Tronicle Spotlight: Getting In Focus With The Snappiest Photographer Of All Time

When I say “snappiest,” I don’t mean he’s one of those photogs from TMZ that stalks Miley and rapidly fires off 200 shots of her leaving the ice cream/ tattoo parlor.

No, unlike those silly shutterbugs, this guy is an actual pro. His eye for detail is so profound, I’m pretty sure he can see every pore on my face from San Diego. He’s so imaginative I bet he contacted Crayola with a look-book of pantone colors that he invented. And his pets (2 kitties, 1 doggy) are so good-looking you wonder if they starred in that Purina TV commercial last year.

Meet Chris Panagakis. A warmhearted, generous and hilariously sarcastic individual, Chris is the kind of dude you fall in love with right away. He’s an outstandingly talented chef who will make you laugh in between bites of his drool-worthy homemade grilled cheese/ caramelized onion sandwich ambrosia.

I met him in 2009 while we worked at the same interactive postproduction company. We both eventually parted ways with the company in pursuit of our creative passions (his photography, mine writing), and we reconnected last year. I had just decided to embark on a new career trajectory, and I needed gorgeous photos before I could launch my new website.

During our shoot, I was so nervous that I could feel the sweat pooling in my socks. I was shaking. My voice went up 6 octaves and I knew the photos would be ruined. (Ironic that a loudmouth like me hates being in front of the camera, eh?) But Chris somehow calmed me down and worked his magic. The photos took my breath away. The images were sharp, beautiful, and told a stunning, well-rounded story of who I am. I couldn’t be any happier with the results.

These days, you can find Chris working on a new portrait series with local diva Miss Barbie Q, while preparing a whole new fashion portfolio, and taking head shots at his West Hollywood studio. He was kind enough to put down his camera for a moment and give us an exclusive peek behind the lens of his life.

Tell us how your got into photography. When’s the first time you picked up a camera?

My mom was a press photographer before my birth, and her Canon FTb is one of the sacred objects of my earliest years. Apparently it seemed like the right moment because I’d finally asked the millionth time and not broken anything expensive recently. For whatever reason, she first taught me how to use it the summer after I turned five. It was all a matter of lining up the needle with the doughnut (to set the exposure using the light meter) and getting the honeycomb to go away (meaning you’d focused properly). I’ve been shooting for over 30 years. Wow, way to make me feel old.

What’s your favorite thing to shoot (and why)? People? Objects? Food? Events?

People, people, and more people! I love the quality of the connection I make when photographing portraits. The lens I prefer to shoot them with requires me to work within just a couple of feet of my subject, so right off the bat it’s a fairly intimate experience. Already close, I create a pocket world for just the both of us (or more for group shots!). In that world, we have an extraordinary conversation, even if it’s just a minute, during which I’m taking pictures. I feel a kinship with hair stylists and bartenders in these moments. A lot of my subjects actually tell me it’s very therapeutic.

What’s your absolute favorite shot that you’ve ever taken and why? 

Ask a mother to name her favorite child in front of the whole family at Thanksgiving dinner, why don’t you? How about I tell you my current favorite? It’s definitely this picture of my friend Brian, which appears in my Larrabee Treehouse Guestbook series. His transcends the ridiculousness of it all in a way that sums up this past year of my life pretty well.

What is most difficult/ challenging thing to shoot?

Shooting shiny products, especially those in the sphere clan, makes me want to kick puppies. (Editor’s note: that’s a joke, in case you have no sense of humor. Chris is an avid animal-lover.)

Is photography similar to video, in that there’s always a new piece of software, a new piece of equipment, and new trends to keep up with? If so, how do you keep up with the ever-changing landscape?

Heaven help me, yes. The aesthetic trends are easy to keep up with. Living on the Sunset Strip, all I have to do is look out the window at the billboards to know the latest fad in commercial work. For software, I try to do some sort of training or tutorial at least once a month to keep up on the latest techniques. I worked in my college’s equipment cage for most of my time in school. The immediate availability of so many expensive toys sort of inured me to the romance of gear. All I really care about it whether a piece of equipment is appropriate to the job. When I need to work with a new doodad, there’s always someone on hand at Samy’s or Calumet to show me the ropes.

Tell us about retouching. Can it make a bad photo into a decent one, good one, or great one? Are there different types of retouching? 

My photographic world could not function without the art of retouching. What I do is idealize a subject, be it a person, place, or thing. Which isn’t to say that I’m making a fantasy image that is merely based on the photo I captured. Mostly I’m cleaning up blemishes, dust, and assorted chunks that would distract the viewer from my subject. When I manipulate colors, it’s only to make my digital work look more like the old timey film processes (3-strip Technicolor and Fuji chrome film specifically) I dearly miss.

I love the ability of retouching to allow me to correct technical (exposure, contrast, lighting) flaws that otherwise would have doomed a good shot in the old days. When I’ve already got a technically and creatively solid image, retouching can take me from great to mind-blowing. But if all I’ve got is shit, then there’s no amount of Photoshopping that’s gonna make that better.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just getting started in the field?

Learn solid technique. Use the manual mode of your camera. Know the names and images of the photographers who came before you.

Photography is pretty much the most important keepsake from big milestones, like your wedding. Is there anything that prospective brides should keep in mind to get the photos that they want?

When looking for a photographer who is going to take pictures of you in any situation, the key is finding someone with whom you’re comfortable. Anyone can take a pretty picture of smiling people, but big events like weddings are about so much more. You need to have a personal connection with and trust of your photographer so that you’ll be able to be open and show the fullness of yourself and the moment to the camera. Otherwise all you’ve got are memories of dresses and floral arrangements.

What is your absolute dream or “I know I’ve made it when…” moment? aka….Having your work in a particular gallery? Getting asked to shoot a celebrity wedding?

I’ll know I’ve made it commercially when I ask Bette Middler if I can get her a cocktail before we begin shooting. Artistically, I fantasize about making it into MoMA’s annual New Photography exhibition.

Tell me about the transition of film to digital. Do you prefer one over another and why?

I’ll spare you the navel gazing and suffice it to say the transition was hard for me. What it really comes down to is that camera equipment should be no more a part of the shot than the strobe head used to light the background. It used to be you could spot a digital capture from a mile away, and that’s no longer the case. The fact that I can shoot, process, retouch, and post an image in under four hours and achieve results better than I could ever get from 35mm film converted me to the digital side forever. What’s lost in quality of color and grain is easily made up for in Photoshop so long as you show restraint.

Say someone comes to you for headshots. How is that different from you shooting an event, like a wedding or event?

When you’re shooting people at events, they’re already in the moment, having a good time, smiling, laughing, etc. It’s easy to engage with them and get beautiful, genuine images. Headshot subjects want the same vibe but begin from a dead stop. So I have to work to get them into a place where they can give that energy to the camera without it feeling fake or forced. There’s a reason I offer everyone a cocktail before they step into the studio.

Any final thoughts for the audience?

My college mentor, Abby Robinson, said the only people who become photographers are those who cannot do anything else. My mother died in 1999, and it was a decade before I could even look at my camera again. I pretended a career in digital content production was what I wanted in the meantime. Turned out Abby was right.

Keep in touch with Chris!!





Tronicle Spotlight: A Q&A With Vanity Girl

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She likes glamour. She’s always surrounded by mirrors. She constantly has makeup and hair accessories nearby. But don’t let that fool you. She’s a fiercely dedicated and successful entrepreneur.

Meet Maxine Tatlonghari, the mastermind behind Vanity Girl. The Hollywood-based brand produces gorgeous Broadway-esque vanity makeup desks and tabletop mirrors. The vanities have been featured in countless publications, blogs and TV spots and are used by the likes of the Kardashian clan, Mariah Carey, and Jennifer Love Hewitt.

I had the fortunate experience of hearing her guest lecture last year at my UCLA Extension Social Media class. I remember thinking that her story was inspirational, motivational, but most of all – relatable. Like all of my dreams could be within reach and I too could conquer the world if I worked at it.

What I admired most about Maxine was how she built the company from the ground up, boot-strapper-style, and surrounded herself with great people. She took a risk and brought her idea to life. She leveraged the power of social media to her advantage and seized every opportunity that arose.

Maxine graciously took time out of her schedule to give us a peek inside her Vanity Girl world!

When did you start Vanity Girl?

February of 2009.

What inspired you to start Vanity Girl?

I was laid off from my fundraising job at American Cancer Society, and took myself to a “cheer up spa day” at Burke Williams on Sunset Blvd. As I sat in their vanity area getting ready, I loved the Hollywood luxury feeling of sitting down and brushing my hair out in beautiful lighting. I thought other women wanted to feel that way too – and voila! Literally a light bulb went off in my head and the idea for Vanity Girl was born.

White Starlet Vanity $299
(photo credit: Vanity Girl Hollywood)

Once you had the idea, how did you go about launching the company?  

I sketched it out on the back of a napkin and took it to someone I knew in manufacturing. He said, “I can make that, if you can market it.” I am a PR and development girl in my soul – so I knew I could do it. Especially if the idea was my baby, I knew I would work on it tirelessly and that it would be fun. I can’t lie though…I was really scared. There really wasn’t a market category for a vanity mirror of this size for the everyday girl…and we were in a recession. I definitely had naysayers! But I just knew in my heart that there were other girls out there like me who wanted to feel glamorous everyday, in that little moment before you face the world. I knew I had a community. I just had to find them and vice versa.

Every girl deserves a Backstage Moment.

Maxine with two of her favorite LA bloggers pals, Castle W of Stiletto City and Sharzad K of LuxLyfe at the Pinup Girl Clothing boutique grand opening.

Had you run your own business before?

I freelanced a couple of times in the PR world, but nothing like this.

How has social media helped Vanity Girl?

OMG. How hasn’t it? I really think as an online company, social media has been a CORNERSTONE of building the Vanity Girl brand. The Beauty Blogger and YouTube guru were AS important to us as traditional media. Kandee Johnson was the first blogger to put on us on the cult beauty map.

Creating my own content on Vanity Girl TV and on our blogs ensured our story could be told. But even more than that, I like to showcase our girls. The Vanity Girl community is such a blessing to me, and when I get the pictures on Instagram or a video on YouTube, it’s like Christmas for me. To be a part of their vanity rooms, and to be a part of what makes them feel special and glamorous is beyond amazing. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with quite a few celebrities, and the one who had the biggest impact for us is a total social media-lite herself – Kim Kardashian. So in short, social media has been super important to our brand.

(Click here to listen to Maxine being interviewed by Social Media thought leader, and my former UCLA instructor, Beverly Macy!)

Being an entrepreneur certainly comes with its fair share of challenges. What are some challenges that you’ve faced, and how do you overcome those?

Hmmm, in the early days, things like spending a lot of money on our first website that didn’t convert (OUCH!) to making sure the mirrors didn’t break in transit!    Those are business things.  And then there are LIFE things that happen.  In these past 5 years I went through the lay-off that prompted the birth of the company, to a devastating break up with someone that I loved very much, to the death of my father in 2012.  Lots of huge, huge life changes – like a lot of other women face.

I’d say I got through them with a lot of faith and the good fortune to have family and friends who really, really care.  Then there is just the inner-strength that has to shine through. I mean, you can be all depressed…or you can get on with it.  We are so lucky to be able to create possibility and opportunity for ourselves here in this country – especially here in Hollywood where people come to follow their dreams!

And, I listen to Tony Robbins when I need a real kick in my pants.

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What’s the most fun/ fulfilling part of your job?  

Feeling like I get to make women and girls feel beautiful and special everyday. Creating something that has become a symbol of love that people gift each other. Today, a girl just reached out to me on Facebook because she is buying her sister a vanity for her birthday and when I jumped on Instagram, another girl was showing off the vanity room that her husband built for her. I LOVE THAT!

Vanity Girl products have been used by countless celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Mariah Carey, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. Have you ever had an “OMG” star-struck celebrity moment?  

YES, all of them! When I learned that the concert teams of Mariah Carey and the late Whitney Houston were using them on tour – I was totally awestruck. Jennifer Love Hewitt was so lovely (and yes, just that beautiful) when I met her at the Golden Globes Gifting Suite. Patti Stanger is gracious and generous, she lent me her vanity room and said amazing things about me on my audition tape when I was trying out for Shark Tank. And Kim Kardashian…OMG…Kim. I will always be so grateful for how generous she was in supporting Vanity Girl and inviting us to be a part of her pre-Kanye Beverly Hills home, DASH NYC and Kim and Kourtney take Miami.

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What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned throughout your journey?  

Believe me, I’m still on my journey! I would say that yes, it gets really hard sometimes…but I have to believe that life doesn’t give you more than you can handle.

And fake lashes will always make you more glam in a minute!

If you could take a time machine to go back in time, is there anything you would change?  

Hmmm, I know it can sound cliche, but I would say no because lessons learned by getting your butt kicked are the ones that stick with you…FOREVER!

 What’s on the horizon for the future of Vanity Girl?  

I definitely love sharing and speaking about how I built my Vanity Girl brand using celebrity leverage, social media, PR and Online Fame. I have some other things in mind and I promise to keep you in the loop as they unfold. Let’s just say if this were my Linked In Profile…it would explain that I am open to Joint Ventures and new Business Deals.

Maxine with Real OC Housewife Alexis Bellino at The London, West Hollywood
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Any final parting words for our readers and any budding entrepreneurs?  

My mother Virginia would say, “Follow Your Heart.” My father, Maximo (yes, I’m a junior) would say, “Fight for what’s yours.” And my brother Craig, the CPA says, “Get everything in writing and know your numbers.”

And to you Kim, thank you for a really fun blog and a fresh new voice.  Keep up the good work!

To all your readers – I say … Follow Your Dreams!

Keep in touch with Maxine and follow the ventures of Vanity Girl!