Creating the Image Part I of IV – Concepting
We’re excited to start a new series on the blog today – showcasing some of Chris’s personal work in a way that we’ve never fully discussed before. Back in January of this year we created some personal conceptual portraiture, with the intention of not only making amazing images, but documenting the entire process from concepting and brainstorming, all the way to the final product The result? A four part series on the blog over the coming weeks that will go in-depth into the creative and technical aspects of the shoot.
For our first post, we wanted to start long before lights are staged and cameras readied – we wanted to discuss the creative process that goes into making personal work, what inspires us, and how we bring those ideas to life in front of the camera. Keep reading to learn more about Chris’s conceptual process…
Chris and I sat down and shared a beer last week as we spoke about his creative process when it comes to making personal work. The rest of this post is in Chris’s words, with my questions and prompts in italics.
When it comes to personal work, a lot of the time I try to think about the space first – it’s much easier to set the stage when you’re building it. Environments are major sources of inspiration for me, whether natural or man-made. I find that it’s a lot easier when I’m on the go and traveling and seeing the world to be inspired by the places I end up.
That being said, finding a location first is a great way to start a picture, but if we have a subject or model and they’re amazing, it can be equally inspiring. Most importantly, it’s best to have something that you’re “married to” and work out from there. If you have no real starting point that is anchored, making a final product is much more difficult because each piece of that final photos is aided by every other piece – ultimately, the image grows on itself, and if there is no real starting point, there is nothing to grow from.
Let’s talk about Paper Airplane Flyer, where did you find your inspiration?
I was on a location scouting trip in California when I found this background. When I was in the space my mind went to a concept that I had a few years ago involving a child and paper airplanes. From there I knew it was time to do this airplanes picture.
I thought of how you’d see seagulls flying in flocks, taking over the entire landscape. I pictured them swarming the scene – in the foreground, background, high in the air and all over. I wanted to play off that idea and fill the scene with the paper airplanes, and have a model caught in the middle of it all, reacting to the magical environment they were in.
Was this a previous idea at any point?
I have a running list of concepts – some of them are a single image, some are bigger projects that would be ten, twenty, or thirty images. I know that I’ll never be able to get to all of them in my life but I keep the list so that when it’s time to make new work that is self driven, I can refer back to it.
The process started in 2009 – I spent a lot of time thinking about pictures and as a result made photos like The Rocket Boy and Firefly Girl. As time went on we’ve chipped away at the list and added things and modified concepts over time.
Sometimes you just feel like certain pictures are never ready, but if you’ve got that big list of them and all of a sudden inspiration strikes or you discover a certain element in traveling or in work or life, that makes a concept really click, you know it’s time to make that photo.
The list is always changing and evolving, we add to it when it’s relevant. I don’t force myself to be creative, I can’t make myself sit down and devote an hour a week to it. A lot of times with traveling, I’ll be in a state of mind or mood and see something that gives me an idea for a picture – I’ll see something getting on a plane or I’ll see something being on set wherever we are and an idea will manifest itself. I try to remember it and then write it down in my logbook.
Is there ever a “eureka” moment or does the concepting process evolve? How do other collaborators play into that process?
It is an evolving process certainly. I remember that I first thought the paper airplanes photo was with a male child, but it wasn’t clicking, it wasn’t finishing itself. I think the image had to do with stumbling upon our model. It was a chance occurrence, and she seemed very good for this concept. When I spoke with the stylist about what the girl would be wearing everything came full circle in a very simple, minimal but modern and clever way. I closed the loop on the picture at that point – It was just time to execute.
I think with my experience, I’m good at knowing what I want. With the retouching end of it, I started doing my own retouching for six years and I understand the process. Ultimately though, I need the real expertise of our digital artists to make the final vision. I’m always confident that we’ll be capable of putting this final picture together in post – I consider how to light and shoot it, but I always want to go over it with everyone to be 100% sure. They could see something that I might miss, or another way of approaching the image to make it come together easier in post. It’s very similar in regards to the styling. If I did the styling and the shopping and the retouching, this picture would be probably half as successful. Knowing exactly what I want for the image and being the driving creative force, it’s incredibly helpful to work with that team of people. The stylists input overall on mood and vision helped sway me to take it a little bit further and make it something that was better.
Any closing thoughts?
This project came together shockingly well. Thinking back to 2009, The Rocket Boy image took weeks if not months of refining to make it finally match my vision. I think though, when you’re working on your own and you know 90% of where you want to go with it and you don’t have on set limitations you just need focus and time and a commitment to getting there and finishing the image.
With a shoot like this, it’s nice to have the concept locked down to say “this is exactly the picture we’re going to make,” but when you’re actually on set and shooting, you still want the natural process of photography to happen. Even if you’ve got an exact expression in mind, you’re still waiting for that special moment. You’re still waiting for serendipity. You think you’re there but you’ve got to try other things – you have to put your model in different positions, you have to try and get more out of them, more than what they naturally are. You need to keep asking yourself, where are they going to fit in the frame? What’s best? Are they running, are they jumping? Are they laughing or are they going to be sad? You always need to be channeling lots of different moods and motivations and to really make sure to test that the concept holds up as well as you think it will.
Stay tuned, we’ll have the next part in the series coming up soon on the blog. We’ll go behind the scenes and look at the pieces and the process brought this photo together.