It’s “Guest Blog Wednesday” featuring Chris Orwig!
Greetings! My name is Chris Orwig , and I’m a photographer, interactive designer and educator. I whole heartedly agree with the acclaimed French photographer Marc Riboud who says, “Photography is about savoring life at 1/100th of a second.” And it is true, isn’t it? Photography enriches, enlivens and expands how we think, what we see and who we are. Photography helps us live more fully, more completely. Having a camera in hand does make a difference. Yet, throughout one’s photographic journey, there are seasons when our passion and vitality dwindles. That’s why we read blogs like this. We’re looking for a bit of straightforward information and inspiration that will further us along. In light of that, here’s a post devoted to providing you with some creative thoughts and anecdotes that will hopefully lead you to creating more compelling photographs – enjoy!
Burn out or Burn Bright
As a photography faculty at the Brooks Institute, I’ve worked with a wide range of students. Some have gone on to accomplish great things – even fame! Others have dried up, burned out and left the field all together. I’ve always been interested in this dichotomy, and it interests our students as well. They are always on the lookout for the secret that will help them excel. A few years back, one student was having his portfolio reviewed by the legendary Jay Maisel.
The review was fine, yet after it was over the student pleaded with Jay, “Tell me, how can I take more interesting photos?” With missing a beat, Jay volleyed back, “Become a more interesting person.” Or said in another way, as Chris Rainier told me last week, “…at some point photography becomes autobiographical. In order to create better photos, sometimes we need to put down the photography books and magazines. Then we need to go out and to develop who we are.”
Who we are, shapes what we see.
Make the Ordinary Extraordinary
Regardless of who you are or what your do, it is easy for anyone to fall prey to “if only” thinking. If only I had that lens. If only I had that camera. If only I was given that assignment. If only I lived in that town. If only. Yet, to counter such stifling thoughts, many photographers I know use their imagination to redefine circumstances. And right now, I’m not talking about photographically finding beauty in unlikely circumstances. While that is critical, here I’m talking about defining who you are and what you do. Let me explain.
I once heard the author Anne Lamott say, “Brickwork can be done as a laborer or as an artisan.” The work is the same, but the process and outcomes vary. So which person works harder? Well that’s easy, right? It’s the artisan, because that person gives 110% with the hope of creating something extraordinary out of the ordinary. And which job is more difficult? The laborers of course. The laborer toils, sweats and curses. The artisan toils, sweats and smiles… a smile filled with the gratification that only comes from a day of honest work. The laborer reaches the summit at the end of the day and collapses. The artisan reaches the same summit tired and sore, yet exhilarated.
I once had the privilege of having lunch with Rodney Smith. While we were talking, Rodney said something that stuck with me. He said, “Still of hand cannot make up for emptiness of heart.”
In other words, holding a camera still, i.e. technique, is never a substitute for soul. Yes, learn the technical aspects of photography and learn them well. Yet, simultaneously fill your heart… look beyond yourself. And we’ve all experienced this truth in different ways. For me, the best photographic instruction I’ve received came from an unlikely source. While I was in grad school, I dedicated a few months to working with cancer patients at a hospital. It was painful, yet these patients became my friends and taught me to see. The cliché that life truly is a gift, became a reality. And it’s this reality that continually shapes my vision and causes me to cherish and capture day-to-day moments like this one of my daughter Annika.
Life is short. Therefore I say let’s live life fully and completely. And the good news is that it’s never too late to follow Gil Baile’s advice, “Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go and do that. For what the world needs, is people who have come fully alive.” Seriously, when was the last time you asked yourself that question? And I hope you realize, this isn’t just happy snappy positive thinking. Rather, it is a call to use your waking hours to think deep and dream big. For this will open you up to new realities, just as Edgar Allen Poe once said, “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
As an artisan, or as an artist, I can’t simply photograph the obvious and put down my camera. Rather, I first take the obvious shot and get that one out of my system. Then, I look again… and I stop to listen. Listening, I look up and see the ubiquitous train sign. My first few attempts are interesting yet still too obvious. Then, I discover the perspective that tells the story. Removing the specifics and capturing the change of the letters, adds to the sense of adventure and journey. Even more, the image is still, yet you can almost hear the click-click-click-click of the letters flipping.
In other circumstances, as an artisan wanting to get more out of life, it means that I haul my camera gear with me on a backcountry snow camping trip in the Sierras. As I climb into my cold sleeping bag, I make sure my camera is right next to me so I can capture the morning light. As I wake, I first unzip my camera bag, and then I unzip the tent. The view is invigorating, so I press the shutter.
One of my colleagues and mentors, Ralph Clevenger, has taught me the importance of creating simple yet powerful photographs. In the courses he teaches, he is fond of encouraging his students to reduce and simplify. And I like this approach, but don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about reductionism. Rather I’m talking about saying more with less. For example, what the novelist says in 10,000 words a poet says in 10. The poet not only reduces and simplifies, but reduces, simplifies and deepens. And somehow after we read a poem, we not only have more information, we have more experience. Even more, poets aim to keep circling or bringing the reader back into the story. Kind of like what I’m trying to do with this self-portrait.
At other times, poets use their poetic license to create narratives that conceptualize experience and are full of emotion. And I want that in my photographs. So when I go to photograph one of the fastest cyclists in the world in a wind tunnel, I begin to think how can I capture not just what I see (photo 1) but how I feel (photo 2).
I’m on location photographing one of my favorite musicians – Ben Harper. While I’m setting up a large format camera, another lady wanders over with a few VIPs and begins to take some snapshots with Ben. The woman is upset because Ben is not smiling. She unsuccessfully pleads with Ben, “Smile…. Smile… Say Cheese.” Finally, Ben fires back, “Lady, I smile with my eyes.” What a profound response and what a lesson. So often we get hung up thinking that an expression must be obvious. We forget to look and listen. A few minutes later I’m set, I wait and I watch. Ben smiles.
Literature is one of my biggest sources of photographic inspiration because good writers, create visual images without visuals. Writers like Sir William Empson amaze me. He once wrote, “Great literature makes us think and feel conflicting things at the same time.” Upon reading that, I can broaden my approach to photographing people. No longer do I have to tell one story, but perhaps I can tell many.
For example, below are a few photos of some surfing legends: Tom Curren (World Champion), Shaun Tomson (World Champion), and Jack O’Neill (Inventor of the Wetsuit). In the surfing community, these people are legends of incredible status. In approaching this project, I could have photographed them as mythic legends. Yet, in my opinion, beyond the myth resides a level of authenticity that speaks quietly yet profoundly. And I prefer the simplicity and subtlety of this voice. Therefore, rather than a standard surfer portrait, I use film and an old wooden and brass camera. As I photograph, I hold my breath and hope to capture a story that has layers, a story that the draws you in.
One of my favorite things about photography is that, “…like many art forms it is contagious. Like good music, you want to sing along.” (Anne Lamott). And if you are a kid, you want to dance. Turn on music and kids start dancing. They can’t help it! When I see good photographs or spend time with good photographers, I want to go out and make my own images. The trick is to keep up this childlike desire to participate, rather than to critique. Just as Picasso said, “All children are artists. The problem is to remain one when you grow up.” Anyone can criticize from the sidelines. It takes an artist to engage, experiment and play.
In closing, I hope is that this post has gotten you thinking and maybe even provided you a bit of inspiration. Thanks for reading, and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to a blog that I read everyday! Finally, if you’re thinking, “Yeah, I dig what Chris is saying and I want to be more creative, so now where do I begin?” Here’s what I recommend. Go out and do something that makes you come fully alive. For me there’s nothing like a good surfing session to revitalize who I am and how I see.
So whatever it is for you, go and do that, for many of my best photographs come as the result of doing what I love and being fully alive.