An Honest Portrait

An Honest Portrait

FITL's Live It - Love It Career Series

Being part of Families in the Loop has lots of perks. At the top of the list is the incredible group of Chicago professionals and business owners I’ve come to know over the past year. Each day they’re hard at work, achieving excellence in their industries and inspiring dreamy entrepreneurs like me to keep going.  So this month I’m dedicating the Families in the Loop blog to these Chicago superstars. And since it’s the month of love, I’ve added a twist. I have asked these experts to share how love has factored into their career choice. Was it love at first sight? How about a breakup? Find out here, all throughout the month of February. Parents, it’s time to recharge our career batteries with FITL’s “Live It - Love It” career series.

An Honest Portrait

By Ashbey Riley

I met my father for the first time in the spring of 1977. He was one year shy of his 50th birthday and I had just celebrated my first. He and I, we had an instant bond.

When I was 3, we started a weekly tradition: Fridays at the Met. From the beginning, my father and I had wildly different taste and we would often argue about the meaning or significance of a work or collection. In the early years I would cry or stomp off when I disagreed with him but as time went on I became more grounded in my convictions, albeit much louder. Over the years I honed my taste in art to be an eclectic hodgepodge of different periods and movements. I could never really decide what it was that I liked.

When I was 10, during a trip to Boston, I saw my first Copley. It wasn't the first portrait I had ever seen or the best. The subject itself was a nondescript male circa late 1700's. He was not notably famous or handsome. But there was something in his face, a faint furrow. And his posture, he hunched just so. And his hands, they were clenched, white knuckling the ornate Queen Anne. He was in stark contrast to the soft velvet tapestries that hung in the background.

Upon first sight, I thought Copley must have gotten it wrong. I remember my father asking me why and I could only think it was because no one would want to be remembered that way, so awkward and uncomfortable. To which he mused that maybe that's what the man really looked like, the real him.

It clicked. The closer I looked the more familiar he seemed, more honest and genuine in his portly discomfort. I felt foolishly as if he trusted me to look at him without trying to hide any of his flaws. It was a strange intimacy.

This discovery sparked an obsession in me. Back home in New York, I searched out collections and shows that featured portraits, I had piles of ear-marked catalogs from auction houses and stacks of coffee table books dedicated to the greats. It was an odd sight, the 12-year-old girl pleading with her father to bid on a mid-19th century painting of a woman by an artist no one had heard of. But I had to have it and so he relented, picking it up for $120.

By the time I turned 13 and went away to boarding school, I think my father was a little grateful for the break. As the years ticked by, my interests turned to science, specifically psychology. I got married and earned a Masters degree and became a therapist and a hospital administrator, though I still happily took in the occasional gallery or museum, especially when I went home for a visit. My love of portraiture never faded.

In 1998 my father had a stroke. I took a leave of absence to be with him as he recovered. Not long after we adopted our old tradition again, though it would only last three weeks before I returned to L.A. This time around found me wheeling him from room to room instead of he wheeling me.

Two years later he was gone.

To say part of me broke would be too simple. I lost myself in my grief by way of walking shock. Eventually I took refuge in isolation and comfort in rebuilding my life in some place new. In 2010, I found myself divorced and happily living in Chicago. No longer practicing, I was semi-engulfed in my never-ending dissertation. I was a year and a half into a new relationship.

That year, for no particular reason, I borrowed my boyfriend's camera. I was initially drawn to food photography. I turned wontons into water landscapes and ice cream sundaes into snow-capped mountainsides. I made porn out of tuna sandwiches.

One afternoon I agreed to photograph my neighbor's 1-year-old. I knew very little about light or how to shoot a baby but once I started I couldn't stop. Later, when I downloaded the images, I felt that old obsession stirring. I stared at them forever as if they had been taken by someone else. I knew right then, in that moment, that I never wanted to do anything else.

In 2011, I started my own studio which I named Bum Bul Bee in honor of my father and his affectionate nickname for me. I specialize in family photography. With each session, I still try to find that Copley. It's always there. In a spontaneous giggle or a meltdown. Sometimes it's so quick that it's just a flicker. But when I capture it, freeze it and preserve it, I know without a doubt that I've found a home doing something that I love.

Click here to see Ashbey's amazing photos.

About Bum Bul Bee Photography

"Bum Bul Bee Photography is a full service boutique studio located in the heart of Chicago’s Old Town. At Bum Bul Bee you will find there are no forced poses, we don’t ask you to say cheese. All of our sessions are very laid back, encouraging our clients to relax & most importantly, be themselves. We pride ourselves in making every session fun, filled with lots of laughter & on good days, lots of gorgeous light. We think it shows in our photos, the place where it matters most."

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