“Huh huh ho!” My Assembly Line Portrait Trainer says in an amazingly accurate imitation of Krusty The Clown. “Look over here, Timmy! Ha Ha Ha!”
My Trainer straightens up from his clown posture and turns to me with a deadpan expression on his now completely serious face. “I make that voice because children think it’s funny and it makes them laugh. We want to get a picture of the child smiling.”
“Whoa ho ho!” My Trainer is once again a chorkling, wobbling clown and the child is indeed mesmerized by this act, he smiles for a second, and my Trainer snaps the shutter.
“Now you try.” He stands up and hands me the camera remote. “Go on. It’s easy.”
“Ho ho ho.” I say, sounding more like the depressed Santa from A Christmas Story than a happy clown. “Smile!”
“He’s just a baby!” The Trainer says and snatches the remote from my hand. “You can’t tell them to smile, you have to make them smile!”
As the day goes on and we see nothing but babies and toddles, my Trainer shows me that there is more to the baby smiling arsenal than channeling Krusty. He has a number of Beanie Babies, he sits these on top of the camera and the children look at them with wanton lust and desire. This was very near the height of the Beanie Baby craze and it was not uncommon for our Beanie Babies to be missing when we returned to work.
The Trainer shows me another use for the Beanie Baby. He would stand close to the camera, put the toy on his head, and tell the child to blow. He would then shake his head and make the toy fall off. The kids LOVED that! They would laugh again and again as the toy was ‘blown’ off the Trainer’s head. This was a trick even I could do successfully.
Next was The Tickle Wand-a duster dyed a bright color. You could twirl it in front of a child’s face and they would follow it with their eyes. If you got too close, they would grab it and try to eat it-much as they would try to eat anything else within reach. The trick was to lightly brush their face if they very small-and just play with them if they were a little larger.
“I’m gonna get you!” The Trainer would say and make a fencing lunge at the child. If the child didn’t want to play he would engage the help of Mom. “Mom, laugh when I tickle you.” he would then pretend to tickle Mom, who would laugh on command. Once the child gets the idea, this works very well.
“Say Turkey!” The Trainer would say to a small child, when the child said ‘Turkey’ the Trainer would than act indignant. “Did you call me a Turkey?” and the child would laugh.
Most small children want whatever you are using to get their attention. So The Trainer would pretend to give them a ball and then pop it out with his fingers just as they were about to grab it. This would work a couple of times, enough to get an exposure, but the kid would soon enough catch on and snatch the ball out of your hands.
Between sets The Trainer talked about the many props-toys he had bought in the Big Box Store-and how you had to keep them clean and keep the parents from dropping of their kids to play with your toys while they shopped. We were not baby sitters and these were not toys-they were props! This was a losing battle only won by getting a tall rack and putting the toys-I mean props-out of the reach of the grabby little hands. Of course this didn’t work if Mom insisted on walking over and handing her little angel one of your props.
The last of the Kid Smile Tricks imparted to by my Assembly Line Portrait Trainer was the skill of making a kind of motor boat noise in the back of my throat. If you’ve ever had a child photographed, you’ve heard that noise. A kind of chirping, rattling, odd little sound that all children will respond to-if only to look up and see what is making that noise. I have been making it ever since my second week in training and will continue to make as long as I photograph children.