Don’t talk to Jack Sims about retiring. Even though he is 95 this Saturday, Feb. 22, he won’t think about putting the brakes on his career as a portrait photographer.
“I really love it too much,” he said. “The creativity.”
At his 12-acre “portrait park” in the Clover Bottom area where he has lived and worked for the last 15 years or so, Sims welcomes customers to pose in any of his natural settings — at one of the three docks on his lake, the gazebo, waterfall, in the loft of his 100-plus-year-old barn . . . He also has an indoor studio inside the two-story farmhouse that was built around an original one-room log cabin.
Before Sims moved here to “the country,” his studio was in Chesterfield. Over the years he has called a number of cities home, often traveling for his work, every where from Palm Beach to Memphis and Nashville.
At one point, he and his wife lived in Hilton Head, S.C., in a home that was about one mile into the “woods.” That experience made an impression on him and ultimately led him to Franklin County.
“I’d never lived like that before,” Sims told The Missourian. “I’d always been in the city. A lot of action.
“When I saw this, it looked like it was falling down . . . but I bought it because I knew I could make a beautiful setting out of it.”
Once a Professional Dancer
Before Sims began a career as a professional photographer, he worked as a dancer.
From the time he was 7, Sims studied dancing and at age 16 he began dancing professionally, ballroom and tap. A contract from 1937 with the Fort Worth Frontier Fiesta Association for him to dance at Casa Mañana Theatre shows he made $25 a week.
Yet he gave up dancing for photography, in part because he could make more money in photography, but also because of the politics — namely, that he was required to audition for each show, even with companies where he had already been working.
“The first time, I took it with a grain of salt,” he said. “I danced for three different companies and every one of them, after I had done all of this, would want me to audition again.
“After 3 1/2 years of that . . . I said, ‘This is for the birds.’ What is it I know? Photography.”
While he worked as a dancer, Sims — who always had his camera with him — routinely photographed the other dancers and sold them the prints. When he realized he was making more money selling his photos than the $25 a week he was being paid to dance, he switched careers.
“It was a good move, because I love it,” said Sims of photography. “I love dancing too, but I just really am crazy about this.”
Over the years, Sims has made a name for himself as a portrait photographer, so much so that many clients call on him year after year.
For more than 30 years, Sims took the boardroom portraits for the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce directors. And Sims has photographed one family on the day after Thanksgiving every year since the 1980s.
“It got so people knew me,” he said, recalling how once a bride in Nashville called him, not to take her wedding photos, but to take her bridal portrait.
“She knew I was coming in town at a certain time and waited for me to take her bridal portrait.”
Back when he was traveling, Sims was hired to phograph contestants in the Miss America Pageant. Locally, he’s known for taking senior portraits.
He also used to photograph weddings.
Sims, who has a 1983 bridal portrait of his hanging in the Photography Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, was basically self-taught.
His interest and exposure to photography came from his father, Arthur Sims, who had a photography studio in Fort Worth, Texas, when Sims was growing up. His school was about eight or nine blocks from his dad’s studio, so after school he’d walk there and stay for a few hours.
When photography conventions came to town, Sims went with his father to see the new equipment and prints on display. His dad would leave to get back to the studio, but Sims always stayed for the speakers who shared their knowledge of the craft and spoke about trends and techniques.
“That’s where you learn. I used to joke about this, even after I got my master’s degree. If you want to find me at a convention where the speakers are, you look at the front row.
“I was always trying to learn.”
Sims developed his own technique and style of photography, and along the way his reputation grew.
He has won countless state and national competitions and also taught and led seminars on photography. He has over 20 portraits in the traveling loan collection of the Professional Photographers of America and is a recipient of its earned honor as a portraitist, the Master of Photography degree.
Sims also is a member of the invitation-only American Society of Photographers.
“I used to do a lot more dramatic portraits, I call it low key,” he said. “Everything is dark, but the highlights because I really hit it hard with the light.
“I developed a reputation of doing this, and so these groups around Minnesota . . . would invite me in to give demonstrations.”
Today Sims uses digital photography exclusively. He prefers Canon cameras.
This modern way of taking photos wasn’t hard for him to learn, he said. He learned a little at a time, mainly from convention speakers, just like when he was young.
“With digital, everything is the same as film, but you don’t have a negative,” said Sims. “I use my lights the same way.”
The one exception is that with digital photography, Sims can no longer print any photos himself.
Back in the day, he did just that, but with digital, some of his equipment — like a color enlarger and a retouching desk — is of no use.
Today Sims sends his images to a lab to have prints made. He takes his digital camera card to Walgreens to have the images put on a CD, which he sends to a lab in Florissant.
The lab makes a book of proofs for him to show clients. Sims uses a cropping tool that looks like a photo matte and special pens to mark the proofs to show the lab how to finish the prints.
Sims said he likes the fact that digital photos allow him to see his images right away and gives him the ability to erase images he doesn’t want to keep.
In addition to using digital photography, Sims also has embraced the modern means of promoting his business. He has both a website, www.jacksimsphotography.com, and a Facebook page.
Tips From a Pro
“There’s an awful lot to photography that people don’t realize,” said Sims. “First of all, you have to learn how to group.
“Groups are hard to do, because it depends on their size, fat or thin, height . . . ”
Clothing is another consideration for group photos, said Sims. He tells clients they don’t have to match their clothing, but it should coordinate.
He also has some time-tested tricks for getting his clients to smile.
“The best way to get a good expression is to smile yourself,” said Sims, because people respond naturally to another smile.
“The trick is the timing. I catch them off guard. I do simple things. I’ll say, ‘Hi, hi, hi!” and the inflection is key. I have about four different things I say.”
Other popular sayings he throws out are “fuzzy pickles” and “Yamaguchi,” which is the name of a photographer he once worked with.
“The worst thing you can do is say, ‘Smile,’ ” Sims noted.
“Most of all, it’s your timing. I look at them, when they’re just sitting there waiting and then out of the blue it comes out, ‘Are you happy?’ And when you catch them like that, with the inflection, (a smile) is going to come.”