Photo Lady

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"Did AJ have a hair up his ass one day, or what?" Parks asks. "I mean, if somebody complained about you and you are the boss, wouldn't you go up to the person and tell them people are complaining? So I don't know where he's coming from. It's like my home away from home; there's no other way to describe it."

When Parks speaks, her voice is loopy and animated, pitched in the key of East Coast working class. Growing up in Connecticut, her pop was a mechanic and mom stayed at home. Parks earned a degree in fine arts from Northwestern University and found work as a graphic artist on the East Coast. She designed magazine ads for large corporations and did photography as a hobby.

"Do you remember back in the '70s, that had a polar bear with a scarf?" she asks. "With the little penguin skiing down the slope? That was Pepsi. You're talking to the broad who drew those."

Parks moved to Phoenix five years ago, after her marriage of 20 years fell apart. She had an idea from the old Jack Dempsey restaurants, which would employ roving in-house photographers. She found Beeloe's to be receptive to her idea.

"I went up to the Beeloe's GM at the time and I says, 'Lookit, I want to be an artist here that's working, but I feel like a jerk.' I said, 'Let me be the photo person here.' He says, 'Okay, go ahead.' He didn't think it was gonna take off. But it did."

Parks likes to think that hers is a service, capturing a space in time that would otherwise be lost. In her best week, Parks says, she made more than a grand. The worst, $300. Lately, working three days, she is averaging $400 to $500.

Her photos are often snippets that become instant nostalgia, sugary barstool moments unobscured by all the flaws that make them forgettable, the flaws that, when sober, can be insufferable.

Parks has had some funny moments. A soused husband once posed with his lover and used his wife's credit card to pay for the photo. When the bank statement came home to roost, Parks received a call from the wife.

"I just told her, 'Hey, he was just havin' his portrait done.'"

Women have flashed Parks their mammaries. Mothers of drunken frat guys have called Parks requesting copies of photos of their sons to mail as Christmas gifts to relatives. Parks shot a couple on a first date who wound up getting married. The couple returned on their anniversary to have Parks do another.

She estimates that one in 10 of her customers reorders photos.

Parks pulls in the dough. Tonight, by 9:15, a good 15 minutes after she started, she has cleared 40 bucks.

She is organized and shows diligence toward her work. Parks' self-made hustle bought her a house in Chandler. She employs a bookkeeper and an accountant. She pays taxes. She holds business licenses that allow her to work legally.

Her expenses are many. They include postage and envelopes, reorder forms, Visa/MasterCard charges, developing of hundreds of photos every week, mat stamping, gasoline, business cards.

The custom mats are cut in Georgia, and the foil logo is stamped by hand at a Mesa printer. If she shoots a photo on Saturday night, the customer receives the photo generally by Wednesday afternoon.

"Sunday I type in the address labels. Monday I mount the photos -- I have to mount all the photographs because they have to be attached to the mats because that's when I get them back from the lab. Monday and Tuesday I do my mailing."

Parks is a popular fixture on South Mill. A woman in a black leather jacket stops Parks and carries on in the it's-been-too-long vein. Passersby leer, the typical greeting being, "Hey, Photo Lady."

If the Mill Avenue milieu is such that the woman can no longer make a living there, she has other ideas. She has turned to wedding photography. From savings earned at Beeloe's, she has placed an ad in a major bridal magazine. Calls are coming in, and weddings are on the books.

"I don't know how it all works out . . . but I get enough every week to pay my bills. I eat. It's a lot of work, sure, but I've made it my business.

"But, ya know, the wedding thing is slow to get going," she continues. "People look at photographers as low on the food chain. It's happening, sure, it's just not happening quick enough. It's a little scary."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith