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Pistols and Petticoats: John and Lauri Maeder shoot old-time portraits in Sedona

Fifteen years ago, John and Lauri Maeder shot their first old-time photographic portrait ... of the family dog. VVN/Bill Helm

Fifteen years ago, John and Lauri Maeder shot their first old-time photographic portrait ... of the family dog. VVN/Bill Helm

SEDONA - Fifteen years ago, John and Lauri Maeder shot their first old-time photographic portrait.

It was of the family dog.

Since September 2012, the Maeders have been owners of Pistols and Petticoats in Sedona. They shoot old-time portraits for folks who otherwise would need a time machine for transport to the 1800s.

"Photography has always been a hobby," John says. "I've always been a people photographer."

John's photographic background is more than hobbyist. In the 1980s, he spent four years teaching the art at the University of Southern California. Before that, John was a photographer at a Kentucky advertising agency, working on such accounts as General Electric and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But while the Maeders were living in Virginia, Lauri began assisting a friend with his family's old time photography business.

"One friend got cancer," John says. "Lauri helped the husband. That's where we got a taste of it. After a few years, it became a full-time thing."

For close to 15 years, John and Lauri worked several faires and carnivals, driving a trailer from town to town, a trailer that served as their photography studio. The mobile studio was complete with box camera and lights, setting, props, and clothing, everything they would need to transport their customers in time. Photographically.

Eventually, the Maeders found themselves going to the same towns, participating in the same faires, year after year. They also found themselves photographing many of the same people, year after year.

"A lot of people told us that it was the only reason they came back," John says.

The Maeders no longer work on the road. Pistols and Petticoats is their sole photographic business. But as they learned from their carnival days, repeat customers continue to help sustain small businesses. John and Lauri regularly track the ways that people say they found out about Pistols and Petticoats. Repeat customers is second only to the sign outside their studio.

"Though we provide nice portraits, what we sell is joy," John says. "With a drum roll and a bell, their likeness is revealed."

Bridging the past to the present, photographically, is what John and Lauri do. And they couldn't imagine doing anything else. But it is a lot of hard work.

"I get worn out," John says. "But I don't get tired. We work six to seven days each week. And we've not had a day off together since we opened."

"But we love it."

Recently, John and Lauri hired an assistant, one with a photography background. Brooke Akridge had managed the Sears photo studio in Flagstaff. She also shot pre-school photos.

"John and Lauri are special," Akridge says. "They love what they do and are a real inspiration. They show everyone a good time and are so good with people, especially children. They have years of experience and are so professional and relaxed. The best part [of the job] is showing the customers their portrait and hearing them squeal with delight! They truly strive to make each portrait the best it can be."

Despite the hard work, the Maeders say that having their own storefront beats traveling from carnival to faire. About four years ago, they began kicking around the idea of quitting the carnival circuit.

"The Six Flags amusement park in Louisville sold," John says. "There was a new owner. We talked to him about doing the park's old time photos. That fell through. We tried again. It fell through again. After three years of that, we finally decided to take matters into our own hands."

So John and Lauri began looking at places they would like to live - and places they thought their business could succeed.

"We decided that Sedona would be an ideal place to do old time photos," John says. "There were no other old time photo places here."

On a family vacation from their home in Las Vegas, Michaelanne Marshall and her children passed by Pistols and Petticoats one evening. But it was closed. Marshall had posed for an old time photo when she was a child, and wanted to have the photos shot of her family. So she and her children returned the next morning.

"People love to dress up and play," Lauri says. "Old time photo has withstood the test of time. While we've seen many things come and go, especially working the carnival circuit, the old time photo just keeps on ticking. People have so much fun here. I love it when the cowboy sees his girl walk out all gussied up in her corset, and his eyes pop out! We always hear things like, 'Can we take that outfit home?' and 'Dang, baby, you look good!' It just feels good to give people such value for their money."

Marshall was happy that she and her family returned to have their old time portrait shot.

"It was fun," Marshall says. "We've never done this as a family."

Until recently, neither had John and Lauri.

"I am very camera shy," John says. "My wife and I both are. Other than camera photo shots, we avoid that side of the glass."

For the longest time, John and Laurie also resisted the digital world, choosing to stick with their old box camera even as finding the right film was increasingly difficult. A finite amount of film, and a gift for choosing the right moment to press the camera's shutter, allowed the Maeders to typically shoot two images to get one great shot.

"Unless someone asked for more copies, we wouldn't shoot any more," John says. "Each photo was unique. We used to think it was necessary for people to see that old camera. When they stopped making that film we used, we bought all of our competitors' film. When we used that last sheet of film [about 2005], we went out and bought a digital camera."

When they switched to digital, John says that he and Lauri went to "great pains" to make the images have the same look they did when shot on film. John did not want their images to look modern. Nor mediocre.

"I go over every inch of the portrait to make sure everybody looks their best," says John, self-taught in both photography and photo editing.

"We consider ourselves to be artists," he says. "We want people to love their picture and to love their experience."

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