Name a notable Texas figure from the past 30 years, and odds are you will see their portrait hanging at Gittings studio in Dallas. Roger Staubach, Ross Perot, Emmitt Smith and wife Patricia Southall, Governor Rick Perry, President George H. W. Bush … the list goes on. Their stately photographs are surrounded by those of the less famous— a 50-something husband and wife standing on a stunning beach landscape, a smiling couple seated on the floor with their two young children and the family dog, and a bride looking like she just emerged from the pages of a fashion magazine as she strikes a regal pose in a pristine white gown.
“In an age where a lot of photographers do strictly outdoor photography and more candid shots, we are the opposite of that,” explains Rick Bettinger, owner of Gittings, which boasts studios in Dallas and Fort Worth and two in Houston.
“We’re known for our grander portraits, but we’re also known for deliberate portraits. Some might say ‘stayed or posed.’ We take a lot of time to make sure the subjects are posed in a flattering manner,” he says.
The process begins with a design consultation that focuses on the client’s vision, what the portrait is for and where it will be displayed. “We’ll go as far as completely designing a portrait for a space,” Bettinger says. Every detail is carefully planned, from the lighting to the background to the wardrobe selection, so that the finished picture ties in perfectly with the client’s décor.
After the consultation comes the photography session, which may be done in the studio, at the client’s home or at another location that is meaningful. From there, clients generally screen the images the following week. It can take from a few weeks to a few months to receive the finished portrait, depending on the finished size and work involved. The entire process is focused on ensuring clients look their absolute best, down to the smallest detail. Achieving this goal requires the right combination of talent and temperament.
“The most important thing about a portrait photographer is how they handle people— how they interact and get expressions or talk to people,” notes Bettinger, who grew up spending time in his father’s Denver photography studio, which his brother still operates. He adds, “When you’re creating a portrait, yes, you have a camera, but you’re really creating a moment between you and your subject.”
The art of capturing those moments was the life’s work of company founder Paul Gittings, who created a methodology for portraiture that has been honed for nearly a century. Originally hired as a photographer for Bachrach Studios, a famed East Coast portrait house, Gittings moved to Texas in 1928 to help the business expand out West. When the stock market crash hit, the owners asked him to close up shop and return home, but Gittings had a bigger vision. He bought the Texas venture from Bachrach and began making a name for himself by specializing in large portraits that resembled classical oil paintings. After the Second World War, he established a relationship with Neiman Marcus that allowed him to set up a portrait studio inside each of its stores and expanded his team of traveling photographers throughout the South. Each one of them was carefully trained in Gittings’ style and his meticulous approach to portraiture.
“Mr. Gittings had a whole section of teaching just on how to pose hands,” explains Bettinger, who had to undergo a year of training when he first joined Gittings studios in Houston 24 years ago.
Gittings is noted for two distinct portrait styles, lifestyle and Renaissance, and also offers an executive division, with 30 photographers serving clients internationally.
Although Bettinger himself has traveled the globe and had the opportunity to photograph countless luminaries, building relationships with less recognizable clients locally brings him the most satisfaction. “I did a portrait for her family when she was probably 12 or 13 years old,” Bettinger says, nodding toward an attractive blonde woman admiring the gilt-framed images in the studio’s main space. “Now she has two kids of her own. That’s what’s fun, to see that happen.”
Leslie J. Thompson is a Dallas-based freelance writer with a passion for interior design.