Picture Perfect:
Pryde Brown Photography

For twenty-five years, this Princeton photographer captures spontanity with style.

Think of your most treasured personal moment. Now imagine having it captured on film. Portraiture and wedding photography are Brown's forte. In both she tries to capture the impromptu moment. Interestingly, Brown became a professional photographer and studio owner by chance.

She grew up in the late '40s and the '50s, and always knew (from the time she was very small) that she would have a career. When she was in college, she was certain she would be a writer. Then she married writer John McPhee and had four daughters. She began the activities of a mother--taking care of the children and driving--lots of driving. She was beginning to wonder if someone married to a writer could also be one. So she started to look at other fields for a career.

"I took some courses at the University," Brown said. "I thought I might become a Chinese scholar."Just as she was getting into things like the history of Chinese philosophy, her husband chose to write a profile for the New Yorker Magazine of an island in the inner Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. Brown and the children accompanied McPhee to the island, where the McPhee clan had originated. Brown kept a journal on the trip, which once again sparked her writing interest, while photographing the island for the British version of McPhee's Book on the Hebrides. She began writing a novel--and received a fellowship grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to support her work on it. "It has sat on my desk and in boxes and drawers for 20 years," Brown said. But when she wanted portraits of her family, Brown turned to her friend Ulli Steltzer, who had a small studio on Tulane Street.

One day in 1970, Steltzer told Brown she was leaving Princeton.

"I just blurted out, 'Could I buy your business," Brown recalled, "and she said I've already sold it, to a graduate student. I told her that a graduate student would leave in three years, and what would happen then? I was here for good--I had four children."

The graduate student agreed to let Brown buy the studio instead. Brown went to work with Steltzer in the darkroom, learning how to turn a hobby into a business.

But Brown was by now a single mother. The very children she had argued would anchor her to Princeton now made it impossible for her to work all the hours she realized such a business would require. Brown asked another single mother of four, Elaine Miller (now Elaine Miller Pilshaw), to be her partner. Both women took classes. But more than anything they learned by doing. "We just jumped in--because Ulli left very quickly--and we just literally had to do what we had never done before," Brown said.

Once involved, it was clear to Brown that her search for a career was over.

"It was a great way to express some of the things I might have wanted to express in writing," Brown said. "My photographs could take me into art, and they allowed me to express visually the whimsy and intimacy of a situation."

For illustration, she points to a color photo of a bride, left alone with her bouquet just after the wedding ceremony. Her new husband is to the side, receiving kisses from all the bridesmaids at once.

Elaine Miller eventually went on to other things, and Brown carried on the business herself. She has always specialized in portraits and wedding photography.

"Most people burn out quickly in wedding photography," Brown said. "You're dealing with people who want to be royalty for a day, and they sometimes have unreal expectations. I consider it a challenge to try to meet those expectations."

After 25 years, Brown still enjoys wedding photography, because she finds that each wedding provides its own surprises, its own opportunities for the art and whimsy she loves. She approaches wedding photography just as she does portrait photography, looking for a chance to be playful or capture something touching.

A portrait, however, can be redone. Brown relieves some of the stress of capturing the delightful surprise moments of a wedding by assigning two photographers to cover each wedding--usually herself and an assistant. If there is equipment failure, or one camera is pointed the wrong way at the right time, there will still be a back up.

Brown's continued success as a wedding and portrait photographer is due not so much to all these precautions, as to how she approaches people, says Marc Royce. Royce worked for many years with Brown before going on to be a photographic assistant for world famous photographer Richard Avedon, and eventually opening his own successful photography studio in Manhattan.

"Pryde has an incredible talent to make people totally relaxed," Royce said. "What she taught me most was how to approach people--how to approach a sitting without taking over, but still to capture everything."

Royce values these lessons even more than being introduced by Pryde Brown to a twin lens Roloflex or to the art of printing archival black and white photographs.

Brown shoots the bulk of wedding photographs in color--which is what most people expect. When a couple comes in to arrange wedding photography, naturally enough their eyes are drawn to the glorious color photos of brides and grooms. There is the bride with the swirl of gown in the Princeton University arch or that bride whose husband is enjoying all those kisses.

Faced with these picture-perfect color portraits, the couple finds that Brown is patiently explaining why they should get at least some black and white prints.

"When you're investing in a photograph, you want to know that your grandchildren will be able to enjoy that photograph, just as you enjoy photographs of your grandparents," Brown said. "This won't happen if you choose color photography. All commercial color fades until there is no image. So therefore black and white is essential--at this moment."

All the black and white prints done by the studio are archival. That means the paper used is fiber paper, not resin coated, and the process of printing takes hours longer than standard black and white. The prints are meant to last. Brown is proud of the fact that hers is one of the few commercial studios in the country, she says, which specializes in archival prints.

"Taking a photograph is freezing for a moment something that might be passed on to generations," Brown said. "A whole generation of people has been lost--the generation basically of the late '60s, '70s and '80s that has grown up photographed in color. We won't have those pictures beyond about 40 years."

To demonstrate, Brown pulls out a color photo of just a few years vintage, and shows how much fading has already occurred.

Perhaps because she herself had learned as an intern of sorts to Ulli Steltzer, Brown likes to take on interns--including her children.

Brown's daughter, Laura McPhee, remembers that her first camera was a present from her mother.

"She gave me a Yashicamat, which is a 120 millimeter camera, when I was 12," McPhee said. "I never owned a 35 millimeter camera, because I always had a camera more or less like hers. So I started taking pictures at 12, and became very engaged with the medium."

McPhee worked with her mother intermittently during high school, and went on to study photography with Emmet Gowin as part of her art history major at Princeton University. Brown attended some of the Gowin lectures with her daughter. McPhee passed on to her mother the techniques of archival black and white printing which Gowin had taught in laboratory sessions.

"Ansel Adams had been promoting these techniques in his books for some time," McPhee said, "but they were not common in the studio business."

McPhee went on to win a Guggenheim for her work and teaches photography at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.

Marc Royce came to Brown as a teenage intern, and worked for her all through high school and on college breaks.

"I would go over every day after school," Royce recalled. "I ran around to weddings with Pryde, and helped her--at first just by carrying bags and helping with equipment. Later I helped run the office and photographed weddings."

The best thing about being an intern was becoming part of the family.

"I always envied that big family," Royce said. "I just had my brother. Her house was constantly full of people who became family. She's a very rare woman."

Two of Brown's current interns are 13, Teresa Marchetta and Alisha Kozikowski, and her third, Britta Lynan, is a college student taking a year off to learn photography. Several of her five paid employees came to her first as interns, and one, as the mother of an intern. Brown makes sure that whatever their primary job at the studio, they all learn to photograph as well.

Brown's novel may be still in a drawer, but along the way, she helped write a book that changed the world.

A small group from the Central New Jersey Chapter of the National Organization for Women asked her to join it in doing a study of how females and males were being portrayed in school textbooks. Brown jumped at the chance, even though she was already busy just getting her business off the ground.

The six women in the group--Brown, Joan Bartl, Rogie Stone Bender, Cynthia Eaton, Carol Portnoi Jacobs and Ann Stefan--formed a group called "Women on Words and Images," and began studying the books of 14 major publishers. The group had the help and cooperation of three school districts, including Princeton.

What they found astounded them. Statistically, boys were portrayed five times in the books to every two times girls were featured. The boys in the books were at least three times as likely to be engaged in some clever or creative activity. Girls were often shown as doing things like laundry or cleaning, while boys in the books might even end up themselves managing a ranch or joining a submarine crew--before even reaching adulthood.

Adults in the books were three times as likely to be male as female, and the most interesting occupation found for women was acrobatist, or perhaps witch. Overall, women were shown in 26 jobs to the 147 for men. Working mothers were virtually nonexistent, and where present, had children who were bad. And, Brown noted, contrary to her own experience of motherhood, the women in these books never drove cars. In fact, they sat in the back seat with the one daughter, while the son shared the front seat with his father.

When the group published its findings in 1972 under the title "Dick and Jane as Victims," it was immediately clear that they had struck responsive chord in American culture. Publishers started their own in-house studies. Textbooks were rewritten to portray males and females in far more varied ways, so that both girls and boys realize their roles are not limited by their genders. "Dick and Jane as Victims" was translated into several languages, and has been used as a textbook on college campuses across the country.

Joan Bartl remembers that Brown proved not only to be an excellent writer, but to have other talents that helped with the success of the group's project. It was Brown and Bartl who put together a slide show that demonstrated visually the remarkable sex stereotyping the group had found. But Bartl remembers most the special sense of compassion Brown brought to the project.

That compassion led Brown to get involved in another community activity after Women on Words and Images had finished their work. Brown had remarried, to psychologist Dan Sullivan, and the two were raising their nine children from previous marriages plus Joan, the daughter they had together, in a big old farmhouse in West Amwell township.

Brown started tutoring children for an organization called Looking Into the Future Together (LIFT). LIFT, a Trenton-based organization founded by Alma Hill in 1982, provides infant and prenatal care for babies born to teenage mothers, and educational and job support for the mothers themselves.

Very quickly, Brown realized that she could not be as "on time" as tutoring appointments required. She asked Hill what else she could do.

She and her whole family got involved with a Trenton family--helping the mother, who received welfare assistance, and finding scholarships to get her children educational opportunities, what Brown calls "the tools to work within the middle class." Brown learned quickly that in the end, people must do things for themselves, and all she could hope to do was give the family better tools.

Brown is pleased that now the family no longer needs welfare aid, and the children are getting the education they needed.

Then, last year, Brown's husband was diagnosed as having terminal cancer. Brown found her own family needed all her energy.

"I wanted to concentrate on Dan, and on Joan, the youngest, and the most vulnerable," Brown explained, quietly.

Dan Sullivan died in the fall.

Brown, now 60, is putting together a book of her photographs, focusing on those she has taken of her own large family.

"Family to me is the most important thing in my life," Brown said.

Besides a book of photographs, Brown has another project in mind as well.

"I'm going to finish that book I started 20 years ago," she said.

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pryde brown photographs
180 Nassau Street
Princeton, NJ 08542