft?

Singer: At Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara (Calif.). It’s a technical school – in 2 ½ years you find out how much you love or hate photography.

S-R: How many professional photographers are in Spokane?

Singer: Probably 60 to 80 in the phone book, plus others out there.

S-R: What distinguishes you from the rest?

Singer: I use a lot of natural light, and textured, distressed old walls as backdrops.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Singer: Meeting people, and doing something creative. Every time I pick up a camera and look through it, I see something I haven’t seen before.

S-R: What do you like least?

Singer: It’s hard for me to sit at a computer, because I really loved working in the darkroom – seeing images magically appear in chemical trays, and being part of a process that had gone on for centuries. On a computer, I can replicate every darkroom skill I ever knew, and a million others. But it’s less personal.

S-R: What did you do with your old equipment?

Singer: I should have sold it years ago. Cameras I paid $5,000 for now go for $200, if that.

S-R: How has digital technology changed photography?

Singer: It’s much easier for amateurs to create OK pictures without knowing much about photography. If you keep pushing the button, you’ll get a lot of sharp images. But they may not have lasting value.

S-R: Do people ask you for advice?

Singer: Occasionally, and I do offer private instruction. For instance, someone may buy a camera to take on a European trip and want advice so their pictures turn out better.

S-R: What’s the key to good portraits?

Singer: I was taught complementary portraiture – analyzing somebody’s face, their body, their clothing, and photographing them in a complementary way. A lot of amateur photographs I see are uncomplementary because the photographer doesn’t understand lighting and composition, or chooses unflattering camera angles.

S-R: What’s your typical work schedule?

Singer: Each day is different. Tomorrow I’m starting at 7:30 at a doctor’s office, doing pictures for a medical client. Then I’m going to a coffee shop to do illustrations for a magazine article. I like the variety. It challenges me to use everything I know about photography.

S-R: Who are your photographic heroes?

Singer: Ansel Adams, for his expert use of black-and-white film; Arnold Newman, for the way he connected famous people to their environment; and Irving Penn, for his natural-light portraits. In the early 1950s, Penn photographed average people posed with the tools of their trade. I thought that was just the coolest thing.

S-R: Where else do you find inspiration?

Singer: Art galleries … art books. I don’t have to reinvent the portrait. It’s been done successfully for hundreds of years.

S-R: Was your business successful from the start?

Singer: It was. I didn’t have a lot of customers at first, but people liked what I did, and that gave me a lot of confidence.

S-R: Any milestones in your career?

Singer: When I turned 50, I gave myself the project of photographing Spokane’s artists and arts benefactors. I did it to please myself, and to emulate Penn’s series on tradespeople. My show was hanging in City Hall when (then-gallery owner) Lorinda Knight bought all 159 photographs and donated them to the Museum of Arts & Culture. That was amazing.

S-R: Has the recession affected your business?

Singer: It has. A couple of years ago, I had to let my only employee go.

S-R: What’s the hardest part of your job?

Singer: A lot of people are nervous about getting their picture taken. They’re not happy with how they look. Some would rather go to the dentist than be photographed.

S-R: How do you make them comfortable?

Singer: First I ask them whether they want a formal portrait or something more casual, and then I coach them on clothing. I’ll try a variety of approaches – different backdrops, smile shots, introspective shots – and hopefully there’s something in there that works.

S-R: What’s your favorite customer reaction?

Singer: That I made them look better than they expected. And with digital retouching, it’s much easier to clean up photographs.

S-R: Do people sometimes not like the results?

Singer: Yes. Sometimes I think I’ve done a really, really good job, and the customer doesn’t like the picture. They say, “When did I start looking like my grandma?” I think people look in a mirror and see what they want to see.

S-R: What lies ahead for you?

Singer: I want to do more personal projects – not for money, but to please me and use all the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years. I’m a really big Spokane supporter because my family has had a business here for 97 years, and I’ve spent my whole life downtown. I like the idea of using my skills to show the talent and diversity that exists here.

S-R: How do you relax?

Singer: I play music in four different bands around town. None of them plays that much, but they all play a little. What’s nice about playing in a band is that I’m a sideman instead of the leader. Here at my business, I get all the credit and all the blame. In the band, I’m just one of many.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at

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