• December 2014

From the White House to Weddings: Tracey Attlee Photography

Tracey Attlee (pictured below) is a former New York Times and Associated Press White House-credentialed photographer. Based in Alexandria, VA, she specializes in business and advertising portraits, as well as wedding photos.

Her impressive resume includes serving as a private photographer for Sen. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller IV since 1996. Other DC bigwig clients include Supreme Court Chief Justice and Mrs. John Roberts, George Will and Mari Maseng, John McLaughlin, Judy Woodruff, former NFL Commissioner and Mrs. Paul Tagliabue.

Attlee also often teams up with her husband, architectural photographer Todd A. Smith, to create customized lighting and composition for her clients.

Scroll down to read our Q&A, and see some of Attlee’s award-winning images.


Be Inkandescent: You have had an amazing career. What made you want to become a photographer?

Tracey Attlee: I was a few years out of college and using my degree in English and Communications in the paralegal department of a DC law firm. Eventually I missed academia and wanted to attend night school to learn photography in order to illustrate my writing with my own pictures and add more creativity to my work and life. My parents were artistic.

On Saturday mornings my Mom would sit in bed with me and a drawing pad and pencil and show me how to sketch a portrait. Dad was an English teacher, among whose gifts were writing and public speaking. When he wrote anything it came out perfectly within one or two tries. He was also very clever with his hands and spent his free time tying his own fresh and salt water fishing flies. His trout flies were intricate works of art. He made me my own salt water fishing rod, wound on all the guides himself, and wove by hand, with colored threads, my name and a waving American flag with little stars and stripes, encircling the area above the reel.

Be Inkandescent: Did you study photography?

Tracey Attlee: I began attending evening photography classes at the Smithsonian Institution. Once the law firm heard that I was getting handy with a camera, they had me take candid shots of executives and meetings. The fear of failing those assignments made me an excellent student! In time I took commercial photography and lighting classes at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). Eventually, more of my photographs were being published than my freelance articles.

I realized I had a gift for photography when an instructor called me up one evening after exams and said I was the best commercial portraiture student he had ever had. I knew I had a knack for photographing people and enjoyed surprising them with how good I could make them look.

Even though I was editor in chief of my college newspaper and an English and Communications major, writing was always a struggle and I had to work too hard for my words. But photography for me was heaven. The gift my father had as a writer I now had with my camera. Eventually I listened to my heart, and when I was able to support myself as a full-time photographer, I made a career switch.

Be Inkandescent: What was your big dream about being a photographer when you started out? Did it come true?

Tracey Attlee: Coming from a family of entrepreneurs who worked hard, entertained often, enjoyed poetry and storytelling, and treated women equally, I grew up around responsibility and adventure. One day I was Dad’s fishing pal, the next day Mom’s dressed-up lunch and shopping companion. But on all days I was expected to do my homework and keep my grades up. Once I learned photography, the news business fascinated me.

The notion of telling stories of interest to the nation with my camera fascinated me. Shooting for The Associated Press (AP) was my dream. My first challenge was building a portfolio that would interest an AP editor and land me some freelance assignments. That involved more study, shooting more jobs, and spending more time building general assignment experience.

It went like this: First AP interview: portfolio not strong enough. Spend another year revamping portfolio. Second AP interview: well, maybe we could use you, but there is a very long list of photographers already waiting for a call. Chances very slim.

A few days later the phone rings. It’s the AP calling! The thrill quickly comes crashing down when the caller offers a chance-of-a-lifetime assignment with timing that would overlap a job I already have scheduled. Knowing that the news business demands perfection, that if you goof up just one job you permanently break the editor’s trust in you to deliver and you’ll never be called again, that deadlines in the news business are huge and put terrible pressure on assignment editors, and that if I refuse this job I’ll never again hear from the AP—I accept the assignment.

Praying I could handle shooting two jobs end-to-end, I go forth and manage to meet both deadlines within squeakers, endure a horrible outburst from the AP editor about turning in work too close to deadline, but am redeemed once he examines my negatives and finds images good enough to be loaded up on the satellite and beamed up to New York and over to London. I am on my way as a stringer! I begin to cover news in official Washington and go on to earn Senate, Pentagon, and House of Representatives photographer’s credentials.

Be Inkandescent: What was your next big dream?

Tracey Attlee: Earning White House photographer’s credentials! This dream took me seven years to make a reality. Back then, for a freelance photographer to be nominated for a White House credential, the White House required letters on a photographer’s behalf from three bureau chiefs of three separate news organizations. The problem for a freelancer is how to get one’s work noticed all the way up the line to a bureau chief. Just about impossible at one outlet, but three? Again, the winning strategy is to deliver good work, consistently, for years.

After seven years of proving myself on deadline again and again, The New York Times, The Associated Press, Reuters, and Time Magazine all wrote letters on my behalf to the White House, requesting photographer’s credentials for me. I went in for fingerprinting and then the Secret Service got involved in investigating my background. When all was clear and I finally put that White House credential around my neck, it was the most fabulous piece of magic jewelry I could ever have.

While wearing it, my cameras and I could stand before presidents, kings, movie stars, and diplomats, and my work would be seen around the world. I remember the first time I heard a sitting American president, President Clinton, call me by my first name. Who would ever have thought this kid from the Jersey shore would grow up to hear such a thing? That necklace was something!

Be Inkandescent: Tell us about your first photo shoot—and what you have recently shot. How have you grown and changed as a photographer?

Tracey Attlee: My first photo shoot was in a corporate setting, a law firm. The person being photographed was an important client with little time, so I had to come up with something good very quickly. It was terrifying because I was new and inexperienced. That was a great introduction to corporate executive photography because the challenges remain the same today. Executives never have enough time to be photographed, and there are inevitable obstacles for the photographer—whether in mood, wardrobe, staff, or environment.

The way I have grown and changed is by building a reserve of experience over the years; by continually taking courses in photography, painting, and drawing; by experimenting with light; and by acquiring the latest in equipment and techniques. My gifts are in assessing a person’s physical pluses and minuses in a hurry as well as knowing how to light for the best outcome and how to choose a combination of lenses and equipment that will give me the strongest work. In this business you’ve got to practice your craft very often, rather like the regular training regimen of an Olympic athlete. You have got to be at your peak when you need it.

Be Inkandescent: Do you have a favorite photo that you shot? Is there a photo shoot that you worked on that you wish you could forget?

Tracey Attlee: One all-time cool experience I had was to document the last Space Shuttle flight of astronaut Story Musgrave. What I went through to get those photographs! NASA lent me a classified film of a previous launch so I could practice the timing of my shots at home. That was back in the film era, and I heard that some photographers make the mistake of putting the shutter in high gear the minute they see the fire from initial ignition, and they accidentally shoot through their whole roll of film before liftoff. I was not going to make that mistake.

But the challenges continued. After three flights to Florida with nothing to show—the weather in Florida kept going bad at the last minute, forcing launch postponement—my assigning editor dropped the story. By then I had put so much into this venture that I decided to fly down to Florida on my own dime to try one more time. Mercifully the weather held, the launch was magnificent, and the editor ended up buying back my pictures.

There is not a shoot I have had that I wish I could forget, thankfully, but I will say that I much prefer shooting an exclusive to shooting with the pack.

Be Inkandescent: You also specialize in wedding photography. Tell us how that segment of your business came to fruition.

Tracey Attlee: My mentor was French society wedding and portrait photographer Claire Flanders of Washington, DC. I wanted to branch out and do social photography, and a friend, Bill Moravek of Image Photo Lab, made the introduction. “She was just in my store today,” he said, “and she is looking for an assistant. You have to call her. This is the chance of a lifetime.”

Claire graciously agreed to see me and show me her portfolio. It contained the most beautiful black-and-white portraits and weddings I had ever seen. Over the years I had always prayed for a mentor, and there she was. What a great time we had photographing the finest weddings and parties in Washington. “Tracey you were born to do this,” she said, and Claire Flanders generously helped me launch my wedding and portrait business in 1987.

Be Inkandescent: Your husband is also a photographer, and you sometimes collaborate on shoots. Tell us how that works.

Tracey Attlee: My husband is professional architectural photographer Todd A. Smith. We met when he was transitioning out of the Marine Corps, working for other photographers in preparation to start his own architectural photography business. At that time I had a lot of White House related assignments and needed a very reliable assistant. He showed up well-dressed and early, equipped with a tool belt of things to use to repair electronics should there be a need. That got my attention.

He also had previous White House clearance, which was perfect for the assignments I was landing. Todd now shoots for builders, developers, and architects and is known for beautiful lighting and composition. In fact, when he schedules architectural shoots of commercial and residential buildings, I am his stylist and help with arranging furniture and props. He helps me shoot and light weddings and portraits. It’s great.

My watercolor painting teacher Carolyn Gawarecki always talked about how she and her husband would bring a picnic and go out in the countryside together, she to sketch and paint and he to photograph. That sounded like the most lovely relationship and what do you know, I ended up with Todd and we often shoot for stock just like this.

Be Inkandescent: Being a professional photographer has changed in recent years. How is your business changing with the times?

Tracey Attlee: “The change from film to digital is going to come fast,” warned my editor at AP, “so get ready.” He sure was right.

Initially the change was difficult because the new digital cameras were amazingly expensive for the results they could achieve. Eventually my business turned completely digital in 2004 when digital capture technology finally stabilized, and the equipment was performing at higher standards.

At this point my work looks better than it ever has, because I pair customized digital lighting techniques and sound composition in initial capture with a generous amount of post-production time to render a good-looking finished product. My commercial clients appreciate this approach because they can see how much better their advertising layouts look. It’s a no-brainer once you know what to look for. My social clients still need to be educated on what digital post-production can do to a digital image, because they don’t see it every day.

We’ve also changed with the times by including show-and-tell in social client consultations to teach them how to recognize quality work. Whether or not they hire us, they walk away knowing the difference between JPGs straight out of the camera and raw files converted and retouched into beautiful finished work.

Be Inkandescent: Tell us about your business and what you most enjoy about being an entrepreneur?

Tracey Attlee: Both of my grandfathers were entrepreneurs, so independent business is highly supported by my family. I grew up around—and understand the sacrifice, risk, and responsibility in—having one’s own business. It’s not for everyone, but if you are willing to undertake it you’ll love the freedom. Having your own photography business often means working seven days a week in spring and fall, living around client deadlines, and having few weekends off, but if you are doing what you love, then it’s the best!

Be Inkandescent: What advice do you have for those who want to make it big as a professional photographer?

Tracey Attlee:

  1. There is no substitute for hard work.
  2. Patience is a virtue. If you are the temperamental type who must have things your way right now, you’d better knock on a different door.
  3. Never stop learning.
  4. Learn to draw and paint so you understand design, composition, and color theory.
  5. Take business classes so you know how to prepare an estimate, negotiate a contract, and compute tax records for your accountant.
  6. Study and be inspired by master painters and photographers.
  7. Remember, you are only as good as your last shot. Make every one count!

Be Inkandescent: If you could do it all again, would you become a photographer?

Tracey Attlee: Oh, yes! Through my work I have had the privilege of making memories for many, and my reward, in the words of legendary Hollywood cinematographer John Alton, is a lifetime of “delight in capturing bits of light at rest on things of beauty.”

For more information, visit traceyattlee.com and AttleePhotography.com.

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