Converting a hobby into a business can be a risky proposition, but for Denver resident LeAnne Fritts, 49, the transition has been an unqualified success.
Her business, Fritts Creative's Photographic Word Art, has found a willing clientele locally as well as through Internet sales in states as far as Hawaii.
A southern California native, Fritts met her husband, Chris, while attending college in Colorado. Married in 1987, the two moved to Charlotte in 1992 and then to Denver in 1995. Their daughter, Hannah, 14, is a student at North Lincoln High School.
"I worked for a long time as an accountant for a commercial photo lab in Charlotte," LeAnne says, " but I did no photo work. I absorbed what I could, but it's very intimidating when you're surrounded by professional photographers."
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Fritts had always been interested in both scrapbooking and photography. Despite having no formal training, she decided to pursue her interest when the photo lab closed in 2004, shifting from pictures of people and scenery to what might be described as "found art": objects in the environment that resemble letters.
"I find shooting letters much more fun than shooting people, because they don't talk back to me," said Fritts.
The letter pictures, shot in color but sometimes converted to black and white, are combined to create names suitable for framing and display.
"I was giving my work away as gifts to friends and family, but after a few years, I realized that if I wanted to buy a $1,000 lens or a new camera without feeling guilty, I needed to start charging," said Fritts.
Now two years into the business, she says, "I have to decide which direction I want to go. I do some Internet sales - I have customers all over the U.S. now - but I haven't expanded my website, frittscreative.com, to grow the business further."
Prices for a finished work run about $6.50 a letter, each letter a 4-by-6-inch print, and average $40 without a frame. Customers can pick out letters from her catalog or Fritts can select for them. Color letters are much more popular than black and white.
But where does she find the letters to shoot?
"I'll pick a town and go visit it. Or if I'm on vacation or camping, I'll look, but I try not to do it while I'm driving and I wouldn't recommend that other folks do it. It can be dangerous."
Dangerous or not, Fritts says, "It's fun! It's very enjoyable to go out and look for letters and words. It makes you look at everyday things differently.
"Also, I try to have letters shot in particular locales, because some people want letters unique to their own town. Downtown Lincolnton was a treasure trove. I found a junkyard there."
Are some letters harder to find than others?
"Oh yes, definitely," said Fritts. "A good K is hard to find, and so are Ms and Ws. Amazingly, Q is easy to find. I just don't sell many of them. But the hardest letter to find is B."
What if she cannot find a particular letter?
"When I first started, I had to make a few letters by re-arranging or staging objects. Now I try to do as much as I can with 'found' objects. I look for letters without staging."
"I now have about 500 letters, so I don't look as much as I used to," she said. "But I have a lot of customers who say they've found a letter for me, and I should come out and shoot it."
What kind of camera does she use?
"It's a Nikon D90. It's only a mid-range camera, but I use a high-end lens. I don't consider myself a professional photographer. I shoot because it's a fun and unique creative outlet."
Fritts displays and sells her word art about once a month at craft and art shows, as well as at a few stores, including Red Rooster in Denver and a store in Greensville, S.C. Her busy season is October through December, and then again in spring, when folks are looking for interesting or unusual wedding gifts.
"I didn't realize when I began pursuing this 'hobby turned business' just how far it might go," she said, "but it's fun, it's rewarding, and I get to buy all this really neat photographic equipment - and I'm guilt free!"