Marc Hauser once had a portrait session with Dolly Parton that started with her posing with Kermit the Frog and ended with him accidentally touching her breast.
"I said, 'Excuse me! And she said, 'Don't worry about it, honey, I'm used to it,'" Hauser recalls.
The veteran Chicago photographer has shot portraits of Woody Allen and advertising campaigns with Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman. Hauser's photographs have been featured in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and have earned him more than 100 awards, including a Clio. At one point Hauser raked in more than a million dollars a year; from 1981 to 1984, he had a $4.6 million contract with Marshall Field's. But that was then. Now, Hauser spends most of his time shooting family portraits through Groupon.
In 2007, an accident while shooting in Seattle severely damaged the Wilmette native's right leg and eye, and cost him thousands of dollars in hospital bills. He won't get too specific about the details—there's a lawsuit pending—but he says it happened when he was up in a crane, photographing on a golf course. The crane shifted and toppled, slamming him onto the ground. His leg was shattered. Doctors managed to save it, but years later an infection forced them to amputate below the knee.
During his time in the hospital and in rehab, Hauser rented his studio to another photographer. When he came back, he found that his equipment was gone. He says all he had left were the portraits on his wall and his name. Now Hauser is trying to work his way back up to the top. He needs money, and Groupon has proven to be a lucrative venture: $159 will buy you and up to six family members a portrait session in his near west side studio—he says he's done 4,200 portraits so far.
Despite the adversity, he doesn't seem embittered by his new situation and says he actually enjoys working with noncelebrities.
"A lot of film people don't like having still pictures," he says. "When you're dealing with people that haven't been in front of the camera, you've got the ability to control and get what you want and do what you want. I've learned so much more about how to work with people and about how to watch them more and the things that I see people do; families that are so natural."
Now his photos of celebrities hang on the walls of his studio next to cheerful black-and-white family portraits. Michael Jordan looks down benevolently from a larger-than-life picture on the wall as Hauser photographs a model.
Hauser is trying to move back to the type of work he did before the accident, but it's all a matter of time, he says. Though he's now confined to a motorized wheelchair, last year he made a book of environmental portraits of Chicago neighborhoods for @Properties.
His disabilities aren't what make a comeback harder; rather it's that the industry has changed so much. The shift to digital technology has vastly altered the way photos are created and has also increased the ubiquity of photographers. Hauser gets help with the technology from his assistants, but there's little he can do about the problem of his age. Despite that his name appears in textbooks on portrait and advertising photography, he sometimes feels like new, young hiring agents look at him as an "old hack," a fossil.
"When I started photography, there were maybe 15 photographers in Chicago," he says. "Now there's 4,000. Most of the people that are hiring people, they're kind of new and are a new breed. I have to talk people into doing the old, and I have to show that I can give them something that they can't get from the other guys, because I have history. I have the ability to do things that those photographers don't know how to do."
Despite this, Hauser seems unsentimental for the ways of the past. He just sold his last Hasselblad camera and is working on selling off his collection of photos. He's looking forward, and he's not intimidated by newbies with more tech know-how.
"Luckily, I know I have a look to my stuff, and I'm really good at the way I light things and the way I capture people. Even capturing places on location, I capture moments with lighting outside and know how to get it so the lighting is hitting their face right," he says. "Some people ask me all the time, 'How do you become a great photographer?' You take a lot of pictures. When you've taken a lot of pictures, you have to take a lot more."
And Hauser has been moving past family portraits. This month, he shot portraits of the American Bar Association president and a wrestler, and in October he's planning a show of his work at Madron Gallery in Lincoln Park. He doesn't have an overarching vision for where he wants to be in the next few years, but he does know he won't be giving up anytime soon.
"I just believe that you don't give up," Hauser says. "You just keep doing what you love. And I'm very lucky that I do photography, the stuff that I love . . . you never know."