I love black and white photographs. An argument for color can sometimes be made, but in most cases, black and white removes all the distractions so you can focus on what a scene is really about, or it draws you right into a person’s eyes so you can understand or maybe become curious about a their story. I went back to January and picked out some of my favorite black and white images from the year. They are in no particular order and were all an important part of my year.
When I rent studio space for clients I sometimes plan a little extra time to do my own thing in the studio. I have lots of ideas, many fleeting, for things I’d like to make time to work on in the studio. These ideas are different from one another in origin and meaning, but my interest in finding subtlety means that if I followed through with all of them I would have a huge collection of photos that are essentially a face against a plain background.
For example, I recently became obsessed with my microbiome. A few months ago I read The Mind Gut Connection by Dr. Emeran Mayer which was life changing in terms of health, but it led me to read I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, which was life changing in terms of how I see myself and others in relation to the the world. On page 10 Young snagged me with this: The latest estimates suggest that we have around 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion microbial ones — a roughly even split. Even these numbers are inexact, but that does not really matter; by any reckoning we contain multitudes.
I got stuck on the thought that I am as much or even more not-me than I am me. Same for you.
I spend a lot of time trying to capture the essence of a person. When you look at a portrait of yourself, you should see YOU, not just your face and your hair and your body, but something deeper, your mood, your personality, a story or a thought or a memory.
My obsession with my microbes raised the question of photographing a person without capturing THEM. On one hand, capturing a person’s true essence is a challenge. We often want to show people something or present ourselves as we believe we are or as we would like to seem to others. But the goal is to see them and photograph something true and unique about them.
On the other hand, taking a picture of not-you, a picture containing all the same visible characteristics — your face, your hair, your body — but that doesn’t capture your essence at all, is another type of challenge altogether. Even in seeming, we show something about ourselves. What we attempt to show people says something about what is important to us, what we are thinking about at that time, what our insecurities are… these things are as truly you, and as truly me, as the elusive and unique essence I look for in portrait photography.
Photographing not-you has seemed like an impossible task. I’ve been considering how to manage it for months. I thought a little about the portraits of medieval times. Before the humanism of the Renaissance, a picture of a woman was a picture of any woman, not a specific one. It was a role that was captured in a painting — mother, child, leader, caretaker, savior, etc — rather than any unique essence of an individual.
I’ve wanted to do a whole series of un-portraits, or portraits of multitudes. It will basically look like faces, like I said earlier, against a plain background… expressionless, but not eerily so. Faces that just are.
All of this leads up to my most recent creative time in the studio. My dance student and friend, and multi-talented artist, Isabella Dobbs was kind enough to spend an hour doing ridiculous things. Always choose an artist as a subject when you want to do ridiculous things!
We talked about removing the individual by focusing on “face and hands.” We tried to capture these as subjects in themselves, without any “essence of Isabella.”
Isabella is lovely, smart and creative, but I hope you can’t tell any of these things from looking at these pictures! Neil deGrasse Tyson says “We are, each of us, a little universe.” These pictures are meant to present a universe of microbial life.
Here are a few shots from the same session not associated directly with the microbial un-portraits, but with that same spirit of anonymity (not exactly anonymity, but anyone-ness) in mind.
Have you read either of these books? Have any thoughts to share on the idea of individuality in portraiture? Do you find those microbes as exciting as I do?
With another wedding under my belt I am grateful for these opportunities to capture memories and continue learning about the pacing and pressures of wedding day photography.
I’ve known Lisa for 14 years. I was fortunate to watch her beautiful daughters Kaleigh and Kristyn grow up as my ballet students. I expected to see people I knew at Lisa’s wedding, but most of the bridal party and many of the guests were people with whom I have spent most of the past 15 years. My photographer-friend perspective was simultaneously as participant and outsider.
When I arrived Saturday at 4:00 the bridal party preparations were already festive and celebratory.
After Lisa’s finishing touches, we headed outside to the garden venue for formal photos of the bridal party, then I left the ladies to grab a few shots of the groom and his men before guests arrived.
The sun was still bright as the guests started arriving around 6:00 p.m. which created a challenge for my camera — I tried my best to frame the scene under the soft shadow of the gazebo, but that wasn’t always practical or possible.
The wedding began and the pressure was on to catch all of the important once-in-a-lifetime shots — while staying out of the way. It was a beautiful service, led by Chris Chappell, who ensured that any tension was lightened with laughter.
We finished the formal group photo session with the groomsmen, who started by saying “we don’t want to be serious.” I suggested my go-to Toyota jump, which was immediately shot down. I love what we got — I think we perfectly captured their mood and camaraderie without being too serious.
I’ll let the photos tell the story of the reception, from the introduction of the newlyweds through the 80’s dance party and bouquet toss.
Congratulations to Lisa and Matt and best wishes for many years of happiness!
I love love love being part of these occasions and I can’t wait for my weddings next month!
I leave you with a few more images of warmth, friendship and happiness…
The first camera I picked up was a Canon Powershot that didn’t have changeable lenses, but did at least have manual settings. I sat in the dark photographing fast moving dancers without a flash, surrounded by professional photographers who were willing to suggest settings that might allow me to get a shot or two, which was all I needed. I was only there to make sure I had a photo to include with my review of the performance. Back then, I would never have guessed that I would fall in love with the world through the lens and eventually find myself photographing important life events like weddings.
Photographing weddings was never part of my plan — but then Amy asked me to shoot her wedding. I love new challenges so I couldn’t resist this opportunity. As I started learning and preparing myself, I realized that although there were brand new challenges, there was some similarity between shooting a wedding and the performance events where I was first introduced to photography.
Among the similarities are the lighting challenges. I shot ballets and modern dance in a dark theater without a flash. The only light I had to work with was the often minimal stage lighting. Not only was the stage sometimes almost completely dark, but the light changed frequently, meaning I had to keep up with my camera’s settings. Add to this the pressure of knowing I have one shot. If I missed a shot, the moment was gone. So I learned to keep up with the lighting changes while anticipating the next move to be ready for the shot. I found this kind of pressure exhilarating in the theater — it was part of what drew me to photography. I find it equally exhilarating when shooting a wedding! Regardless of the lighting situation, there is only one chance to catch a first kiss.
Amy and Jeff Smith’s wedding, my first, was a beautiful and intimate event of family and friends, hosted in the back yard of the Smith’s good friends. Amy requested only shots of the ceremony and candids from thee day, none of the standard formal group shots or still life photos. This made it the perfect entry into weddings for me. I was able to focus on the the pace and pressure of getting the important one-chance shots and capturing the warmth of the day.
And some of my favorite guests…
I’ll be sharing some shots from a wedding I shot last weekend in my next post, and I’m excited to have several weddings on my calendar for the fall!