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Eye of the Perfectionist

With his obsession for detail and control of his subjects, photographer Phillip Stewart Charis emulates the style of Gainsborough in his portraits.


In the San Juan Capistrano studio, the assistant is readying the set. A large canvas, painted to look like a French landscape tapestry, hangs as backdrop. Before it, several chairs have come and gone until Phillip Stewart Charis gives his nod to the antique bergere with the exact taupe tone and distressed texture he's after. The assistant, Ricardo Belcher, selects a silk floral arrangement and sets it behind the chair to one side. Charis eyes the composition, then asks Belcher to lay the flowers on their side.

Outside the nearby dressing room, Maryanne Charis, the portrait photographer's wife, confers with subjects Patty Wellman of Mission Viejo and her 4-year-old daughter, Destiny. Maryanne, a fashion stylist before becoming Mrs. Phillip Charis 25 years ago, tucks the ruffles of Destiny's socks under so they don't show, asks the child to remove her gum and says no to the question of lipstick. "Mr. Charis wouldn't like that."

"Frighteningly obsessive," is how Robert Sobieszek, photography curator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, describes Charis. But for the photographer, artist and businessman, his maniacal way of controlling details combined with his Gainsborough-esque style are what, he and others believe, distinguish his work. It also allows him to command thousands of dollars for his portraits.

"Everything is controlled," says Charis, who at 73 is a dead ringer for talk show host Larry King. "Then all that's left is the expression that I think is most exciting. People can look good, bad or indifferent. I want none of that. I want exceptional, terrific, the essence of that person."

And, in return, he almost demands that his work be taken seriously. He bristles when he hears that clients intend to hang their portrait anywhere but in the living room. He politely chastises clients who don't properly light their portraits and agonizes over those who order their portraits too small.

A hundred or more years ago, people of nobility and the landed gentry often commissioned portrait artists to paint their likenesses. Today, the wealthy are just as apt to hire Charis to do the same with film instead of paint.

Though Charis has been creating photographic portraits for the Southland's gentry for 50 years, he didn't start doing the work he's known for--the near-life-size color photographic portraits, which look painted--until the mid-1960s. That's when Eastman Kodak came out with technology that allowed for the making of giant color prints, which could be mounted onto canvas and stretcher bars to look like paintings.

That's when Charis broke new ground, said Sobieszek, who wrote the text and edited the photography for a large-format book on Charis' work, "A Lasting Tradition," which Charis self-published in 1995. "He was one of the first to make giant color pictures in portraiture, and he went on to establish a style that's reminiscent of the grand masters, but that is uniquely his."

Since then, Charis estimates he's created more than 10,000 portraits for the well-known, including Nancy Reagan, Joan Collins, Henry Mancini, former Mayor Tom Bradley and Michael Landon, as well as for the merely well-to-do. Many Californians will remember his work from his displays at the entrances of the old Bullock's and Macy's stores, where many admired his work but few could afford it.

A Charis portrait costs from $1,000 to $7,000, depending on the size (the average is 30 inches by 40 inches), finish and frame. Most people spend between $3,000 and $4,000, said Maryanne Charis.

Just as the price isn't for everyone, neither is the look. Definitely not avant-garde, these portraits are not at home in rustic or contemporary settings. They are Old World and traditional, like their creator, who never seems to tire of the process or the product. "I love doing it and seeing it, presenting it to the client and seeing the client love it and pay for it," he says. "What a marvelous circle!"

Love of Photography Started in Childhood

Charis, born in Detroit to Greek immigrants, was an only child. His father was in the restaurant business and his mother stayed home. His love of photography started when he was 14 and received a gift of a photo set with a Brownie Box camera. He turned one bathroom in the house into a darkroom, developing prints in the bathtub. He later studied photography at the Ray/Vogue School of photography in Chicago and in 1949 left Chicago to continue his studies at the Art Center, then in Los Angeles. In 1951, he opened his first studio in Pasadena, on South Euclid Avenue.

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