I met my first professional Santa Claus three years ago in New Mexico, where I was photographing cowboys, gunslingers, snake handlers, and Civil War–era reenactors. One subject made a convincing 1860s Union soldier, complete with authentic costume and rifle musket. After we had completed the shoot, he asked if he could show me a very different character that he portrayed. I agreed, and he returned fifteen minutes later as Santa Claus.
Shortly after that, I saw a news story about the Charles W. Howard Santa School, the oldest Santa training program in the nation. This idea—that there is an actual school for Santas—was a new one to me, but I was immediately intrigued by the seriousness with which the school’s students pursued the art and craft of embodying Santa Claus. It wasn’t long before I learned that Santa Claus is the most photographed character in the world. That’s when I thought to myself, who better, then, to be the focus of a new photography project? Santa, of course.
I’ve always enjoyed meeting and photographing people who follow their passions, especially when those ambitions take them far outside the realm of their daily lives. In addition to historical reenactors, I’ve photographed clowns, drag queens, and, of course, Santas. On the surface, they are very different groups of people, but these “transformers” are united in their commitment to their callings and in their eagerness to creatively reinvent themselves physically as they embody their characters of choice.
With the assistance of two leading Santa booking agents, I arranged photo shoots with dozens of top professional Santas in cities across the country. I asked them to arrive at the studio in street clothes—no bells, no red suit—so that I could take their portraits, to be presented in black and white.
We Are Santa
That’s when the real fun began. In what was often an elaborate and lengthy physical transformation, each Santa changed into his favorite suit for another set of photographs, this time in full color. Through these photo sessions, I learned a lot about Santa’s wardrobe and accessories, as well as special padding and all manner of props. Many brought two or more suits for distinct looks, and as I traveled from city to city, I found myself both surprised and impressed by the diversity and range of the character we know simply as Santa.
More importantly, I learned about the dedication, professionalism, commitment and character of these people. They are deeply devoted to their mission—to the children they meet, to the integrity of their persona, to the spirit of the season, and to the history and traditions of Santa Claus. Each one is an inspiration.
During an appearance at Georgia State University, Santa James was approached by a young woman whose grandmother was in the audience. The elderly woman had confided to her granddaughter that she had never taken a picture with Santa Claus, and now she was trying to get from her wheelchair up to the raised platform where Santa James was situated. “I said, ‘Stay where you are,’ and went down to where she was. I got on my knees, put my arms around her shoulder, and said, ‘Mother, I’m here,’ and I told the photographer, ‘Snap away.’ She said I was the first black Santa Claus she’d ever seen in her whole life!” -- James B. Nuckles, Decatur, Georgia