Picture perfect

Sunday, May 19, 2002

COBDEN, Ill.Mark Allen and Tabbie Little held hands as they stepped into the photography studio. With Allen shipping off next month for the Army National Guard, they had come to get their picture taken.

They could have done it for less than $5 at a local discount store, but they are willing to pay the several hundred dollars that the photographer, Keith Cotton, will charge them.

Allen's mother, who works at a local Wal-Mart, can't afford them. So he will use his high school graduation money and what he's managed to save from his part-time job. Little's grandmother will pitch in, too.

Such is the appeal of Cotton's photography in this rural, economically struggling community.

"It's expensive, but it's a dream to come here," said Allen, 17, dark and lean and soft-spoken.

People of the farmland around Cotton's studio pay big-city prices for his pictures. In a place where the average family of four gets by on $30,000 a year, Cotton's biggest prints sell for $350; a photo session costs $75. And Cotton's schedule is full.

His portraits would not be out of place in Time, Life or Vanity Fair: faces caught in candor, every eyelash clear. Lighting that casts shadows. Babies standing, lying, laughing, crying.

"It's a big chunk to pay at one time, but it's worth it," said Doria Blackmon, a preschool teacher from Carbondale whose son, Damian, recently sat for Cotton. Damian, 18, had to cancel his first appointment because he had not saved enough to pay for the sitting fee and $250 for the prints he plans to order.

Cobden, surrounded by orchards, is known as the capital of Illinois' peach country. Up the road is a settlement of temporary housing for the migrant workers who pass through each season. There is no grocery store or restaurant that serves lunch.

But a "Photography by Keith Cotton" shingle hangs on one of the town's half-dozen brick buildings.

Inside, Cotton's loft looks like it could be in Chicago's South Loop or Manhattan's Tribeca. The tin ceiling is high, the polished floors are wooden and the photography equipment is expensive.

Backdrops are plain; there are no meadow scenes or fake sunsets. Light is filtered through big nylon tent diffusers and white screens. Walls are covered by Cotton's black and white prints -- a close-up of a baby's bottom, a study of an old man's wrinkles -- and music plays in the background.

The 34-year-old father of three, whose hair is past his shoulders, has never lived in a big city and says he doesn't plan to. Small-town life fits his retiring personality, says Cotton, who speaks with the soft southern twang of the area. And, he says, it's easier to do business.

Just the idea of picking up supplies in a place like Chicago puts him off. "Here, I park on the sidewalk, say a dirty joke to the good 'ol boys, and get what I need," he says.

Cotton lives in a modest ranch house in nearby Anna with his wife, Jody, and three children. He pays $250 a month for his loft, a price that has not changed for the 10 years he's rented it. "I can't replicate those economics in a big city," he says.

But if he chose to move to a bigger pond, he would likely succeed, said Chicago photographer Mark Hauser.

Hauser, whose prints of Michael Jordan have sold for $2,500, says Cotton's work is better -- and some of it more expensive -- than what's typically produced in that city.

"His stuff has more spark and edge," Hauser said.

Cotton was apparently going for spark when he shot Allen and Little on a recent spring day.

Cotton arranged the couple on a mattress, their bodies in opposite directions, but their faces cheek to cheek. While an assistant arranged screens to soften the light, Cotton held his camera away from his body and directly over the couple.

The result was a close-up, with Little staring up into the camera as Allen, arms linked with hers, closed his eyes and nuzzled her cheek.

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