A man and his pet Rottweiler walked into Albert "Mr. V" Valentine's studio once, and the man asked for a keepsake photograph of his pet. Mr. V. shot a few frames. Then the man had an idea -- sprinkle the dog with dollar bills. Something different.
No problem, just part of the job. By his estimate, Mr. V. figures to have taken close to a million pictures of the people (and pets) of West Baltimore.
And by that same guesswork, he says no two have been similar.
"Nothing around here is routine. The people here are very interesting and hard to capture," Mr. V. says. "At least that's what I've found. You must be able to go with the wind."
From the cramped photography studio at Mosher Street and Carrollton Avenue, the 62-year-old photographer has a vantage any lensman would crave: an array of unique individuals from the community who come to him daily to be pictured. He needs only to open his door to find an equally intriguing splash of lifestyles.
For more than 25 years, Mr. V. -- the moniker was given him years ago, now few people even know his full name -- has run the shop from his little corner of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
Nearly every sliver of wall space in his studio is covered with portraits and drawings. The ceiling, he says, is next.
"This is where I display my work. I just have a lot of work that I want to display and feel should be displayed," he says.
For instance, his walls are adorned with pictures of area fires and community festivals; local youngsters and grandparents. But some of the more unusual pictures are the ones taken from inside the studio.
Like the shots of the quartet of stout women posing in night clothing. The ladies had a weekly photo session. What they did with the photos is unknown.
Or the request of Kenny Ellis, who brought an aging photo he found of himself when he was a youngster and asked Mr. V. "to hook me up."
Mr. Ellis wanted all of the picture darkened -- all except the whites of the eyes. "I've been coming to him for a while so I thought he could do it. His work looks good. He's sharp," he said.
"I don't really ask questions, I just try to do what they ask me to do," Mr. V. said. "People's moods change and I just try to go with that.
"My job is to shoot what they want and will pay for," he says. "I try to make the best photo with the circumstances I'm given."
artist by trade, he began shooting pictures when he moved to his West Baltimore studio in 1969. Photography is now his main focus and his drawings are now only an afterthought.
"I was one of the first artists in residence at the ThirdWorld Museum," he says, referring to the East Baltimore museum that black artists formed in 1968 because they said they could not have their works shown at white art shows.
"That's my real talent. Photography, I just picked and learned through reading a lot of books."
Berkeley S. Thompson, one of the founders of the ThirdWorld museum now known as "Baltimore's Only Black American Museum" on Carswell Street said Mr. V. can turn anything into art.
"He reminds me of all of the artists that I love -- he has true grit," he said. "He's a very great artist."
Although he shoots pictures of life in the community, most of his work now is portraits done inside the studio.
Leonard Jackson Jr., who works with the Community Building and Partnership for Sandtown-Winchester program, said Mr. V. brings history and tradition to community.
"He brings a sense of hope that some of the younger people can have businesses and be supported by the community," Mr. Jackson said.
Mr. V. says shooting pictures is his way of giving something to the neighborhood and providing something that may last for years to come.
"I give to the community. Everything I do is for the community," he say. "I hope to make them see that a black business can do well and prosper."
He just happens to have fun while doing business.
"But it's not always fun. I had to shot pictures of a woman once who came in here and stunk the place up," he says. "I'm holding my breath I had to get the air freshner."