For many teenagers, career choices require exploration – it’s not uncommon for college students to flip majors at least one time.
Claire Houser, the 25-year-old owner of Claire Terese Photography in Ebensburg, said early on, the picture came into focus.
“Ever since I was little, I was taking pictures,” she said. She even nabbed ribbons for landscape photos she entered into the Cambria County Fair.
“I thought that was the coolest thing,” she said.
The 2007 Bishop Carroll Catholic graduate said she started doing more portraits in high school and got a job at Picture People in the Logan Valley Mall. But at the time, it was a little more than a hobby.
She said she was intent on joining the family business out of high school – her father is a funeral director at Askew-Houser Funeral Home in Ebensburg. But the grisly particulars of that job, however, led to a change of heart.
“It was weird because, in my senior year of high school, I had decided that was what I was going to do.
“Then I saw an embalming book. … I was so disgusted and horrified that I changed my mind right then and there,” she said with a laugh.
So Houser received an associate degree in letters, arts and sciences from Penn State Altoona, while continuing to hone her photo craft at the studio. She also started on with a school photography studio.
Around that time, her father bought a building in Ebensburg. It was an opportunity for Houser to make a run at doing something she loves.
“It was either continue to work at the mall or do my own thing,” she said. “(I said,) sure, OK. I just went on my own right after college.”
She said she grew in the first few years by keeping volume up – senior year, family and child portraits – but she also does weddings from time to time.
Although she said much of her professional skill is self-taught, she now takes continuing education classes and attends Imaging USA conferences through Professional Photographers of America. But the real secret to shooting a good portrait isn’t learned – it’s in the subject, she said.
“I love getting to know people. … To get a real, genuine smile, you have to get to a level with that person where you make them laugh,” she said. “You really have to kind of get to know the person throughout the session – and it shows in the pictures, I think.”
Familiarity with those people and her community is why she said she’d never given thought to setting up shop anywhere else.
“I could charge more other places or maybe be more successful other places,” she said. “I was one of the ‘weird kids’ that didn’t want to get out of this town. … I had the hometown spirit – I just really wanted to stay here. I just like it here.”
But many of her friends don’t feel the same, she said. In Cambria County, an area she said is decidedly “old school,” she said she feels modern, digital-centric jobs that current high school grads are eyeing are in short supply.
“A lot of my friends live in Pittsburgh now – I honestly don’t know why. I think they would be able to get the same amount of jobs here,” she said. “I don’t know – I did it. … For photography (however,) other than going out on your own, there’s not a ton of outlet here in the area.
“For me, I just loved Ebensburg. I have family and I have lots of ties here.”
She said she also enjoys the “camaraderie” of the myriad local events – Wings and Wheels, the Turkey Trot, PotatoFest and such.
“I like walking down the street and knowing everyone I see,” she said.
The word of mouth she generates – either literal or through Facebook – is her biggest client generator. But she said she’s working on connecting with others through charity events.
Next month, she’ll be participating in Operation Smile, a charity drive to fund cleft palate surgeries for children.
“Some of these are life-saving surgeries,” she said. “These kids – they often can’t breathe or eat.”
April 5 is the Celebration of Smile day at her S. Center Street studio, where her usual $25 sit-in fee is dropped to $24 and all the proceeds go to the fundraiser. Last year, she estimated $1,650 was raised, which comes out to about seven surgeries.
“It’s just a fun thing to do – smile to help other kids smile,” she said.
This story is part of a continuing series featuring young professionals who decided to build their careers in the region. If you would like to submit a local professional to be featured in this series, email their contact information to JDennis@TribDem.com.
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.