Looking in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to connect the dots from where you are to where you were. That’s the beauty of hindsight. It’s foresight—and the accompanying uncertainty of setting out on an unexplored path—that’s particularly unsettling. There are inevitably starts and stalls and detours along the way, and we wonder if, in the end, we’ll get where we need to be. For Shannon Squires-Toews, M.Photog., CPP, the answer is yes. She sees the starts and stalls and detours as part of the process of becoming.
Based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Squires-Toews specializes in portraiture, specifically children’s portraiture. About 90 percent of her commissions are for children who are beyond baby and not yet high school senior.
“I love this age group,” she says. “I love doing what I do. I do take some seniors, families, and babies and have done some cool legacy portraits of older, more mature subjects. So I’m not just in this box of children, but they are definitely who I gravitate toward.”
Looking back at where she started, it would seem Squires-Toews headed off on the right path. Her strong portfolio won her a scholarship to the Art Institute of Seattle, where she persevered through two and a half years of an intensive year-round photography program and bent her mind around fashion. But after graduation, instead of feeling elated and ready to take on the world, she was drained, tapped out. To clear her head, she moved home to Nevada and spent the summer as a firefighter, cleansing her palate by hiking heavy equipment around in remote areas and putting in exhausting hours of manual labor. After wildfire season, she took a decidedly non-photo-related job with a cosmetics company, which then led her to work as a makeup artist in California. And in this moment, in this job, Squires-Toews thought she was happy.
“I was doing body painting, some client work with minor celebrities, and I thought, This is a form of art I can really invest in and enjoy,” she says.
That’s when a detour to Romania upended her plan. Through her church, she began volunteering, taking multiple trips to Romania and working mainly in orphanages. She would ultimately spend six months there. She found the experience overwhelming in a good way and was so inspired by the villages, the people, and especially the children, that she reached for her camera once more. After a six-year break from image making, Squires-Toews finally knew that what she really wanted to do was photograph children. And not just photograph them, she says, but convey their whimsy, spirit, and imagination—all the things that define children as they are in the moment. Her path was now clear.
“I was working with these kids who were the poorest of the poor, but they still had so much joy and imagination and life,” she says. “Children really are the theme of my life and even my marriage—my husband works for a nonprofit that secures sponsorship for children around the world.”
She launched Shannon Squires Photography in California in 2010 and moved to Colorado Springs in 2017, offering a style of portraiture she describes as akin to a commissioned oil painting. The descendant of a pencil-artist father and a painter grandfather, Squires-Toews positions her work as the next iteration of those artistic influences. Her portraits are vivid and painterly, with a soft, moody style, and that’s by design.
“I spend hours creating my art, which is why I charge boutique prices,” she says. “If you want this kind of art, it comes with a price tag. I do spend time educating my clients on the importance of printing and not just storing up images as digital files somewhere.”
Not only does Squires-Toews digitally paint her images, she also composites elements she’s drawn by hand into her final works. She loves the editing process, she says. She’s always considered herself crafty, and whether she’s making headdresses and props for sessions or guiding her tablet pen-turned-paintbrush, Squires-Toews approaches every image with the same artistic goal: to create a one-of-a-kind piece that feels timeless. She credits friend and mentor Richard Sturdivant, M.Photog.M.Artist.Cr., as being a huge supporter who kept pushing her forward and especially inspired her through the pandemic.
Though her work isn’t the out-right fashion photography that she studied early on, the echoes of that training reverberate through her composition and color curation. Her path wasn’t straight, but Squires-Toews found it’s exactly the journey she needed to take.
“Everything goes back to Romania, where the orphanage re-sparked my love of photography,” says Squires-Toews. “These kids are in the full beauty of youth. Everything they do has a little magic to it. That’s the whole point of my business: to let children be children and capture that innocence.”
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina