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The king of the satin jungle

Phil Aull has no intention of retiring. He's 80 years old, arguably has been Charlotte's premier society photographer for more than 40 years. But quit? For a rocking chair and the afternoon TV shows? “I'm going to work 10 more years and that's a fact,” he says.

One reason why is stuff. Aull's studio – in a yellow house on Providence Road you've driven by 100 times – is packed, floor to ceiling. Boxes of negatives and old appointment books fill an upstairs bathtub, line the stairs and crowd the attic. “I can't move because I wouldn't know what to do with it.”

A bigger reason for hanging in there is that Aull – white hair, white beard, but popping with nervous energy – likes to work. He came up hardscrabble in Newberry, S.C., during the Depression and served an apprenticeship before becoming a professional and being accepted as one, a perceived slight that still rankles.

But with skill and the intervention of an angel, Aull launched himself, entering every Saturday what he calls “the satin jungle,” the land of wedding photography where a shooter has to know the difference between a blusher veil, a chapel veil and a cathedral veil.

He's shot the nuptials of two of Hugh McColl's children, made portraits of countless judges, done a session with former Gov. Jim Martin and his supporters, grip-and-grin shots, one after another.

Sikky Rogers has known Aull since she became an event planner 25 years ago. “When I first started working everybody clamored to have Phil Aull shoot their events,” she says. “He was the primo photographer in Charlotte. He's funny, he's witty, he's a nice guy.”

There's one other thing. Aull is having fun. A man who started with bulky film and chemical processing is invigorated by digital photography. He enjoys taking pictures on his travels and using the computer to add clouds or make a picture a riot of color and abstraction.

These works are a world away from what made his career, the classic look that's pretty much disappeared from wedding photography.

Finding a passion

For decades in Charlotte among people of a certain class and income, when a daughter announced she was getting married her mother immediately did three things: booked the church, headed to Montaldo's for the dress and called Phil Aull.

“I don't want to brag but that's not an overstatement,” he says.

One year, he and nine associates shot 275 weddings. Because many of these people knew each other, he'd often see the same people at several weddings, once joking with a woman that they ought to start carpooling.

“A lot of his work came from word of mouth,” said Rogers. “He would be at an event and people would speak to him, or they'd see his photographs in the newspaper.”

All those brides had children, and Aull made their portraits. (He keeps a shelf of toys to make kids smile.) Husbands also came to mark milestones in pictures – a promotion, membership in a social club.

Achieving this success took years of work.

He grew up poor.

His father, who owned a newspaper and taught at Newberry College, died when Aull was not even 2 years old. His mother sewed neckties to sell on the street. Understanding neighbors helped. A scooter appeared at the front door one Christmas. And to keep up the strength of the youngest of five boys, a grandmother made sure Aull got the cream from the top of the milk bottle.

After graduating from Newberry College in the late '40s on the G.I. Bill, Aull had a choice. Take a job teaching English for $140 a month or work as a printer in Salisbury for $84 a week. Aull took the money and became a printer.

But he'd already been bitten by the photography bug, through a high school friend and someone he met in the Army while serving in Germany. He bought his first camera, a Crown Graphic, the heavy machine tabloid photographers used. (Pack rat that he is, he still has it.)

He photographed weddings on the side – for $2 a picture. Today shooters think nothing of banging off a dozen shots. But back then flash bulbs cost 50 cents apiece.

“You thought before you pushed the button,” he says.

He developed a passion. He honeymooned with wife Haroldine in Chicago so he could attend a photography convention. “She doesn't appreciate it to this day,” he says.

Freelancing while working a full-time job, he sought membership in a professional photography group but was rebuffed. He believes they wanted to protect their “secrets.” The experience gave him a lifelong sympathy for the amateur. He later became a master of the Professional Photographers of America and his studio walls brim with awards.

In 1959 Aull, married with two children, took a leap. On the strength of a yearbook contract with Queens College, he became a photographer full time.

Soon after, he met his angel.

Proportion and beauty

Aull worked out of a studio behind the Dairy Queen on Central Avenue when he was asked to make a portrait of Sarah Brown Porter, a Myers Park High School beauty queen. Her mother, Mrs. A.A. Porter, was a successful real estate agent at a time when few women had business careers.

Aull nervously checked his lighting as the formidable Mrs. Porter told her daughter to sit up straight. But he got a good picture and Mrs. Porter – her name was Fredonia but Aull only calls her “Mrs.” – took a shine to him.

Here's what you need to do, she told him: Move to a house in a good neighborhood.

“That was the only goal I had,” he says. “You had to have a good clientele to make good money.”

Mrs. Porter had her eye on a house on Queens Road, Charlotte's most fashionable street. At $20,000 in 1961, it was way out of Aull's league. His angel persuaded the owner, developer and builder F.N. Thompson, to finance the loan with no down payment.

Another bit of luck came when Aull met Van Moore, an accomplished photographer moving from Richmond to Greenville, S.C., who stopped in Charlotte and taught him. Moore believed in the classical look. At workshops, he would take five shots of a head of the Greek goddess Aphrodite to show what different angles and lighting could do.

Aull became devoted to balance, proportion and beauty.

He learned the details of his craft. Gordon Schenck, an architectural photographer, tells of the time Aull looked with surprise out his studio window to find Schenck preparing to photograph the yellow house. He was sweeping the walkway.

Says Schenck, “He does such a good job getting brides' veils just right, I had to get everything just right in front of his house.” Aull's brides don't slouch, or run outdoors under the trees or “look like this,” he says disdainfully, cupping his chin in his hands. They stand against a simple background, often with an antique chair as a prop. Their bodies turn slightly, eyes, head and upper body in different planes to make the figure lively and give it a long line.

(Men are shot simply from the front, a “masculine” pose.)

Aull has a sure eye for lighting, looking first at the shadows, not the highlights. He knows how wide a smile should be, how to bring out the details on a white beaded dress, how to make sure the shadow of a nose does not touch the upper lip.

A 30-by-40 inch colored portrait enhanced with oils goes for $1,260.

Aull no longer shoots weddings on weekends, working only in his studio. He doesn't do video and he doesn't design “wedding books” with a series of candid shots, both trends in wedding photography that have passed him by. He works for those who want the classic look, one he believes will come back. Aull is down to earth – “I'm from Newberry, I like boiled peanuts” – and tempers his passion with humility. He jokingly says he puts those digital photographic experiments he's become so fond of in Phil's art folder, explaining that's Phil's “Phart Folder.”

But he frames some of them. And beneath the kidding you sense his respect for what the artist does even if he doesn't put himself in that category.

What he does do is capture life's moments – weddings, baptisms, family gatherings – in pictures that hang in ornate frames on living room walls.

“It's not a work of art,” he says, “but it's hanging on your wall and it's your child and it's damn well art to you.”