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Holiday Guide

Jolly Saint Click

For photographer Mike Newman, the Christmas season is all about working Santa

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

We tend to think of Santa Claus as the man in charge, a right jolly old elf with magical powers that bend space and time and an untold workforce of little helpers and reindeer. But at Towson’s the Shops at Kenilworth mall, Santa works for Mike Newman.

If you’ve brought children to have their photographs taken with Santa at Kenilworth over the past dozen years, you might have been glad-handed by a big voluble man with a drill sergeant’s flattop, a pleasantly raspy voice, and a friendly, ruddy face. After squinting at the settings on a camera mounted on a tripod in front of Santa’s elaborately lit and decorated throne, he might have bobbed his head up to ask your child to say “monkey” instead of “cheese.” Click. “Saaaay,” he might then have drawled with mock indignation, “Did you just call me a monkey?” Click. That’s Mike Newman.

“What’s a kid gonna do?” he asks regarding the “monkey” bit, a Dale Carnegie grin spreading across his face. “Instantly laugh. Bam, there’s my shot, ‘cause I’ve got the natural kid smiling.”

Newman has been a professional photographer for nearly 30 of his 51 years, and for more than 20 of those he has been taking pictures of children sitting on Santa’s lap, first at the Mall in Columbia during the late 1980s and early ’90s, and at Kenilworth since 1998. “People think Santa Claus is easy—click, click, click,” he says, sitting at a coffeeshop table inside yet another mall, Arundel Mills, which is near his home/office. “Oh no, it’s not.”

Nonetheless, it’s what he’s always wanted to do. Newman’s father, a technical illustrator, blithely gave 8-year-old Mike a Nikon F SLR to play around with. By the time he was taking photographs for the yearbook during high school in Prince George’s County, he was hooked. He started his own company, Class Images Photography, in 1982. “I’ve done everything from preschool children, infants, weddings, college yearbook pictures, proms, high school candids—I’ve done it all,” he says. Through everything, though, his favorite subject has always been kids. Why?

“It’s hard to define that,” he says. “It’s like a calling. How does a priest know he wants to be a priest? It’s a gut feeling.”

He loves kids, of course, he says. (He has two grown daughters with his wife of 30 years.) But it’s more than that. Professionally, kids offer the biggest challenge.

“Think of this,” he says. “I’ve got 12 adults on an altar. It’s easy to get them to smile. But I have one 4-year-old or 3-year-old that’s the flower child—that’s the one I’m focusing on. If I get the little one smiling, everybody else is in sync.” He snaps his fingers. “I’ve got a good image.”

Each day during the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Newman shows up at Kenilworth around 11 a.m., sets up his lights and camera, and turns on and tests a small fleet of computers and photo printers. Around noon, Newman and his handful of helpers begin ushering children and their parents through the line and toward the custom-designed set to sit on Santa’s lap, where many will, perhaps, have their picture taken by the funny man behind the fancy lens and buy a set of prints. Santa can average 250 small visitors in an eight-hour day (with a dinner break), though by Christmas Eve “I don’t even know the number,” Newman says. “It’s mind-boggling.” During the 2009 holiday season, he took more than 8,000 photos at Kenilworth.

It’s a volume business, but it takes effort and skill to do it well. Scanning the line of waiting families, “you see the tenseness, the this”—he pulls at the shoulders of his red Class Images polo shirt, imitating a child grabbing mom’s coat—“you know you’re going to have issues.”

He understands. “You’ve got a 2-year-old or 3-year-old who sees these characters in a book, and suddenly they’re real and they’re life-size and they’re talking.” Plus, he adds, “Some kids have a natural aversion to beards.”

When each child’s turn comes, Newman turns on his avuncular charm and rolls into his animatedly goofy patter, all of it designed to put a youngster suddenly placed on a supernatural bearded stranger’s lap at ease. And while he’s engaging them, click, click, click.

“You tend to try to work a series of shots when you’re working Santa Claus,” he explains. “You want to try to make it to where a mom might get the look up at Santa Claus. I try to get the confounded, confused look. Then, of course, I always work for the smile. If I get a crying shot, I tell mom and dad, ‘Hey, you got the grand slam there. You got all four images, all four emotions a child can possibly express here at Santa Claus.’”

He acknowledges that dealing with crying children can be trying, especially a long line dotted with them, but he speaks about the resulting shots as if they were artistic triumphs. “I call them classic Santa shots,” he says with a smile. “The crying infant where you see the tears, the tongue, the teeth, and the tonsils—the four ‘T’s. I love those shots. What I usually tell parents when that 9-month-old child is screaming, I say, ‘When this child gets married, take this picture and put it on the cake table. People will get a kick out of it.’”

After all, working Santa Claus, as Newman puts it, is about capturing memories. “It’s a moment in time,” he says. “It’s little Johnny’s Christmas picture 2010 with Santa. That’s what it’s really about, OK, is for Mom and Dad 10 years from now to look back and say, ‘Wow, look at Sarah. Remember this?’ That’s what photography’s really about.”

Photography is also Newman’s livelihood, and his weeks at the mall aren’t just another contract gig. When he started taking Santa photos at Kenilworth in 1998, the concession was owned by a friend and colleague of his. Three years ago, his friend retired and Newman took it over. “I’m a vendor at the mall,” he explains. “I’m like another store there. But yet I want people to perceive that this is a community thing the mall’s providing them. And that’s what we’ve achieved.”

Indeed, Newman has taken great pains to build up a simple photography business into what he calls the Santa Experience. He frets over each detail of the operation, right down to “the feel of the suit” Santa wears. He is also particular about the men he hires to wear that suit. “All the guys who work with me have real beards,” he says. “I don’t want the pully-offs or the glue-y-ons.” But more than that, Santa has to be able to uphold Newman’s vision of the Santa Experience. After all, Santa doesn’t really live at the North Pole. “Santa lives in here,” he says, tapping the center of his barrel chest.

“Santa to me is the spirit of joy and love and giving,” he continues, not smiling. “I don’t hire them if they’re not like that. If you’re here for the almighty dollar, you don’t belong here. This is not your Santa outfit. You’re here because you love kids, period. You’re here to express happiness and love, period.

“Santa Claus is not just a dollar bill to me,” he stresses. “I want people to come up there and enjoy the whole thing.” Though the Santa Experience sustains itself through people buying his photographs, Newman says if a parent wants to snap Santa and his or her child with a point-and-shoot instead, “Great, go right ahead, that’s what Santa’s here for. Not for me, for you.”

Newman still spends most of the rest of the year on other sorts of commercial photography jobs, but, “Santa is rapidly becoming a full-time adventure.” He starts thinking about each new season’s set and sales options in early summer; by September, he’s into concrete planning. But truth be told, he says, Santa never really goes away. Newman might spot something—a new type of picture frame to sell, say, or a new jape that gets a glum preschooler to smile—and think, That’ll work great at Santa.

“He’s still back there,” Newman says with a tiny grin, touching a finger to the closely cropped back of his head. “He’s never gone.”

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