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Precious moments preserved

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

The pictures are all about home. Not a place, really, but a comfort zone. How a daughter feels cradled in a mother's arms. A moment in the light after sunset when two brothers walk barefoot down a dirt road with fishing poles. A family gathered on a beach in the instant it takes to click a shutter.

The light is always gorgeous, always old Masters in spirit.

The man behind the lens is Pepito.

It's the only name he likes to go by, though his last name is Valdes.

He and his wife, Julie Baker, operate their business, Pepito Masterpiece Portraits out of their home and studio at 202 S Lois Ave.

The cottage wears coats of muted teal and burgundy. Tibetan flags are strung above the front door. Clients like to dangle their feet from the porch swing and drink a cup of Pepito's Cuban coffee while they unwind for their portraits.

Inside, Pepito's photos are displayed casually, propped against walls and around the dining room as if the people in them have stopped by for dinner. The faces are in sepia and color. Everyone is forever preserved in precious moments of good health and love.

Before the portraits are shot, Baker spends time talking to families and visiting their homes. She helps clients decide what size photo is appropriate for their decor, the best color frame and mat, where they want the photos shot.

Sometimes it's the studio. Sometimes a wooded patch of family property. Sometimes a porch, with steps just high enough for a little girl in her velvet dress to sit and study a flower from the garden.

Pepito, who grew up in west Tampa, is a former station photographer at WEDU-Ch. 3. He was also a still photographer for PBS. Celebrities who sat for his portraits included Pavarotti and Tammy Wynette. He has won prestigious portrait competitions sponsored by Fuji Film. He's both energetic and spiritual. He asks for a blessing before every project.

He says simply: "I ask for assistance."

His business is about a lot more than just taking fancy portraits and printing them on canvas. Sessions last all day, and the average order costs about $3,000 to $4,000.

"We learn about relationships within families -- what's important and meaningful," Baker says. "We want to know how each family member interacts. We ask questions, questions, questions. People always talk about their love for each other, how close they are, how when they go home they fall on top of each other."

Thoughtfully. Baker is gentle and good with kids. It's evident in the way their two rescued poodles, Pookie and Felipe, collapse in bliss when she holds them on her lap and strokes their ears. A kindergarten teacher for 20 years, she knew she needed time off when her mother, Omie Baker, died in 1996. Omie was the principal of Riverhills Elementary School in Temple Terrace. Baker's 47-year-old sister is developmentally disabled and needs the care and attention of family members.

"We decided this business was something we could do together," Pepito says.

"That is capturing the look and feel of relationships."

Or, how people look when they're really at home.

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