It’s a right of passage for many young Seattleites, replicated in malls and department stores across the country. A sit, a wish, and the snap of a photograph. It’s difficult to imagine a time when photos of kids and Santa weren’t a thing, variations on the theme filling family mailboxes, photo albums, and, now, social media feeds at this time every year. But there was a beginning to the tradition, and one Seattle photo business says that it was there, at the outset.
Arthur & Associates Holiday Photographers, founded in 1943, claims to be the first to ever take portraits of children with the department store Santas. According to the company’s current ownership, founder, and Seattle PI photographer, Arthur French got the idea after seeing kids visit with a Santa in a Frederick & Nelson department store window, their brush with mythical majesty left to memory. French approached the department store about the idea and started an annual tradition that is continued today by current Arthur & Associates president and owner Hillard Viydo.
“Frederick & Nelson was the backbone of our company from ‘43 through ‘91,” said Viydo.
Arthur & Associates is now a small operation in comparison to industry giants with hundreds of mall locations. The company offers Santa photos from Thanksgiving to Christmas in 10 locations thoughout the region, including University Village in Seattle. It is there, says Viydo, that memories are made and captured.
“It matters not the complexity of the Santa set, character or the location, it’s simply this one on one (experience),” Viydo said. “Maybe it’s me and my child or maybe it’s me standing back and wow, seeing a baby smile or seeing a big group of family … it’s magic.”
Arthur & Associates was an entirely film-based company until 2008, which, according to Viydo, gave them an advantage over the competition, who used Polaroid or early digital cameras. The company’s switch to digital came only after Viydo believed the quality was good enough.
“Film was dinosaur talk, so we had to switch just to stay relevant,” he said. “We wanted something that was as close to film quality as could be, but to this day, unless you’re really really on the high-end of capture and fulfillment, you’re not reaching what film can do.”
Along with changes in the equipment, Vidyo says that his customers’ preferences changed as well.
“We’re still providing that peice of paper, but we email our images as well. It just keeps growing in how people want to accept it,” Viydo said. “It’s more of a file than it is a printed matte, which is sad … because a photograph that’s displayed is a reason for conversation.”
Vidyo said that the company maintains a high employee retention rate, with some of the Santas and their helpers returning to the company each holiday season for 20 to 30 years. Many, like Bothell High School graduate Madison Mackenzie, started in high school and return every year when they are on break from college.
Hired on as a Santa helper in 2012, she still returns each year and has been promoted to photographer and location manager.
“I love adding on to the magic of Santa Claus to all the younger kids, the purest smile I have ever seen is from a little girl seeing Santa for the first time,” she said recently. “I hope kids that believe leave believing more and the one that don’t believe still get a chance to experience the magic.”