Digging through my closet, I came across some old 35mm film strips from a photography class I took back in college. While I scanned these old slides onto my computer, an idea to help fight off the winter doldrums came to me. The result is a two part series on my experiences with film photography. If you missed part 1, you can read it here!
Appreciation to Inspiration
While I would love to sit here and tell you about all the great ideas and adventurous shots I thought about taking after I finally learned how to use a darkroom, I can’t, because that would be a lie. I struggled mightily in this class to come up with interesting and creative ideas for projects and assignments. Call it a creative block, or maybe a lack of inspiration. Whatever you decide to call it, the end result was some very bland and boring pictures snapped through the lens of my Minolta.
Except this lack of inspiration didn’t just stop at the viewfinder of my Minolta. Truth be told I’ve always struggled to come up with good ideas. I’ve never considered myself to be all that creative of a person. Throughout college, in all of my art classes, I struggled with ideas for projects. From film to pottery (which I struggled with technically as well as creatively…) to digital photography, great ideas weren’t exactly flowing out of my head. Every now and then I have moments of inspiration, but for the most part if I sit down to come up with an idea, I ain’t coming up with an idea.
I think this lack of inspiration is best illustrated in my attempts at landscape photography. I love landscape photography. I love to admire it as well as attempt to capture it. I find it to be very peaceful. I also find that I’m terrible at it. The ability of the great landscape photographers to capture not only the light of a scene but the emotion and feeling is just something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. You look at a picture of a tree on a hill and say to yourself, “It’s so simple, yet so beautiful, I could take that!” Then you try to take a similar shot and at least for me, the end result is nothing compared to the original. I am continually amazed by what people see when they look at a scene, or when they see the texture of some wood, or an old run down house, or even a green pepper. I can’t grasp where they get their inspiration from. I can’t comprehend how they see what they see.
The Art of History
I hate art history.
I was required to take, I believe, five art history classes for my degree. This was approximately five too many. I hated art history to the point that I talked one of my advisors into giving me art history credit for a class that wasn’t related to art history in the least if I wrote a ten page paper at the end of the semester (which I totally did in 2 days when it was supposed to be a semester long research paper). At one point, I came to the conclusion that the reason why I didn’t enjoy art history was because I was taking classes that focused on paintings and sculptures, so I took a history of photography class. Even that was awful! I just couldn’t deal with these classes!
Now I realize that the whole previous paragraph flies in the face of Part 1 of this post where I talked about appreciating an art form by looking at where it’s come from and it’s history. I still very much believe that. If you are a painter, you should look at the classic artworks and the evolution of painting. If you are a sculptor, you should study the masters of the craft. If you are an artist in general, a broad look and study at all forms of art is great to give you a holistic view of art in the past and present.
Just don’t make me write a paper about it!
Specifically don’t make me write a paper about the brush strokes and textures used in a specific work of art. Don’t show me a slide of a random work of art and expect me to recall by memory who made it, when they made it, and what style of art it fits under. Don’t make me analyze what this piece of art was saying and the meaning behind it when, if we are being honest, no one but the artist knows. These things don’t teach me anything about art and it’s history. These things are just busy work. Show me the classics, tell me about the famous artists, explain to me how the different artistic styles evolved from one to another, but don’t make me memorize brush strokes!
Pick a Photographer, any Photographer!
One day I wandered into photography class at the beginning of the week, preparing to receive our next assignment. We all sat down, and the teacher proceeded to pass out sheets to all of us detailing what we would be doing. We were to research and find a photographer of old and mimic his/her style. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled. I left class that day wondering what on earth I would do.
In many ways this assignment was a perfect storm for me. It required me to look back through the history of art (in this case, photography), which I was not a fan of, and then I had to mimic/draw inspiration from these classic works (which, if my attempts at landscapes were any indication of, wasn’t all that effective for me). I was at a total loss of what to do.
Then I started looking at portrait photographers.
I remember the first time I looked at portraits by Sally Mann. She is known for using very old school film photography techniques, and she is most famous for the portraits she took of her kids growing up in southern Virginia. You can check out her work here (CAUTION: some of her images contain nudity and there’s controversy around some of her work as well. You have been warned). The first time I looked at her work, I was blown away. Especially the images she took of her family. They were so simple, so innocent, and yet so incredibly powerful to me. I could feel the atmosphere, the setting, the moment in her images. To put it frankly, it’s masterful how she does it.
Something was different though when I looked through Sally Mann’s work. When I looked at photographers like Ansel Adams, I would say to myself, “There is no way I could possibly replicate that.” When I looked at Sally Mann’s work though, I stood there and said to myself, “There is no way I could possibly replicate that, but I want to try!” I felt like it was more achievable for me to create a photo that was 1/100th the work of Sally Mann than it was for me to create a work that approached 1/100th of anything Ansel Adams ever did.
This is why I shoot weddings and portraits. This is why my favorite subject is people. It’s not because shooting portraits is somehow easier than other forms of photography, because that simply isn’t true. It’s just as hard and requires just as much creativity and inspiration as any other art form. Personally though something in my head just clicks with portraiture. I find people to be fascinating! While I can’t look at a mountain and readily see how to capture that moment and emotion, I can look at the face of someone and see it immediately. I want to capture those fleeting moments of pure, clear emotion. I still have to work on my creativity in discovering new and interesting ways to capture that emotion. I still need to look at art as a whole to find inspiration for my work. The difference though is for once, in regards to photographing people, I feel like it’s achievable for me to create works I’m happy with.
Armed with a sense of hope about my photography, I started looking through the famous portrait photographers to find my inspiration for this assignment. That’s when I came across one of my favorite photographers, Philippe Halsman. He was a Latvian born American photographer, and his work just screams character and feeling! Check out some of his work here (CAUTION: Again, a few images with nudity). He had a very quirky and surreal feel to a lot of his work, but he also managed to capture such great moments from his subjects that simply make you smile!
One of his most famous series of portraits came from his Jump Book. As the story goes, he had just finished up a long and stressful photo shoot, and for whatever reason the thought dawned on him to have his subject jump so he could capture him in mid air. His thinking was that when you get someone to jump, they can’t put on a fake smile. What comes out is real emotion! Philippe ended up doing this with tons of famous people at the end of portrait sessions, from royalty to Marilyn Monroe, and many years later published a book with all of them. You can check some of them out here. Do you hate all those wedding pictures where the bridesmaids and groomsmen are jumping? Well, blame Philippe Halsman! I personally fell in love with his Jump Book (and jumping pictures, so sorry to those of you who hate them), and I decided to use his Jump Book as the inspiration for my assignment.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, all the images in this post have been from this assignment. It was easily my most successful photography assignment in this class. Not only did I love it, but the other people in my class loved it! I remember developing one of my pictures in the darkroom, and this guy coming over to the station, seeing my picture, and saying, “Yes more jumping pictures!”
The amazing thing was that Philippe Halsman was dead on in regards to these jumping portraits. For the most part, I would grab willing subjects, put them somewhere, and say jump! That was all the direction I needed to give them. People just naturally lighten up when they are jumping for a camera! It’s nearly impossible to not smile or show some kind of emotion when you are the subject, and the end result is almost always a picture that causes the viewer to smile as well.
In my work today, I often find myself gravitating more towards this quirky, upbeat, playful style of portraiture that Philippe had more so than the dark and mysterious tone of much of Sally Mann’s work. Still I strive to be like both in their ability to capture something raw and real. I want you to look at my photos and feel something. I want you to not only see the joy in someone’s face, but to feel joyful as well! As hard as I try I can’t seem to achieve this with landscape photos, or abstract photos, or many types of photography. Many times I don’t feel like I even achieve this with my portraiture and wedding photography. But I know in my heart that photographing people was what I was supposed to do in this world of art, and I’m going to keep trying to be 1/100th of the photographer that Philippe Halsman and Sally Mann were!
A freelance photographer serving the Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland area, I specialize in weddings, portraits, and event firstname.lastname@example.org