By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Laguna Beach Independent
“I had an unhealthy relationship with puzzles,” photographer Candice Dartez said. “When the pandemic hit, all I did was a 1,500-piece puzzle, wearing my pajamas. My family would look at me every day and go ‘what’s going on?’.”
Her funk was short-lived, thanks to a call from a college pal who told her about a project a mutual photographer friend had initiated. The Front Steps Project is a nationwide, grassroots effort where photographers, from a safe outdoor physical distance, record images of families in lockdown mode. Proceeds support the charity of the photographer’s choice.
“That’s when I put on real clothes again,” Dartez said. Always seeing a variety of angles, she partnered with her daughter Ella, a junior at Laguna Beach High School, to use the venture as a required community service project. Ella and her sister Cady, a seventh-grader at Thurston Middle School, accompany their mom on weekend shoots. Ella schedules sessions and logs details that will become part of a book that archives this strange moment in Laguna’s history.
For the Front Steps Project’s beneficiary, animal lover Ella chose the Irvine Animal Care Center, a no-kill shelter where the family had adopted a cat they named Dr. Fauci the day before the statewide shutdown.
So far, Dartez has shot more than 50 portraits, many of which can be viewed on her Instagram feed. They include many newly grown beards, landmark birthdays, and families both gussied up and wearing pajamas and bathrobes. Her family blew past their GoFundMe page’s $500 goal and has raised more than $3,500. That is enough to sponsor a new animal enclosure for the shelter, which they plan to dedicate to the citizens of Laguna Beach.
“Our pandemic looks a lot different than many communities,” Dartez said. “I feel like we’re so fortunate and it looks so beautiful here, but at the same time I observe a loss when I’m shooting these photos. The kids are safe, but they’re supposed to be experiencing their spring of fifth grade, seventh grade, senior year, sports finals. My heart breaks for them.”
The Boston native has lived in Laguna Beach for 12 years and is a familiar face to patrons of The Wine Gallery, where she works as a manager. She shoots about half of all of LBHS’s sports team photos.
“I work like nine jobs so I can afford to live in Laguna,” she jokes. After studying film at Southern Methodist University, she and husband Donavon lived in Dallas before moving to Laguna Beach in 2008. She began shooting family portraits as a seasonal gig, but now her passion is a year-round and nearly full-time pursuit. A goal is to offer fine art portraiture from her own studio.
She has an acute sense of the importance of family photographs. At 11, Dartez lost her mother to cancer and regrets that she does not have more photos of her. “I’m not interested in taking 50 images that you like. I’m after that one image you can’t live without.”