The 64-year-old casting director lay the pretty young thing on her back and began to take off her clothes. “I want to look at that belly button,” he said. The girl’s mother obliged, unfastening the pink ruffled romper; after all, this was the man who had made TV stars out of dozens of babies just like her own. Babies are photographer Josef A. Schneider’s business. Whether the assignment is an Ivory Snow box, a Kodak color spread or a Pampers prime-time spot, Joe Schneider has been persuading babies to coo on cue for the camera since the 1940s.
The secret is psychology. “You can throw your technical expertise out the window,” he says. “First you have to creep into the kid’s mind; then you can get what you want.” Schneider knows how. For 10 years he was a child psychologist for the New York City public schools. He fell into photography while teaching remedial reading. “If I had to teach the word ‘birthday,’ I found I could get the kid’s interest with a picture of a birthday cake.” The trouble was, Schneider didn’t know how to take pictures. So he volunteered to wash trays and run errands for photographers in his spare time until he learned their trade, “but always on the QT,” he says. “I never let them know what I was doing.”
While stealing photographers’ secrets, Schneider’s own future came into focus. “I saw photographers’ apprehension when they had to work with kids,” he says. “A baby came into the room, and everybody froze.” One day a child practically went to pieces in the studio. “The photographer pulled one way, the mother pulled another, the child screamed so loud it could have frozen an Indian chief.” Before long Schneider had the little girl engrossed in washing a doll. The shooting was a snap.
“I figured the hell with the board of education,” he says. “I could press a shutter too.” At that time, in the mid-1930s, Schneider was making $4.50 a day as a teacher-in-training. His wife, Mollie, taught art and did social work to support them. Schneider grew a mustache to make himself look older.
He branched out from still pictures when two children he had photographed for a Charmin tissue package were called on to do a TV spot for the same product. Two hours after they arrived at the studio the director called. “You sent me monsters!” he screamed. With Schneider to the rescue, the session went smoothly. His Ivory Snow box even made a mommy out of budding porn star Marilyn Chambers, who later found fame Behind the Green Door. “She looked like the perfect college girl who would go off and get married,” says Schneider. “Nobody dreamed that would happen. The Procter & Gamble people were very annoyed.”
Schneider also took some licks—or kicks—as personal photographer to the Swedish royal family. The young prince (now King Carl XVI Gustaf) booted other photographers in the shins and hid under the bed. Schneider was summoned from America and lured him out with pennies hidden in books. “I let him squirt me with water, but I got my pictures,” he says. “The queen was delighted.”
What makes Schneider an original is the way he chooses and uses his babies. He auditions them with Cheerios and jelly beans. He lifts them high over his head, twists them like pretzels and dangles them by chubby hand and foot. They seem to love it.
He rates hopeful models according to whether they’re oriented to toys, food or people; mesomorphic (rough and tumble), ectomorphic (sensitive) or endomorphic (roly-poly). A protruding belly button or a few extra pounds can stop a career in its infancy. “You’re lucky if you get one good baby out of 15,” sighs Schneider.
On the set he coaxes smiles and gurgles by butting his head on tiny stomachs, blowing on faces, clapping hands together and tickling lips (“That’s a very erotic area”). He has to ingratiate himself by whatever means he can think of. “A kid,” he says, “is as individual as a thumbprint.”
Mothers are the worst people at handling their own babies in the studio, Schneider has found. Too often they have made the children dependent on them, especially firstborns. “A kid should not be so tight with his mother that he can’t enjoy other people,” Schneider says. “One way you tell a good baby is that when you put him down on the platform, he says to hell with Mommy, to hell with Daddy, I want to play.” (Incidentally, Schneider believes that breast-fed babies are better-natured and that modern mommies who schlepp their offspring to parties and supermarkets are raising healthier, happier children.)
Schneider recruits babies from agents, managers, proud mothers and even hospitals. An infant he discovered near his home in Forest Hills, N.Y. is now a successful teenage model. He even used his own granddaughter (Schneider has three grown children), who earned $7,000 for a commercial when she was 9 months old. “She was perfect,” he recalls. “No matter how sleepy she got, she’d always go for the food.”