The moment you open the door at Nicole Gates Photography on North Main Street in McAllen, you step into a place Gates designed so women would never want to leave.
“Women are the caretakers, the nurturers,” Gates said. “We take care of everyone else, and we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves. I let women put themselves first again. My job is to help women fall in love with themselves again.”
Gates opened her studio in December, just two months after retiring from a 21-year career.
“I created my second dream job,” she said.
Stepping into her carefully crafted, storybook studio reads much like Gates’ life.
Born in Lima, Peru, the only child of a Danish father, fluent in five languages, and a Chilean mother, fluent in three, Gates first moved to the United States at the age of 1, but her family’s stay was brief. One year after arriving, the company where her father worked transferred him to Antwerp, Belgium, to handle all of the company’s European, Middle Eastern and Asian clients. They stayed in Belgium for 10 years. While there, Gates attended Dutch schools, becoming fluent in the language. Gates’ first language was Spanish, the language they spoke at home. While fluent in English, too, she felt most eloquent speaking Dutch.
When Gates reached middle school, her family moved back to the United States, settling in Kansas City, Kan. After high school, Gates attended the University of Kansas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
“I thought about business,” Gates said, “but learned quickly it was not for me.” She clearly sees the irony in that, now that she is a business owner.
Gates met her husband John while at KU. John, an architect, accepted a job in Utah after graduating from KU. The couple lived apart for one year until Gates was able to transfer to the state with the slogan “Life Elevated.” (The couple married 22 years ago after dating for 10.) In 1999, they moved to McAllen when John accepted a job at Boultinghouse Simpson Architects (now Boultinghouse Simpson Gates Architects).
Fast forward to 2009 when Gates became the unofficial photographer at her oldest son’s sporting events.
“I’ve always been a shutterbug,” Gates said. “The way my memory works, if I don’t have a picture of something, I don’t remember the details.” Her first dream job did not allow her to have a paying side hustle, so Gates took pictures at the games and sent other parents pictures of their children. “I found I was super picky,” and that drove her to continue perfecting her craft.
In 2012, her doctor placed Gates, pregnant with her second son, on bed rest. With so much time on her hands, she began ruminating about her health and her mortality because of her demanding job.
“I took an online photography class with Sue Bryce when I was sitting in bed,” Gates said, “and I had an epiphany. I loved everything she was doing and I loved her message. Then I started asking myself, ‘What am I meant to be? What is my purpose?’ Even though I had an incredible career, I wanted more.”
Gates established a goal for herself. She would become an accredited Portrait Master through Bryce’s program. First, she set out to develop a style of her own. “I wanted my photos to be recognizable.” Second, she would earn the first of three accreditation levels — Associate. “It’s not just a title,” Gates said. “My work has to reflect it.”
She built her portfolio, focused on improving with every photo she took and that tenacity paid off. Last year, a portrait Gates submitted for the Portrait Masters competition earned 15th place out of 971 submissions. Then, after two-and-a-half years of submitting images, she earned Associate-Level status.
“You have to score at professional standards, as determined by a panel of Master Judges,” Gates said. She is the first and only Portrait Masters Associate south of Houston, but she will not rest on those proverbial laurels. Gates is now focused on earning Portrait Masters’ Master Level.
While Gates photographs high-school and college seniors, men, dancers and families, she specializes in contemporary portrait photography, creating timeless images for her clients. Her target market is women of all ages.
“One day, people will go to find photographs of you; what will they find?” Gates asked. A portrait session with Gates includes full make-up and hair, and a wardrobe from which clients can choose. “A portrait session is life changing,” she said.
Gates agrees with the words of Theodore Roosevelt: Comparison is the thief of joy. “I wish all women loved their curves, their wrinkles and their laugh lines.” Gates aims to help women do just that.
For some, retirement is a time to relax and think back on life. Gates has no intention of doing that any time soon.
“My life is just beginning,” she said. “I feel younger, more energetic and more excited about the future than I’ve ever felt before.”