About a year and a half ago, I had a crazy idea for a portrait project: Gather up some of the talented artists in my hometown of Jackson, Michigan, take their portrait, and share their story.
It took time, and thinking, and a bit of bravery, but last June I started to reach out to local artists and introduce myself. For many of them, it must have been weird to get an email from a random guy saying he wanted to take their picture.
Remarkably, I received very few “no thanks” replies. There were a few artists who couldn’t make the time, or life circumstances got in the way, but overwhelmingly everyone I talked to was up for it – if a little confused about what the project was about.
So one by one, person by person, I built a subject list. I started with people I knew (thanks Cassandra!), introduced myself at local art festivals, and got in touch with art collectives in the area. I discovered artists and their art.
It was a long game. I knew it was going to take months, and it ended up taking me well into the fall to photograph everyone. Then I had to transcribe the interviews, edit the photos, write the profiles, and design the book. It was a lot of work. And this was after having a brand new baby!
But here I am, one year after the launch, and everything fell into place. My first show at Sandhill Crane Vineyards was a big success (above), and we had another group show at Art 634. Two shows, two months – two opportunities to show off my project and the talented artists. Maybe even help out the artistic economy in town.
I’m super grateful for all the support I’ve received from my community. I feel like the hard work I put in has been worth it, that I’m getting these artists out in front of people, and that big, ambitious projects like this are important.
Artists In Jackson has helped me think differently about my photography. I’ve learned that photography can be a great way to meet new people, and to give back to the community.
And as a “maker” of stuff, it’s been so rewarding to make the photos, write the stories, and produce the book. It all tickles that “joy” part of my brain: I made something that people purchase and read and hang on their walls.
It’s super satisfying.
Last March I had an idea: what if the artistic community in Jackson got together and threw a big social media party – an advocacy and awareness campaign to promote arts and culture around the county. That idea came to fruition, and today is the day, thanks to my colleagues at the Arts and Cultural Alliance.
My family took a short vacation to northern Michigan over the weekend to visit family. On the way back, as I usually do, I made it a point to stop at the little towns along the way and grab a few photographs.
Capturing small towns in Michigan is long, ongoing project of mine. I find the sights of these little communities so fascinating. And it highlights the benefit of getting off the interstate highway system and travel the two-lane highways all across the countryside. It’s on these little side trips that you see the memorable stuff. There’s space, time, and a lack of traffic that makes pulling over easier, too.
Making photos of these small towns is almost an archeological exercise for me. I feel like I need to capture the quirks and personalities of these towns and villages before they disappear. Or in case I never come back.
There’s value in returning to the same places or subjects over and over again. In time, you watch the place change, grow, or deteriorate as your own skills develop.
The Irish Hills of Michigan has become my go-to spot, over and over again, for years now. My fascination with the place comes from childhood: I grew up and around the area, and visited the local amusement parks often. It’s also a gorgeous place, full of rolling hills and secluded lakes, and located along the US-12 corridor west of Detroit.
Lately, I’ve driven US-12 on my work commute, which is much more my style – no freeway, no stop-and-go-traffic, etc. And each day I drive the route, I think, “This is the place I want to focus my creative attention.”
There are plenty of project opportunities in a diversity of settings in the Irish Hills. It already has been my focus for a few years now. But lately, I find that I keep coming back to the place. I did just that this past weekend, revisiting some old haunts and scoping out some new ones.
During Artists In Jackson, my portrait strategy for each artist was a mix of planning and spontaneity.
Take Ashley here. My thinking going into our sessions was: pick a cool spot, a good time of day, and see what we make.
Others, like Andrew, I didn’t know the location at all, but as we explored the building we found a room with just my kind of light.
My trick is to find a location that has what Brooks Jensen calls a “density of opportunity.” Namely, head to a place I know reasonably well, with cool surroundings, that we can use to make photos. And typically, I try to find a time of day where light comes in at an angle, and I can have fun with shadows or golden hour.
Otherwise, I’m making it up as I go along. And that’s part of the fun, and the learning. Those variables feel comfortable.
That may be why I’m having such a hard time getting started on my next portrait project. This time, my thinking is to have everyone come to one location, with a structured light source, and shoot on a simple backdrop with simple surroundings. There’s no improv involved with the settings, lighting, etc. The only variable is the subject of the portrait – that’s where the chaos comes in.
With such a rigid structure, I feel like everything—the place, the time, the light—has to be perfect before I even get started making photographs. So I haven’t started.
Given enough time, that Not Starting turns into guilt (for not making) and worry (about never starting), and that’s where I sit right now.
For the last few years, every holiday season, I’ve made it a point to create a family photo album. It’s a highlight reel of the most recent year, with our vacations, our birthdays, our seasons and walks and daily routines all documented.
My family photos albums were so important to me growing up. For many years, a lot of my childhood photo albums were somewhere I couldn’t get to them. It was only in the last seven or eight years that I got ownership back, and I made it a point to scan all those childhood pictures for safe-keeping (digital is relatively fire proof, as long as you have a good stable backup).
Going through those old photo albums was satisfying. I feel like I got my childhood back. And today, while we still print individual photo prints of the family, the idea of a photo book—a collective annual history—is a tradition I want to carry on. I look forward to making our photo book each year.
Another tradition: making a photo calendar and giving it away to family members. That’s become an annual tradition too, and it’s fun to see a year full of family photos and memories up on relatives’ walls. It makes for a great Christmas gift.
This year, I want to try something new: give away photo books to family members. With my daughter turning one this week, I think a photo book of her first year might make some family members pretty happy.
These are the types of things that keep memories alive.
This year, with the photo book idea, I can keep our collective family history going – and make sure that if one collection of pictures gets lost, there’s another copy floating around somewhere.
I’m just going to leave this here, as a kind of in-public to-do list.
Musicians In Jackson: This is my ongoing, maybe-soon next project, featuring musicians in my community. Still stewing on this one, but getting closer to getting started.
Artists In Jackson – part two!
Some smaller, more personal portrait shoots with friends and family. Go somewhere interesting, and just make photographs. I have a few offers out there.
Something here on the University of Michigan campus. I thought about setting up a tripod and asking people on the Diag to stop and get their photo, and see what I can get. There’s so many people here – there has to be something fun I could do.
A documentary project highlighting something going on in Jackson. Maybe longer form, maybe one-off, but the idea would be to follow a story from beginning to end.
A zombie/horror movie conceptual photo shoot, with costumes and locations and makeup and all that. I’ve had this one in mind, totally for fun, for a long time. I bet I have some friends who would totally be up for it.
Last week I visited the Detroit Institute of Art to check out The Open Road exhibition, a fantastic collection of photography road trips by some of the great photographers. It was right up my alley (so much so that I bought the accompanying book).
It got me thinking: What if I had been into photography, like I am now, back when I took my country-crossing road trips?
Surely I could have made some sort of project or publication out of my Route 66 trip, or my New England trip, or any of the other big road trips I took in my 20s and early 30s. I went on some pretty great adventures, and I took lots of photos, but I wasn’t into photography. I didn’t have the eye I do today.
A book is an enclosed and encapsulated medium that you can actually come pretty damn close to perfecting. I also tend to think that the book is sometimes more important than the show, as the exhibit is a temporary thing, often hanging for a month or six weeks and then it goes away.
Maybe a couple of thousand people see it?
But a book is something that I always say is on your “permanent record” and it never ever goes away—so you better get it right!
He also highlights the importance of playing around with the physical layout of a photo book:
As far as putting together the books, I spend hundred & hundreds of hours shuffling around my photographs, making dummies, turning pages, and switching them around and all that. To me that is really the only way to do it, to print the pictures out, paste them in a physical blank book dummy, and turn the pages.
For my Artists In Jackson book, I didn’t quite know what the layout was going to look like. So I printed a bunch of horizontal and portrait-shaped squares, taped them to pages, and moved them around to see how the look and flow would go. It was super helpful to see the book take shape, even if only in the abstract.
It also helps to give it to someone you trust, and ask, “What do you think?”