The ill boy was wearing a dark sleeveless T-shirt when professional photographer Julie Kaplan entered his Chicago hospital room several years ago. The cancer patient’s right wrist was covered with medical “jewelry” — a plastic ID bracelet and two other bands, with one likely serving as a device to monitor his condition.
“The lighting in that room was horrible and sad, with no art on the walls,” recalls Kaplan, who owns Julie Kaplan Photography — a boutique portrait studio in her home in Highland Park — but had visited the hospital that day as a Flashes of Hope volunteer.
Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit founded in 2001 with chapters in 55 cities, photographs more than 50 percent of children annually diagnosed with cancer in the United States.
Kaplan smiled at the boy and — after setting up a makeshift studio in a corner of the drab room — loosened him up even more when she shouted, “Show me what you’ve got!” The boy responded with a tight-lipped and confident smile, raised both of his arms and flexed.
In a flash, he had turned into a boxer during a weigh-in session.
Kaplan clicked, clicked, clicked.
“Many of the families with the sick children I’ve photographed had never had a portrait taken of anybody in the family,” says Kaplan. “We donate these black-and-white photos to the families because black-and-white photos are timeless, and, in many cases, they’re taken at a crucial time in the child’s life. A photo session for a child in a hospital is also a special day; it breaks up the monotony of a typical hospital day.
“Flashes of Hope,” the 52-year-old adds, “is near and dear to my heart. I love being able to create a meaningful memory and art for a family in need.”
It is weeks before Mother’s Day 2017, and Kaplan — a 1983 Deerfield High School graduate and mother of two sons (Ari, 22, and Noah, 19) — orders an egg-white vegetable omelet, a fruit cup and caffeine-free diet coke with a lemon at Country Kitchen in Highland Park. One of her favorite photographs of Noah hangs on a wall among nine other black-and-white family images at her house/studio. The photo is of a 4-year-old Noah blowing a dandelion.
“It’s an emotional connection for me, each time I see it,” says Kaplan, an Indiana University graduate who worked in advertising and social work before becoming a full-time photographer 16 years ago. “And now he’s all grown up; both of my babies are all grown up — and they’re nice people. You’d like them.
“Too many times,” she adds, “pictures of young children are taken by the mother. Every mom should have a photo taken of her with her children. A photo like that can clearly capture the special connection a mother has with her kids. If you’re wondering how much a mother loves her children, you only have to look at a photo of her with her children.”
Kaplan was a child — an eighth-grader, to be exact — when her grandfather, Arthur Robinson, gave her a camera and taught her how to use it. It had manual focus.
“It had manual everything,” Kaplan says.
In the summer before her freshman year in high school, Kaplan attended an overnight camp, where she entered a photo contest. She snapped a shot of an antique wagon resting in the woods.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” she recalls.
Kaplan won the contest.
She developed more of an interest in photography in high school, thanks to Mr. Stupple, her photography teacher for three years. Remember dark rooms? Kaplan does. Processes of enlightenment unfolded for her in them.
“Mr. Stupple gave me confidence behind the camera,” Kaplan says. “You’re not going to believe this, but as I flipped through my yearbook at the time of my 30th high school reunion, I noticed Mr. Stupple had written, ‘One day you’ll be a family photographer.’ I later wrote him a letter thanking him for all that he did for me in high school. I’m not sure the letter got to him.
“I hope it did.”
Much of Kaplan’s recent focus, professionally, has been on personal branding — a must for many who rely on social media to survive and thrive. Clients interested in updating their LinkedIn photos contact Kaplan. A woman, going through a rough patch in her personal life and about to launch her business, contacted Kaplan and made a declaration: “I need to find myself.”
Kaplan went to the woman’s house and picked out seven outfits. The two then traveled to Kaplan’s house/studio, where a hairstylist and makeup artist — hired by Kaplan — coiffed and accentuated the client before the photo session.
“I printed 30 photographs for her and put them on a wall for her to view,” says Kaplan, who enjoys gardening and playing tennis and paddle in her free time. “She was blown away with how she looked. Mothers who are not working come to me and want contemporary headshots. These wonderful mothers are more than women who take care of their homes and are part of carpools. They’re beautiful women, who should be valued and respected more than they are.
“I try to capture that beauty with my photography. It’s transformative for the moms.”
Kaplan’s name for that segment of her business: “Glam the Mom.”
Our conversation returns to Flashes of Hope. Kaplan’s eyes widen. Her involvement with the organization isn’t limited to interactions with frightened — and hopeful — children in hospital rooms. She also encounters cancer survivors at the nonprofit’s picnics and holiday parties.
“Kids,” Kaplan says, “have come up to me at those gatherings and said, ‘I remember you!’ I remember looking at one of them and saying, ‘You have hair now!’ It is incredibly heartwarming for me to see these kids smiling and spending time with their families in an entirely different setting.”