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Picture Perfect


In University lingo, it's the login to On the social circuit, it's the password to unlock a catalogue of the weekend scene.

The Web browser opens. The pages load slowly. Snapshots of limber first years executing incredible backbends pop onto the screen one by one. Photos of boisterous khaki-clad crowds dominate. Even the occasional deep-throat kissing appears.

Chuck Lane captures it all.

With the help of his Aspen Photography crew, he memorializes the revelry, the sin and the outlandishness of college parties.

"The success of a party can be gauged by how good the Party Pics are," fourth-year College student John Cruikshank said. "If there are a lot of people standing around in posed shots, it was probably lame. If people are hanging from the ceiling, that was a good night."

Lane's job seems simple. He walks into a party, snaps a couple of candid photos, posts them on the Web and charges $2.25 a pop.

"It's not as easy as it looks," Lane said. "Anyone can take four or five or 10 shots in a night, but try taking 280 at Down Under with the music blasting. It's physically demanding."

And it's an art. His camera-toting comrades have honed their craft of capturing the classic -- and often outrageous -- moments of an evening. They catch shocking displays of funkiness on film. They click the flash right in the middle of a romantic dip on the dance floor. They snap the shutter the second two best friends throw their heads back in a laugh.

Lane "always seems to be in the right place at the right time -- which isn't always a good thing for your reputation," second-year College student Sara Gerringer said.

Occasionally, a particularly scandalous photo will threaten a seismic response, and Lane jumps in as what he calls the "Taste Police."

"Every once in awhile, I get a call like, 'My dress is just too revealing,'" Lane said. "So we go through the pics, and we do edit them. One person's kiss may be precious and another's unappealing. We try not to embarrass people."

Yet no one hesitates at the height of a party. When Lane's photographers walk in the room, a sudden, shrill "Chuck Lane!" dins above the music. A flock runs over to crowd in front of the camera. Girls grab their dates' ties with their teeth. One glowing guy gets a kiss on both cheeks from two pretty doves. They lose all inhibitions in front of the camera.

By Monday morning, those shenanigans will be uploaded to for anyone who knows the code to see.


Photo opportunity

It all started by accident more than 23 years ago. Lane graduated from the University in '73 and decided to take a continuing education course in black-and-white photography. There, he was "bitten by the bug."

As a Ph.D. candidate starving on a student stipend, Lane needed some extra cash, and responded to a want ad for a photographer. His first assignment: photograph a couple sorority parties. Weeks later, he did a gig at a debutante ball in Richmond.

"Suddenly," Lane said, "I realized there's a whole world of events out there."

In the ensuing two decades, Lane expanded his hobby into a multi-photographer business that shoots events at more than 14 campuses across Virginia.

About three years ago, Party Pics underwent a major change. The business went digital.

In the olden days of 1999, Aspen Photography used an expensive film developing process and would place the thumbnail negatives onto tabloid size proof sheets. Students would indicate what pictures they wanted to purchase with crude dash marks, write out a check -- calculating the sales tax on their own -- and wait for a representative to pass out their order later that month.

By using digital cameras, Aspen Photography streamlined the entire process.

"I used to walk into parties with my pockets overflowing with rolls of film," Lane said. Now photographers carry tiny cartridges that pack a ton of digital memory and allow the pictures to be uploaded to the Internet, eliminating the cumbersome proof sheets.

Instead of having Aspen Photography process hundreds of checks from student accounts, customers pay online and the photographs are mailed directly to their homes.

"I love Party Pics because it means I never have to bring my own camera," fourth-year College student Hannah Prentice said.

The man behind the lens

Chuck Lane has become a household name among University students.

"People do identify with me personally," Lane said. "I just feel so fortunate. People are so pleased to have you there as part of the fun."

A tall, lanky man with Harry Potter glasses and a thick mustache, Lane points to the scars on his neck -- burn marks from the radiation he underwent three years ago to fight off throat cancer. Lane knows what it means to be fortunate.

"I had a very severe prognosis," Lane said. "I'm thankful to be on this earth."

With two kids at home, Elizabeth, 7, and Charles, 9, he knew he had to make it through.

"My children got me through my divorce while I was dreadfully ill," he said. "I decided, I've just got to make it."

Lane is back spearheading a company that shoots more than 500 events a year, personally working at two to three events a week.

"It's not unusual for me to be out shooting a party at 1 a.m. and then I'm up doing lunch boxes and school buses in the morning," Lane said. "But my kids are literally the light of my life."

The scars provide a daily reminder of Lane's awesome struggle with life, and he said not a day goes by that he doesn't get a hug and a quiet, whispered, "How you doing?"

"It's amazing the number of fraternity guys, especially, who were welcoming and said, 'We're glad you're back,'" Lane said.

These kind of personal relationships that he builds with students have sent him around the world to photograph the weddings of alumni. University students remember him and invite him to fly cross-country to everywhere from Dallas to Kennebunkport, Maine. He routinely goes to the Washington, D.C., area. One couple even flew him to France for two days of champagne parties, bridal showers and portrait sessions in front of an aged chateau.

"Part of the fun in going is having people say, 'You're still here!'" Lane said. "There's this whole other thrill to have me come on their special day."

Lane said he thinks that having him at the wedding gives the brides an extra piece of comfort -- they remember him, they are familiar with his work and it's the whole routine all over again.

"It's still fun for me and I think it shows," he said. "It's fun when you get that little edge."

It is the edge that elevates a snapshot to a keepsake.


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