Christopher Voelker’s photography shatters stereotypes. Since 1994, Voelker has shot 21 covers for New Mobility, including several provocative images for the annual “Sex, Wheels and Relationships” issue. The NM photographs are important — they show that people with disabilities are vibrant, sexual, funny, whole — but Voelker is also changing the way people view disability by working as a prominent photographer in elite entertainment circles. A C6-7 quad since 1977, Voelker has built a thriving business photographing film, television and music celebrities, from Christina Applegate to Billy Zane, becoming the first wheelchair user to attain the status of Hollywood image maker.
Voelker, 45, and recently married to makeup artist Melanie Manson, has come a long way from his teenage dream of racing motorcycles for a living. Soon after crashing on a mountain racetrack at 16, he discovered a new longing — for personal growth and artistic expression — when someone showed him a copy of Rolling Stone that featured portraits of political and power figures by Richard Avedon. “That really ignited my interest in photography,” he says. “From then on I became voracious in my appetite for looking at photos.” But Voelker faced a few obstacles before he could turn his own camera on the world — the biggest being a tangle with a misguided group of religious zealots.
“The God squad people came in and told me that ‘Jesus is going to heal you.’ I was like, ‘Really? OK, where do I sign up?’ It was really a cruel and awful introduction to extreme Christianity, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth,” he says. This went on for several months until Voelker gained some perspective about his disability. “Eventually it got to where I said, ‘Enough of you people. I really want to go on and live my life and not be made to feel ashamed about being disabled.’”
That decision changed everything. Voelker reconnected with friends he had known growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley, started dating, and enrolled in L.A. Valley College to learn the mechanics of photography. Like one of his heroes, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, Voelker contributed early photos to his school newspaper and magazine and, in 1984, won first place for magazine photography in the Journalism Association of Community Colleges state competition. “I thought, if I could win that, maybe I could be a photographer,” he says. Before long, he had set up shop in his parents’ garage, photographing head shots for aspiring actors and practicing portraiture on his friends. “After about a year of that,” he says, “my parents — they didn’t eject me, but they suggested that I start looking for a studio. Having my whole posse over and strobes going off into the wee hours of the morning was beginning to irritate the neighbors.”
Another impetus for finding his own space came from a friend who was working in a professional studio — he urged Voelker to come look at the lighting setup of a pro. “When I saw what could be created with light,” he says, “I was just smitten.” Years later, after learning his craft and finding his own style, he discovered that what you can say with shadow is far more interesting than what you can say with light. “It’s the lights you don’t turn on that are important,” he says.
Voelker found part of a building that he could sublease if he was willing to deal with a few inconveniences. Undeterred by the royal blue half-walls and orange carpeting, he remodeled the space into a working studio. His landlord, who made stained glass in the front room, was too cheap to put in a water heater, so Voelker brought in his own, added sculptures in the bathroom and hung a parachute from the ceiling. “It was kind of like a bomb shelter — it was great,” he says.
In exchange for assistance on jobs, Voelker granted his photographer-friends studio rights, and the group entered a new period of experimentation. “It kind of turned into The Voelker Party Studio,” he says, “but I was young at that time and it was fun, and I made some really interesting pictures.”
As he immersed himself in his new world, he found that photography was a healthy way to take the focus off of his disability. “It brought a lot of satisfaction into my life,” he says. “It made me look less at my disability. I felt like I was integrating into life and society on a different level than I had before.”
The money wasn’t exactly rolling in, but it was enough to affect Voelker’s SSI benefits: If you made hardly anything, you had to give the government back a dollar for every two dollars you earned. “I remember being in the Social Security office and a caseworker was yelling at me that I was on something that was the same as Welfare,” he recalls. “It was really demeaning and embarrassing. So I just said, ‘You know what? You can take your SSI and shove it ’cause I don’t want to be part of this anymore.’” He never took another dime from any governmental entity.
Voelker’s bread and butter became photographing Vegas lounge acts. An agent he knew at the time represented an apparently infinite number of them, and they loved the checkerboard flooring at his studio because “it looked like something from the ’50s.” Unrewarding work, to be sure, but along with actors’ head shots, it got him through the ’80s.
As his commercial and personal portfolio grew, Voelker enlisted publicists to circulate his work in higher Hollywood echelons. He landed gigs with production company giant Lorimar, shooting cast members of television’s popular Knott’s Landing, which led to sessions with the cast of Aaron Spelling’s Beverly Hills, 90210. Word of mouth sent him more work, as did promos he sent to ad agencies.
Just as it looked like the nearly 30-year-old photographer had reached solid ground, the inevitable happened.
Discrimination and the Bottom Line
The problem with the ad agencies was that they wanted to meet their photographers before booking a shoot, and Voelker soon saw that the quality of his professional portfolio rarely outweighed prejudice about his disability. “It became obvious that if people knew I was in a chair, a large percentage of them would trip out,” he says. “I was losing out a lot — I mean a huge number of gigs.”
Voelker was now confronted by a new dilemma. If he showed his book in person, he almost never got the job. If he found ways to avoid meetings, he could continue building his career, but at the cost of not winning hearts and minds along the way. “I usually play my cards the best way I know how, and that meant not going in to show my book in person. It seemed to cause more grief than benefit,” he says.
But what about breaking through that prejudice by being seen? Voelker chose to wait until people arrived at his studio. Because he kept a low profile before booking a shoot, he was able to take his business to the next level. In 1990, he built a 5,300-square foot studio in Northridge, Calif., and filled it with an impressive array of wheelchair-friendly technology — including a one-person elevator that transports him to and from the book-lined, second-floor living quarters he shares with Melanie and their beloved Sphynx cats, Smeagol and Zissou.
As the studio took shape, word spread about the talented photographer in a chair.
Maybe it was accidental, possibly not, but over time Voelker found a niche market in photographing African-American entertainers, such as five-time Grammy winner Lauryn Hill, 24 actor Dennis Haysbert, ER star Mekhi Phiffer and rapper Bow Wow, all of whom passed his name around in hip hop and television circles. “I didn’t really know why at first, I didn’t understand it,” says Voelker. “Then it became evident: The discrimination that comes with having a disability, and the discrimination that comes with being black in America, really have a lot in common. The relationships I have with black entertainers have been really quite special and cool.”
21st Century Man
Voelker says that prejudice isn’t much of a problem anymore, at least in terms of the day-to-day operation of his business. His striking portraits of celebrities, ranging from Mick Fleetwood to Carmen Electra to Brandy, speak for themselves. And that first-class, professionally run Voelker studio doesn’t hurt, either. A longer list of clientele beat a path to those studio doors when, in 1994, Voelker was profiled by both Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight, the most syndicated entertainment newsmagazine in the world. “The phones,” Voelker remembers, “were ringing off their hooks!”
Actor and double amputee Robert David Hall, who plays Dr. Robbins on CSI, has done photo shoots with some of the highest profile photographers in Hollywood, so he was a little skeptical about whether Voelker would measure up when he arrived for a session. “Being a person with a disability myself, I don’t cut a lot of slack for somebody because they’re disabled,” he says. “So I was maybe being judgmental when I first went into his studio, but I was incredibly pleased with how artistic Christopher is. You go into this wonderful space, and you see some of his work on the wall, and you get a sense of playfulness and creativity the second you walk in.” Hall says he trusted Voelker immediately, and it was as professional a shoot as he’s ever done. “When there’s trust involved and you’re working with someone who is an artist, you let it happen,” Hall says. “He works a lot with light and shadows, and I don’t think I’d ever quite pictured myself the way Christopher caught me that day. He has a great gift for capturing strength and something else in a person that they may not even realize is there.”
Independent designer Michael Kellner, who has art-directed several publications, including Los Angeles Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety’s glossy lifestyle and fashion magazine, V Life, has worked with Voelker since 1998. “When Chris came to my office for our first meeting,” Kellner remembers, “I was surprised to find him in a wheelchair, but that was all there was to it. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, OK,’ and didn’t give it another thought.” Since then the two have collaborated on magazine covers, music CD packaging, independent film posters, and 10 book jackets, two of which won awards from PRINT magazine, while another earned both this honor and the prestigious Anthony Award. For designer and photographer, the creative synergy has been so intense that, as Kellner says, “we tend to communicate in the shorthand of artistic soul mates.”
One secret to Voelker’s success, Kellner explains, is his fearlessness about the challenges that often arise during a shoot. “I’ve heard Chris say a hundred times, ‘I’m not afraid,’ and believe me, for an art director to hear that from his photographer is priceless.”
Voelker says the key to his creative process is spontaneity. “I usually tell people that I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I know what I’m doing.” Of course he goes into a shoot with an idea of what he wants and the necessary set possibilities, but he allows the session to evolve. “If you’re open,” he says, “you see the possibilities of change, and that takes you to a realm where you can make something extraordinary instead of something that just fills a page.”
“His work is so interesting,” Hall says. “It’s about you, but it’s about creating something right in the moment.” And the lighting is just plain glamorous. “I have a great love of photography of the ’30s and ’40s, and Chris seems like a 21st century version of that in some ways.”
The Disability Thing
Voelker considers his most rewarding accomplishment to be succeeding as a wheelchair user in the intensely competitive world of the Hollywood studio photographer. There is no doubt that this is important for the entire disability community, says Hall. “One of the things that always speaks well for the disability community is to have people that do excellent work. When someone jumps out and shines, I think that helps all of us.”
Nonetheless, Voelker’s images of people with disabilities — who generally live far from the red carpet — cannot be dismissed. His photos for New Mobility have eloquently illustrated romance, sexuality, parenthood, working, travel, art, psychological struggle, perseverance, pain and joy — in short, life on wheels.
“Let’s face it,” Voelker says, “when I’m photographing someone who’s disabled, I feel as though I have a vested interest in making them look their absolute best — whatever their best, most charming attributes are.” Voelker finds himself more attached to the content of these pictures and more connected to his subjects, which puts him in the peculiar position of being both behind and in front of the camera. “I try to produce images that are true to who people are,” he says, “but in a strange way I’m photographing myself to some degree.”
One area that’s been of particular interest to Voelker is sexuality and disability, and he traces his desire to break stereotypes about relationships back to his early days as a quad. “I was in my late teens and attracted to women, but I didn’t know where my sexuality was or what it was going to be,” he says. “I felt that there was some inherent ineptitude.” His feeling stemmed from the dearth of information or images presented to him in rehab, and it’s been important to Voelker to help fill that visual void for others. Once he had his first sexual encounter, he got past that “whole crippled inadequate nonsexual being that I perceived myself as being,” but he knows the “asexual cripple” mentality still pervades much of the culture.
In addition to breaking outdated notions and new ground, Voelker is passionate about sharing creative possibilities with people who may think they’re too disabled to work as photographers. He has mentored students in his studio and talks about photography as a profession to members of an SCI support group at Northridge Hospital. “I think a lot of people eliminate themselves — unnecessarily — from the possibility of making pictures,” he says.
Voelker himself doesn’t have finger dexterity, and on his Hasselblad cameras he uses the same shutter release as the camera used on the moon missions. “The spacesuit gloves made it difficult to trip the shutter release button,” he says, “so NASA developed in conjunction with Hasselblad an almost 1-inch square paddle release button.” His other tools include Canon EOS digital cameras, which have naturally quad-friendly shutter releases, a homemade lift that raises him, his chair and his cameras 20 feet above the studio floor, and a Gowland rolling camera stand. “If you’re inventive,” he says, “there are really a lot of possibilities for people who thought photography was something they couldn’t even touch.”
For Voelker, any focus on disability — whether it’s contributing his knowledge to a new generation of wheelchair users or creating images that show the breadth of the disability experience — is ultimately about making the disability disappear. “Kicking the crap out of ignorant perceptions and prejudice — be it racial, sexual or stereotypical views of the disabled — makes me tick daily,” he says. “I hope that my legacy will be one of not looking at my disability, but of looking at the tangible works that have come from my dreaming while awake.”
To see more of Voelker’s art, visit http://www.voelkerstudio.com. Alan Toy contributed to this article.