Guest Blog: Portrait Photographer and Retoucher Emily McGonigle

The Importance of Play

Being a creative in 2019 can be tough sometimes. There is this expectation of perfection everywhere you look. There is the need to outdo your last piece of work. There is the race for more follows and likes. There is a constant fight for attention and affirmation that didn’t exist before.

Technology has changed the way we view and present work: We post our work online to social media instead of as prints in homes or galleries. It has changed the way people respond to work: A constant barrage of imagery and content online has desensitized viewers and has made them less likely to react to anything in a meaningful way. Technology has changed the way our work receives attention and praise: We get double taps, tags, and “likes” instead of clients and gallery print sales.

I actually recently found an Instagram account called @insta_repeat, that displays this idea all too well. Everyone is so busy fighting for attention, that they’re more willing to recycle and blatantly imitate something they’ve already seen get a good reaction, rather than try to invent compelling imagery for themselves. Why bother putting in the effort to make something that might not get as many likes as a “behind the model, holding hat, staring at beautiful landscape shot?”

The pressure to be consistently great is exhausting, at best, and crippling at worst. It makes us (at least me), not want to create anything that isn’t meticulously thought out. I found myself not wanting to shoot anything unless I had the session completely mapped out in my brain, from what hair and makeup was going to look like, what every piece of our wardrobe was going to be, to exact lighting, and what the set was going to look like. Don’t get me wrong, these things are important to keep in mind and plan for, but there was a certain, unyielding rigidity to the way I went about doing it.

I didn’t like having to be flexible if there was a change in plans for a certain look or shot. I didn’t push myself to venture outside of the box of static images I had already pre-planned in my head. And the worse part is, if I didn’t nail something exactly the way I saw it in my head, I felt like the entire shoot was ruined and like I was the worst photographer in the world.

Then, something happened a few months ago: It was my birthday and my plan was to spend a quiet day in my pajamas playing video games and drinking wine. However, instead of doing that, I ended up spending 13 hours in front of my computer racing to meet a retouching deadline.

By the time I was done with that work, the LAST thing I wanted to do was spend MORE time in front of the computer, home alone, on my birthday. So instead, I got dressed, grabbed my camera, and went downtown to the venue where my husband’s band was playing.

My only motivation that night was to go out and have some fun. I people watched, I took some photos of the band, of new friends I had made, of the dancing crowd, and around downtown at night. There were zero expectations of me from clients or otherwise. I was shooting because I wanted to, not because I had to.

That night I had the most genuine fun with my camera that I have had in a long time.

I had no goals, no plan, and I wasn’t restricting myself to anything. Everything felt different to me. It was all beautiful, it was all intriguing, and it was all fun. I was playing.

Some of my more recent favorite images came from that night. They may not be technically correct or interesting to a mass amount of people, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that I was shooting for myself, falling in love with photography again, and playing.

I’m a huge believer in continuing to learn and grow, even after you’ve becoming a working professional. It’s important as a business person to stay relevant, if you want to keep getting clients and making money. It’s also important as an artist to not get stagnant, if you want to stay fulfilled in the work you make.

With that in mind, I decided to join a mentoring group called Art Mafi-ah. A friend of mine had been a part of the group for months prior to my joining, and the growth and change that took place within his body of work and his joyfulness towards his own work was astonishing. That kind of growth was something that I was craving, so when the opportunity came for me to join Art Mafi-ah, I was eager to do so, even though I knew it would be a lot of work and likely push me to do things that I was initially uncomfortable with.

In the short amount of time I’ve been in Art Mafi-ah, my way of thinking has changed. I have had a breath of fresh air breathed into my creative soul and I have NO idea what to do with it… but that’s okay. Although, it took me a little while to realize that it was okay to not know. I’m in the middle of an artistic identity crisis, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s about exploration, playing, and working out the things I love to do from the things I don’t so that I can eventually land where I’m meant to be.

Part of Art Mafi-ah’s program is getting weekly assignments followed by a group critique on the images you’ve created. The first assignment I took on, I fell back into the way I’ve always done things. My execution of the shoot was just as perfected and rigid as everything else I’ve done in the past. I like the image, and I’m proud of what I made, especially because there were a lot of technical challenges that I was able to overcome on my own to get exactly the shot I wanted. But in the end, no one looking at the image knows that backstory, so it’s not as meaningful to them as it is to me.

The next few assignments I did were very obviously done just to get the assignment done. There wasn’t anything special about them. They were boring, stagnant, and a little too literal. I could have made it fun, but I didn’t.

Then one day my brain broke and I had a mini meltdown.

We were given an assignment to photograph whatever we wanted dealing with smoke, fire, or wind. I got a model, I rented a haze machine, I lit the portrait, took the shots, and then when I went to cull them down later, I lost my mind.

Nothing made sense. Why did I photograph the model with such “pretty” and “soft” expressions? Why was she in a black dress under blue and red lights? There was so much much haze on set, it made it hard for my camera to focus, yet in the end none of it looked like smoke. What did any of those elements have to do with each other and why did I think it was even a good idea?

I was frustrated with myself for not having thought out the idea enough, but at the same time thinking too inside the box of “just making sure I completed the assignment.”

I didn’t turn in my assignment that week. I was too embarrassed and upset about what I had created. My mentor wasn’t going to let me get away with that though, so I had to turn the assignment in for the next week. At first I THOUGHT I was just going to go ahead and finish the shoot I had started. I already had the images, and I didn’t have the time or resources to shoot it AGAIN, so … “I guess I’ll just edit and retouch this mess, turn it in, and get the criticism I deserve.”

Frustrated, I thought to myself, “But I don’t need criticism on these. I already know everything that went wrong, what I SHOULD have done, and why this project didn’t work. I kind of just wish I could burn them, learn from my mistakes and move on.”

That’s when it hit me: Burn them. I could burn them. Literally. The assignment was to photograph smoke, wind, or fire. I was so fixated on the failure of my smoke attempt, that I completely forgot I had two other extremely viable options at my disposal.

So that’s what I did. I printed the images out and I photographed the prints while they burned. Burn them, learn from my mistakes, and move on. Do better. Grow.

After that shoot, I found myself starting to loosen up a bit. I made sure to actually plan my shoots (unlike my smoke shoot), but to leave some room for play and exploration. I started to try having a more generalized idea of the concepts I was going to shoot, rather than having every single frame mapped out in my brain before I even picked up my camera.

I’ve recently become obsessed with this idea of “play” in my work. I’ve stopped caring so much about what my peers would think of what I’m making, or why I’m making it. A few weeks ago, I bought my first film camera ever: a Canon Sure Shot point and shoot. As soon as I hit “order” I started to get excited about all the possibilities of playing with it. It was a new toy. It was something new to explore and just have fun with. Just like at the bar downtown months ago, there would be zero expectations, zero pressure, all fun. It sparked my imagination and is just one more reason for me to fall in love with what I do.

As soon as I got it in the mail, I loaded a roll of Tri-X film and shot through the entire roll in one day. They’re all just photos of my friends hanging out at my office, but it was so much fun to shoot. Will any of them come out? Will they all be technically correct? Will every frame be a winner? Will they have hyper mass appeal? 

Who cares?

What I love about them and the many rolls of film I shot since then, (and I haven’t even seen them yet) is that I didn’t shoot them for a client. I didn’t shoot them for my Instagram followers, or a client with specific expectations. I shot them for me. I was documenting and hunting and capturing photos for my own enjoyment and no one else’s. I’m playing in my element and it’s such a freeing feeling.

I want to start approaching all of my shoots with this playful mentality. It’s not always easy to stay in that mindset, but the more I do it, and the more I approach my shoots with more childlike wonder, the more fun will I have, and the cooler the images will be that I come away with. It’s almost like learning to see again. I have had such narrow vision for such a long time, that widening that up has sparked a lot of excitement and ideas in my mind than I had before. And even though they’re not fully developed yet, it’s a step in the right direction.

Four months ago I was miserable and depressed. I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore, I just knew I was bored. Now I love photography again. I want to do things, I want to make things, and I want to play.

I’ve always heard it said (hell, I’ve even said it myself before) that personal work is important, but It REALLY IS important. It’s so easy to get burnt out on what you’re doing. It’s so easy to want to ONLY shoot work that you can make money from, or show in your portfolio, or on your Instagram. It’s easy to want to shoot for other people’s approval, chasing those “likes,” but doing that is only going to cause you to burn out on what you’re doing. Working that way, you’re doing it for everyone else but you, and that becomes exhausting after a while. 

Who cares if your new idea is completely different than everything you’ve done before? Who cares if exactly zero frames of my first role of film come out good? It’s important just to DO it. Like Ms. Frizzle always said: “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy!”

Make sure to take time to make work for. Everything else will follow.

Emily McGonigle is a portrait photographer and retoucher based in Nashville, Tennessee. You can see more of her work at, and keep up with her on Instagram.

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