Born to Shoot

A local photographer found her passion at an early age, following in her mother’s footsteps.

by Emily Potts
Photographer Christie Newell
Photographer Christie Newell poses in the nursery at her studio. She designed the room for new moms so they could have privacy nursing their babies before their newborn portrait sessions.

Even before she was born, Christie Newell was destined to become a photographer. Forty years ago, her mother, Barb   Primm, started a photography business in the basement of their family home, eventually moving into an old Victorian in Bartonville and calling it Sonshine Studio. As a child, Newell accompanied her mother on photo shoots, soaking up the trade and loving it.  

She started working in the studio in high school, learning both the business and creative sides, and eventually shooting sessions with Primm. By the time she graduated, she was ready to pursue photography full-time. “My mom taught me the nuts and bolts, and after high school she sent me to conventions to learn more about the craft,” Newell explains.

She also pursued professional certifications through the Professional Photographers of America (PPA), a go-to resource for the industry with some 30,000 members. A Certified Professional Photographer, Newell holds a Master of Photography degree and a Craftsman degree from the organization. She serves on the American Society of Photographers Board of Directors and the International Photographic Competition Committee, in addition to teaching workshops and speaking at photography conventions. 

“I love giving back to the profession that has given me so much. It is so satisfying knowing I am helping others grow and succeed in their craft,” she explains. And to keep her own skills sharp, she regularly participates in a variety of photo competitions. “By entering competitions, I’ve seen my work grow immensely. I know the criteria, and those elements push me every day in my work.”

100 Years… 100 Roses, featuring Newell’s great-great aunt Albertine, earned high honors in the 2015 PPA International Photographic competition.

The Fresh 48
Newborn portraits are Newell’s specialty—and her favorite subjects to photograph. But it was only last year, after her third son was born, that she found a new niche, which she calls the “Fresh 48.” “One of my favorite pictures is of me holding him in the hospital in my gown,” she notes, “and it’s just on my cellphone.” Through Fresh 48, she captures professional photos for new parents within the first 48 hours of giving birth. 

“I want people to remember those hours in the hospital with their new baby because it’s such an emotional time,” she explains. It’s also a savvy business move, as most of these clients bring their newborns to the studio for follow-up shots, and their relationship continues from there. 

Newell’s newborn portraits are truly stunning works of art. She spends hours carefully curating and even building sets for some shoots. When clients hire her, she sends them a questionnaire asking about the design of their home, their hobbies and what the nursery looks like—to get a sense of their style and determine how to depict their bundle of joy. “I’m creating something above and beyond,” she declares. “There are only so many different ways you can photograph a newborn. A lot of people just swaddle the baby and do the basic things, but I want to create something that’s different.”

knocked out
Newell built this miniature “boxing ring” for a newborn photo session, while the parents supplied the boxing gloves.

Setting the Stage
For one recent commission, the family noted their baby’s nursery would have a sports theme. “I assumed it would be bright primary colors, and then the mother sent pictures… It was vintage with dark colors,” which is right up Newell’s alley; she’s known for her classic takes on modern themes, toning down color and lighting to create more dramatic images. Honing in on a vintage pair of boxing gloves, she decided to build a miniature boxing ring—staining a wood palette and attaching a suede-like fabric to it with thumbtacks. The parents brought the boxing gloves to the session to pose with the baby, and the result is striking. 

When conceptualizing photo shoots, Newell is always considering how the image would be judged in a competition, scrutinizing every detail from composition to lighting. She’s received numerous awards for her images—some have even received a rare perfect score of 100 points. Of course, sometimes the circumstances dictate the moment more than anything else. 

Perhaps her most memorable photo shoot involved a fawn and a newborn, both just three days old. Her client owned a deer farm, and when the two babies were born the same day, the parents naturally wanted to capture them together. With such distinctive subjects, Newell brought in reinforcements: her husband and her mother. “I was really nervous, because newborns alone are hard to get to sleep and into a pose—and then throw a three-day-old fawn into the mix!” She imagined a baby deer on the loose and wreaking havoc, but like a human newborn, it hardly moved. “My husband actually cradled the fawn and got it to fall asleep next to the baby. It ended up being a very easy session.” 

This session initially stressed Newell, but with her husband’s help, the fawn and baby both nestled into position. 

Building A Legacy
Every newborn session is different, ranging from 30 minutes to three hours depending on the baby’s mood. Newell’s studio accommodates new moms with an onsite nursing room, as well as a range of custom outfits and accessories on hand. The business relocated to Germantown Hills in 2006 and was renamed Sonshine Portrait Design. Four years ago, Primm left the business altogether, making Newell a one-woman shop. 

Though she’s been doing this for a while, she still gets butterflies in her stomach before each session. Her attention to detail is evident in every shoot—just one reason her clients keep coming back. She’s watched many of them grow up, capturing their milestones along the way. Last year the studio her mother founded turned 40 years old, and Newell is just as enthusiastic about her craft today as she was when she was a kid. “I’m very thankful to my mother for introducing me to my passion,” she notes, “and nurturing it at a young age.”

That passion has not only led to a successful career, it’s how she met her husband Richard, who works for PPA. She has three sons—ages 12, 10 and one—and the middle son has shown some interest in photography, so it’s quite possible Sonshine Portrait Design will carry on for another generation. And Newell would be quite happy to teach him the ropes, just like her mother taught her. PM