More Than Just ‘Say Cheese’: Finding Magic in the Moment With Erin Yaeger Photography

Vision is something that both limits and expands our human experience. We experience the world around us through what we see, but our perspective is always limited to what our eyes alone can take in.

Erin Yaeger, as captured by her friend and fellow photographer, Ali Bonomo.

Of all the visual arts, photography gives us the rare chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And when Erin Yaeger is behind the lens, ordinary moments sometimes become extraordinary.

“After I spent a day with one mom, she said ‘these were the photos I didn’t know I needed’,” Yaeger recalled. “When I say I do documentary-style candids, people will say their house is a mess but then when they let you in, they see the moments they don’t know they’re missing. It’s so much more than ‘say cheese.’ When they’re not paying attention, and they’re just doing their own thing, that’s where the magic is.”

Learning to find that magic has been culled from a career that took Yaeger far from the Ohio Valley and into studios in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Leaving her hometown of Wheeling after high school, Erin’s career initially led her to New York University and an internship with Saturday Night Live.

“It was pretty magical for me. It was a couple days a week and I worked for the team that shot everything that was not live — all the fake commercials, all the pre-filmed stuff,” Yaeger said of her time at SNL. “We were going to locations and shooting and, for me, just walking through those halls I’d meet people. They were just fun, super talented people, and it was more fun to be a part of it. I did a lot of grunt work like going to get lunch for everyone or getting props like cat litter that we used for one skit. I learned my way around the city through that, too, because I hadn’t explored a lot, and I had to figure out the subway system.”

Yaeger was living in New York in 2001, and when Sept. 11 hit, it gave her an opportunity to be present behind the lens in a way she never imagined.

Living in Manhattan’s West Village on 9/11 gave Yaeger an unfortunate front row seat to one of the darkest days of our history. She was able to capture this image from her apartment rooftop that morning. Yaeger says, “It was one of those ‘go grab your camera’ moments.”

“I was supposed to have jury duty in the financial district, and I slept through the plane going into the first tower, and my mom called me. Everybody in my building was going up to the roof,” she said. “You could see it. I was still using an old film camera, so I took some photos and went back down, and after the second plane hit, I went up and took more photos.”

From her apartment in the West Village, Yaeger and others in her building could also see St. Vincent’s Hospital and watched as medical staff assembled in preparation for casualties that never came.

“That’s where they planned to bring everyone they thought they were going to get out, and there were doctors and everyone lining the streets, and then no one came,” she said.

While 9/11 isn’t the most fun topic to talk about, as Erin says, for those of us of a certain age, it feels good to put our experiences out there because they’re part of who we are now.

“It’s not a pleasant experience but it was something so huge that you almost want to talk about it sometimes,” she said. “It was one of the big events in our lives and something you want to not let be forgotten. I didn’t even think about it, but it was one of those ‘go grab your camera’ moments.”

In the years after, Yaeger would continue to follow her passion to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles where she shot photos for the retail brand Hot Topic. When a job opportunity with the clothing company Free People led her back east, Yaeger looked forward to the chance to be just a few hours from family. But within a few years, she found herself looking to bring her talents home.

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“I was in Philly for years, and then I was just kind of over city life, and I wanted to be by family. I felt like I’d lived in enough big cities, and every time I came home, I just felt like ‘I want to stay here’,” she said.

Now living in Dimmeydale with her rescue Schnoodle, Teddy, Yaeger hopes to bring locals a modern twist to family photography and senior portraiture.

“It’s less technical and more emotional,” Yaeger said of photographing family interaction. “I feel like when I’m taking photos I’m able to get in the moment and open up and have fun with kids.”

“My strong suit is interaction,” Yaeger said. “It’s less technical and more emotional. I feel like when I’m taking photos I’m able to get in the moment and open up and have fun with kids. I think of myself as a big kid, and I tend to play with the kids. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy the candid type of photography.”

With high school seniors, Yaeger is able to use her experience in fashion photography to craft a stylized look, using locations like an alley in Center Market or a diner downtown, that leaves room for the relaxed, human element that touches all of her work.

With the help of Yaeger’s background in retail fashion photography, senior portraits take on a stunning, lifelike feel.

“There’s something so much more natural about working with real people and being able to get a genuine moment. That’s why I like more candid things. I do set up some pictures for people when they want it, but those pics we can capture of real moments are the most powerful,” she said, recalling a recent shoot with one senior girl. “When her mom would say something that made her laugh, or when her hair blew in her face — those fun in-betweens end up being the ones they love the most. It’s planning for the unplanned. When I can capture someone’s personality to come through in a new way, that’s what’s inspiring.”

In addition to print photography, Yaeger also makes small ceramic pieces and jewelry that often bear some of her favorite images. Her work can currently be found at Etc., a boutique gallery on National Road in Wheeling.

“I work in porcelain and have my images printed on ceramic decals, which I then apply to my pieces in a third firing after the bisque and glaze,” she explained.

In addition to print photography, Yaeger also creates ceramic pieces like the necklace seen here. Her photo of the Suspension Bridge was layered over porcelain using a special decal and outlined in 22-karat gold.

So what brings someone like Yaeger back to Wheeling?

Quite simply, it’s an idea of bringing talent culled in the big city back home — something  she wishes all talented valley natives would embrace.

“Growing up here, after I left Wheeling, I remember thinking I’d never go back, and I’d be in New York forever, but it’s family, and it’s where I grew up. Everyone has this love for West Virginia and Wheeling, and people sometimes don’t realize it until they’re not here,” Yaeger said.

“For a long time, I felt to come back was to fail, but once you’ve explored other places and made the decision to come back on your own, it’s not a failure. You’re bringing everything you’ve learned everywhere else and sharing it.”

• Cassie Bendel was born in Wheeling and raised in Bellaire. A graduate of St. Vincent College, she began her writing career as a reporter with The Times Leader and the Steubenville Herald-Star before writing content for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and a national faith-based consulting company. She currently lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons, but is planning to settle back to the Ohio Valley this summer.