There was no warning that something momentous was going to happen to 4-year-old Leonard Bohinski on Saturday afternoon. The men across the street were washing their car as usual; Leonard and the neighborhood children played outside in the heat.
Then the dogs started barking, and Leonard saw a small horse led by a woman come walking down the middle of his street. They stopped in front of his house, and Leonard saw that the pony was just his size. Furthermore, it was saddled and ready to ride.
Although he lives in Norwalk, Leonard's heart seems to be in Dodge City. Her son is a fan of "Bonanza" reruns and a cartoon called "My Little Pony," Marlene Bohinski said.
Tall in Saddle
When it was Leonard's turn to get his picture taken on the pony, he sat tall in the saddle wearing the same leather chaps and vest, red cowboy hat and matching red bandanna the other children had posed in before him. This was his first time on a horse. He looked as pleased and shaken as if E.T. had come to visit him personally.
There is apparently an endless supply of Los Angeles area kids--as well as their parents--who might live miles from the nearest corral but have a nostalgia for the Old West nonetheless.
At least as far back as the '20s, according to Richard Hill of Riverside, such would-be cowboy kids have had a chance to capture that longing on film when the pony photographer makes his or her annual trek through the neighborhood. Hill, who operates a Shetland pony photography business, said that although there are pony-photo sellers in other cities, Los Angeles seems to be the place where the tradition has taken hold.
'Has to Have It'
"You go to a house, and the mother just has to have a picture of her baby on a pony," said Hill, 54. "She's got a picture of herself on a pony as a youngster, and a picture of her mother on one. It just goes back and back and back."
Every day of the year, there are dozens of ponies and photographers from a handful of local pony-photo businesses combing the streets.
Yilmez Can Tumer boards 15 ponies of various sizes at the Sunset Stables near the Hollywood sign. Although his Coast Color photo lab provides other services, the bulk of his business comes in through the team of young people he hires to take pony pictures. (There is no obligation to buy when the photos are taken. Tumer said that 70% of the families who ask to see proof sheets end up purchasing prints.)
Photographers are instructed to seek out children under age 7. Older than that and their proportions don't look right on the pony, Tumer explained. Also, he has found that after that age, parents are less likely to want to pay for yet another picture of their child. (A typical package, including one 8x10, two 5x7, and six wallet-size prints, sells for $26.95.)
Unlike the other Coast Color photographers, many of whom are photography students who see the job as an opportunity to shoot several rolls of film a day, Candace Rachal, 22, had no experience with cameras or horses when she applied for the position.
She was at home pregnant with her second child, she said, when a man came to the door a couple of years ago shooting pony pictures. Rachal said she asked him how she could get a job like his. She needed work to supplement her husband's income as a truck driver and said she didn't want to be confined to an office or a fast-food restaurant.
Starting out on a recent day from a neighborhood park in a corner of Norwalk she has worked before (she has been on the job 1 1/2 years and visits 90 cities a year, she said), Rachal looked and listened for signs of children. Since the day was hot, there were kids and toys spilling out into yards.
Two children rocking on an old car seat looked up as the pony stopped in front of their house.
"Where's your mom?" Rachal asked. "You guys want pictures?"
Her favorite city to work is Monrovia, because of the big, old homes and tree-lined streets, she said. Second best is Santa Monica, but there the children tend to stay in the backyards, and she has to do a lot of knocking on doors, she said.
In a place like Norwalk, where families congregate in front yards on weekends, the children run inside and alert their mothers, saving Rachal the effort.
She walked steadily, always working to fit in four families an hour. For each family of as many as three children she photographs, she makes $6. If there are four or more children in the family, her take increases to $12.
"We're taking 'em free today. No charge," she said to another mother, as if this were a one-day-only special.
First there were three children, then five, then eight, all crowded around the pony in front of a shade tree Rachal had selected as a backdrop for the pictures.
Mothers standing by produced hairbrushes and a wet paper towel to clean the face of the next child up on the horse.
Rachal lifted Ruby Lorena Lopez, 5, onto the pony, Lady. She fluffed the model's hair and arranged the girl's right hand under her chin in a timeless pose.
"Give me a big cheese ," Rachal said, taking two steps back and crouching on the sidewalk with her camera.
" Cheese ," Ruby said.
"What I want you to do now is give the pony a big hug for being so nice," Rachal said.
Standing on the ground again, the girl wrapped her arms around Lady's nose. The pony's eyes shut contentedly.
Ruby Lopez, 24, said she has a picture of herself and her sister as toddlers on a pony in front of this same tree. And she said she recently found a childhood pony picture of her husband in her in-laws' attic. Lopez said she is continuing the tradition with her own children by getting pony pictures at least every other year as they are growing up.
Rachal changed film, and she and Lady moved on to another shade tree, with yet another girl or boy in cowboy duds on a summer afternoon in Norwalk.