On his walls are galleries of Lodi’s families. Generations of winemakers and mayors. A newspaper publisher and chiefs of police. A dentist and his family. A girl celebrating her coming-of-age at her quinceañera.
“I keep them up as a museum,” says Ken Sato, whose photography studio on the outskirts of Downtown Lodi has been exhibiting local faces for 31 years.
Sato has been a portrait photographer since 1981. He lives in Stockton, but has become Lodi’s photographer, the man who takes the pictures for the Lodi Police Department’s trading cards and has shot hundreds of high school senior portraits.
Some of the photos on the walls are outdated, showing thinner, younger versions of faces people know around town. Floral body suits and feathered hair and are reminders of the ’80s and ’90s.
“My gosh, I’ve been at this for a long time,” says Sato, as he runs his eyes over the walls, pointing out memorable shots, like his favorite portrait of famed winemaker Robert Mondavi.
Though photography trends have changed over the years, his photographs remain classic and clean.
“My style is a lot of traditional with modern touches to it,” Sato said.
Sato is friendly and laid back. He has a constant smile that gets bigger when he tells stories of the years or hears a funny joke.
Clients, like Wine & Roses owner Russ Munson, usually become friends with the photographer. They joke about his calm demeanor and seemingly effortless shooting style.
“He never looks like he’s working. He’s always relaxed,” Munson laughs. “I see all the pictures on the wall, but I never see him working.”
Everyone knows Sato for having his DSLR cameras — the Canon 5D and 7D are what he’s using now — strapped over his shoulder at local events, from wine shows to powwows.
The 66-year-old photographer still works every day, and doesn’t plan to retire any time soon. He spends his days shooting and working in his office, the narrow room at the end of the hallway, past his consultation area and studio. It is stocked to the ceiling with books on photography, snapshots he’s pinned up and mementos from vacations.
When he started in photography, he shot mainly children and families in his photo studio with strobe lights and backdrops, sometimes using plush furniture props or toys.
“Every family one was so much fun,” said Sato, whose favorite part of his business is the people.
Recently, Sato photographed an 86-year-old man who was nervous to have his photo taken. But when he finished the shoot, he looked through Sato’s photos and was surprised to see himself the way Sato had captured him.
“‘I look real dignified,’” he told Sato.
The photographer is comfortable with groups, too. He has been photographing Carol Morita’s family for years — 21 members one Christmas season.
Morita says it was utter chaos, with children crying, but the professional Sato, with so many years of experience, was calm and got a good photo.
“He’s very professional; he’s very good at what he does,” she said.
Learning from his mom
Sato hasn’t always been a photographer. However, he’s always loved the camera.
When he was a kid growing up in Minnesota and then Colorado, Sato got his first glance of portrait photography. His mom was the first photographer he admired. Not only did she carry her camera with her, she sewed clothes for Sato and his siblings and made them pose for family photos.
When his parents gave him his first twin lens reflex camera, he photographed the lakes near his house and anything in everyday life that caught his attention.
He thought it was just a hobby.
To make money as a young adult, the University of Northern Colorado graduate became a high school and junior high science and P.E. teacher. His first job brought him to California, to schools in Turlock and Linden.
It was there, while helping students work on the yearbook and befriending other teachers, that Sato got back into photography. There was always a darkroom he could sneak into; always extra film to shoot.
When he started his studio, he solely shot film. He had Hasselblad cameras, one of which he still keeps charged up, hoping one day he can return to his first love.
“I couldn’t part with it. This is my baby that will never grow up,” he said.
He’s had to adapt over the years. There was the complicated switch from film to digital, a time when he says he had to relearn almost everything. He’s seen print shops close up. He is faced with clients who decide to let Uncle Bob shoot their weddings instead of hiring a professional.
But he keeps going, keeps shooting. He keeps his storefront open in a time when many photographers have opted to work solely on location.
He continues to learn.
“He keeps getting better and better at what he does,” Munson said.
Thirty-one years later, Sato is still calm and carefree about his work and his passion. He can take just 30 shots of a family on a couch or under a tree, and know that he has what he needs to make his clients happy.
“I can get a good photo in not too many shots,” Sato said.
Doing his own thing
Sato doesn’t have a photography degree, though he has taken countless short, intense classes through Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. There, he learned from people like photographer Arnold Newman — an experience Sato describes as “a treat and a half.”
His style is still his own, though he jokes that he’s not one of those photographers who keeps the secrets to himself. He is a mentor, of sorts, to other photographers who can’t quite figure out how to do studio shots like he does, with eight full lights, backdrops and props.
His style is his own, even if it strays from the current trend.
That’s the point.
“I look at what everyone is doing, and try to do the opposite,” Sato laughs.
At 66, he’s figured out what he loves about his business, what he wants to spend his time doing. He’s figured out it’s the people who drive him.
“I’m finally funneling down what I love to do — and that’s families,” he said.
Contact Lodi Living editor Lauren Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.