Maybe it’s waking up out of winter, or maybe it’s just a little more sunshine affecting my brain – but I recently splurged on some photography gear.
This year, to kick off my project, I treated myself to a new camera strap from Gordy’s. It’s not going to make my photos better, and it’s not one of those $100 artisan leather products that get all the reviews. It’s a simple leather strap that holds my Canonet around my neck. And it’s dark brown, with red and burgundy accents.
It’s half fashion, half pragmatism. My old strap was a simple nylon affair, thin and unassuming. It did the job, sure, but not well, and it wouldn’t win any beauty contests. With this new leather strap, at least I feel like human beings made it with attention and care.
I also have this thing where all my camera straps need to be brown. Whatever.
Last winter, off my big portrait project, I needed something to keep me entertained during these cold Michigan winter months. I needed a photo project to keep my mind and camera busy, and something that I could do inside.
When Sandhill Crane Vineyards invited me to be their featured artist for May, I felt like I needed to show some fresh work in their gallery. Wine would be fun. But what if I did more than wine still life photos? What if I made it bigger?
A few months back I was invited to speak to the Jackson Civic Art Association about the project. One of the members, Carrie Joers, dug my still life shots. More than liking them, she wanted to paint them, and figured a how-to session on setting up a still life setting would be good for her drawing and painting friends.
Here’s what I told the group in terms of restrictions and things to think about:
Look at good still life paintings and photos to get an idea of what you like. I started with the Dutch masters, and went through to good product photography. Keep an idea board (I used Pinterest).
Get yourself a theme. Doing random stuff is fun, but I found a theme (seasons, with food as the focus) easier to keep myself focused and organized. Pears go with winter, acorns go with fall, and colors matter, etc.
Look for materials and items around the house, and keep texture in mind (the more, the merrier). Figure out what you don’t have on hand, and then go bargain shopping: yard sales, thrift stores, stuff in your parents’ attic, that kind of thing. Fabrics, containers, decorations – all that stuff can be had for cheap. To get the fresh ingredients, I went grocery shopping.
Set up near a window for good light, and make your own backdrop. This was a lot of fun for me: I got to experiment with painting on a canvas, and setting a mood (here’s my simple set up at home).
Experiment and practice. Move stuff around. Try a bunch of shots. Take 50 photographs to find the one killer shot.
Challenge yourself. I went with one camera, one lens – and a 100mm macro lens at that. Set restrictions, stick to your theme, and don’t make it easy.
I’m making my slideshow (with notes) available as a download (PDF), since I can’t give my presentation to you, the reader. It should give you some background, some ideas, and some inspirational crumbs to follow.
In those “check out these photos from the 19X0s” articles, it’s often the background of the picture that’s the most interesting. The ways signs looked, the clothing people wore, the neon lights or the font on the side of a delivery truck.
What did the 1980s look like?
My wife recently shared a photo of her and her dad goofing around in the living room. People thought the photo was cute, but most of the discussion took place over the TV set in the background. Memories! Remember those old console TVs?
I think about this truism – that we’re often most interested in the background, not the subject, of photographs – every time I take photos of the kids in the living room, or the window signs in downtown Ann Arbor. In the future, we’ll look back on these photos and remember what our time looked like.
For every photo we make, we’re recording a little slice of history.
From looming billboards to glittering shop windows to the myriad distractions flowing through the pocket-sized screens we carry everywhere, vast and sophisticated efforts prod us to look in specific directions, at specific things, in specific ways. Taken together, they add up to a kind of war against seeing. I try to be part of the resistance.
Walker’s tips are all good strategies for design, writing, and photography exercises. What do you spot that’s interesting, new, or unseen? There’s a photo project in the making.
Notice things that aren’t meant to be noticed creatively – “attend to some recurring thing that is ubiquitous” Walker says – and you get one of those cataloging projects that are such a joy. For myself, that includes handmade yard sale signs. It’s a little thing, but it’s fun.