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Portraits Beyond Light and Shadow: She Adds Heart and Soul

September 30, 1989|ROBERT LACHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Once a year you can expect someone to gather up the family, put them in their Sunday best and head for a photo studio. It's one of the few things people do with foresight in the hopes of remembering the past.

The formal portrait has been a way of life for Melba Figge for the past 44 years. Her photographs can be found in hallways and above fireplaces decorating thousands of homes in Southern California. Along with two of her four children, Greg and Leslie, she owns Figge Photography in Newport Beach. Their shop specializes in portrait and wedding photography.

The Figges, like many business owners, had to begin their studio on a wing and a prayer. Melba and her late husband, William, ran their studio out of their home in Glendale until their youngest child entered kindergarten. They opened their first studio close to the school and their home so their children could come by work after school.

Melba Figge's four children were brought up with photography. They would go into the darkroom and watch her husband develop pictures.

"We always worked as a team, my husband and I," she recalled. "I was the art director around here."

After William died in 1976, Melba branched out to Orange County, where many of her clients had already moved. And in 1980, she sold the studio in Glendale and made Newport Beach her permanent headquarters.

So what makes Figge photography so special? Aren't all portrait studios alike? There is a difference. Melba Figge, 67, doesn't just take pictures, she puts her heart and soul into her business. There is more to portraits than composing the picture and clicking the camera. Melba Figge devotes just as much energy to making her customers feel important and look their best as she does to capturing the real person in front of her lens.

This is what has kept Figge Photography on top of the very competitive portraiture business for more than 40 years. This kind of service just can't be found at your local department store. It's Melba Figge's philosophy that a picture turns out better if you think of it as the only picture you have ever taken in your life. Today she spends most of her time working with the clients, doing their makeup and styling, and leaves the shooting to her son, Greg, and the business details to her daughter, Leslie.

Nine-tenths of their business is by referral. For those looking for a portrait studio, Melba Figge recommends asking for references from people who have had their portraits taken recently. Also, take a close look at the photos on the walls of the studio and see if the poses and lighting have a natural look.

A typical Figge portrait sitting would include: a discussion of what should be worn and who the photo is for, makeup, minor hair styling and then the shoot, which generally would produce a minimum of 12 photographs.

Melba Figge tries to stay away from fads that will date the photos. "I believe in making a person look as natural as possible, so it looks like that person at their very best," Melba said.

They also shoot on location, either at the home or in a nature setting that makes the photos more unique.

About 10 days after the shoot, the subject comes back and selects the final portraits after viewing 5-by-5-inch proof prints, which are projected onto a screen.

Prices are $125 for a studio sitting plus $15 for each additional person. Location prices start at $250. Prices for enlargements, which include satin finish, mounting and retouching, are $75 for miniature portraits up to 7 inches, $105 for small display portraits up to 10 inches, $375 for display or wall portraits up to 14 inches and $575 for wall portraits up to 20 inches.

"Most photographers have a tendency to be a little stiff," Melba said. "We believe the picture should have a little humor. Something to make it more enjoyable to look at."

The Photography column, which runs Saturdays in Orange County Life, is intended to help both the serious amateur and weekend shooter. Questions and ideas are encouraged. Write to: Robert Lachman, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626.

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