My father would have been 90 today. Here's what he taught me about collecting the beauty in the world.
My father was a collector whose precious objects brought him great joy. On this, the day he would have been 90, I am full of memories of what he taught me. He's been gone more than four years now, but my husband and I live surrounded by some of those precious objects: Books, records, pottery, and drums. I have his photo collection in my basement. It's massive.
I'm also, apologetically, his daughter. I'm a "Look at the Moon!" person. I'm a "Look at that hawk!" person. I'm a "Look how green the leaves are" person. I'm a photographer who captures and preserves my experiences so I can study them again later, relishing the memories. I love making photos for other people and seeing them in print as lasting keepsakes. I am most passionate about photographing people and showcasing their uniqueness. He was a cultural anthropologist, so his favorite subject was also people.
The contrast between my parents and their affinity for things was stark and amusing. My mother didn't even think about material objects (except as tools to do or make), and my father was a passionate, organized, and diligent collector. When he and my mother moved in together, she had a mat to sleep on, two suitcases and two rattan chairs. He brought boxes of his records, books, artifacts, stamps, cameras and photographs. Everything was cataloged and ordered just so. Mom came to treasure his things and share his passion for the artifacts they collected together.
My own passion for not just photographs and photography, but also books, stories, music, and adventures, began at his side. Dad taught me about collecting stamps, filled our house with his favorite music, took us on adventurous sabbaticals to Mexico, Guatemala, and Trinidad, and always made beautiful, vivid photos of the people he met and studied. People always react with shock when I tell them I wasn't allowed to touch his cameras growing up. But they were so complicated: his Rolleiflex and light meter still baffle me. I didn't really start making my own photos until I was married and had a camera of my own. I don't look back on his possessiveness as a bad thing, but with a wry, sneaky satisfaction. Why? Because he WANTED me to share his passions, he just didn't want anything damaged.
What I did was sneak! I studied his art books. I loved the weight of his giant volumes of great works on my lap. I read Catch 22 and the Planet of the Apes when he left them sitting around (before I was old enough). I "stole" his Bizet Symphony #1 in C Major by taking it to my room and playing it over and over again on my record player. And when I left for college, I took it with me. I studied his photo albums. I went into the field with him when he was interviewing people for his research, and I was so proud to be his daughter when people said, "Robby's here!" The photos he captured of those people had love in their eyes for him.
Surprisingly, for all his talent, he was very modest and didn't look for attention from his photography. When I asked him if I could make a print from the slide of this photo, he was baffled. And then I wanted him to sign it, so I could frame it for my house. He complied, reluctantly. He didn't see himself as an artist. I feel this photo captured how I felt around the beauties I met on our travels: I was so pale and big (though not for an American), and my friends and "cousins" were delicate, dark, and beautiful. I wanted to look like them. He captured our friendship and our contrast magnificently in this photograph. I appreciate the legacy our dear old Dad left us. Today, he would have been 90. If he were here, he'd be sad it was sleeting and snowing. His birthday was usually during Passover, so he would have loved the Manischewitz cake we used to bake for him. He would have celebrated seeing forsythia blooming in his yard. And he would have had his camera out to capture all of it.
Happy Birthday, Dad. Your memory is a blessing to all of us who knew and loved you.
I feel an obligation to my younger sisters to point out that I was an only child until I was six years old. So my experience, my sliver in time with our parents is when they were younger, starting out, and I had their full attention. Before our family was complete with my two sisters, I was lonely for companions, so I had lots of solitary time to look at all of Dad's stuff.
My vision for this portrait project has been to create a collection showcasing my bandmates in the Novi Concert Band with one significant portrait of each musician, each with their own unique persona, to share their stories. Why? Because in our society, we are most accustomed to seeing artful photos of our rock stars, athletes, and Hollywood actors. This project is about shifting paradigms and checking assumptions. Making this collection of photographs created an opportunity to portray adult musicians in a fresh light. By working one-on-one with each musician, I’ve been able to share their personal stories, hobbies and passions.
The takeaway I didn't expect was the richly diverse collection of experiences we shared in making the portraits. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with each of these interesting people. To stand in the rain and deep freeze, and sweat, and get up too early, haul equipment, tromp through the woods, and knock on strangers' doors for permission to photograph on their property. A few of my bandmates actually took inspiration from what we were doing and got lighting equipment, too. I can't wait to see the photos they make!
Someone asked me at the end of making these 50 portraits which one is my favorite. I can't answer that! Each one is my favorite for its own reason. I hope I've been able to convey the fun and adventures we shared. Sometimes I love a portrait for the serious or intense expression captured. Sometimes it's because of the absolute thrill of seeing what would be ordinary on a cellphone snapshot turn into something special by popping my lights and umbrellas.
Those portraits that I was able to make match my imagination through post-production editing make me very happy, like flutist Greg floating in the air as his daughters tossed music in the air. Some are my favorites because of the amazing hobbies and collections they shared. A few of these experiences made my heart sing. Standing in the park waiting for trombonist Dan Patient to arrive, I heard and felt the rumble of his motorcycle coming down the road and realized he was bringing it out for me to photograph it! Learning from flutist Amy that having her portrait made left her feeling wonderful about the experience, especially because of the connection I made with her young daughter. That is a precious memory, because helping my subject feel beautiful is always my goal.
I thought my own portrait would be the last one in the project, but had the good luck to fulfill one of my first visions for the project a few days before the show went up. One our band members has been struggling with health set backs the past few years, and I had photographed him in concert dress. But I wanted the bari sax playing farmer in his cornfield. He's feeling better these days, so we made a last minute date to make that happen. Driving out to Don's farm with him and seeing not only how he tended 220 acres on his pristine farm until he was 89, but also how the neighbors and their kids love him so was so special
You can see I'm very fond of my bandmates. All are favorites for one reason or another.
For me, the challenge and goal of embarking on this project was about mastery of the environmental portrait. There are those who say you can never achieve mastery in photography. But for me, mastery means I learned from 50 very different individuals how to work with them to showcase each one of them at their best.
Making portraits is not just about the photographer's eye and taste. It's about making an image that makes your subject feel good. Posing for portraits is not a normal act for most adults and not for us as musicians. We like to be in a group, in the background, or not photographed at all! So many negative voices are shouting inside our heads: ""But...my hair, my wrinkles, my belly - my goodness I'm old."" As important as making the click to capture these portraits were the connections we forged.
do not know yet what my next project will be, but I guarantee you that for the rest of my life, the experiences and learning that took place while photographing my bandmates will continue to inform my choices as a photographer.
I leave you with this. A challenge like this one I set for myself:
The show is still on display for two more weeks, we have our "Pictures at an Exhibition" concert on Sunday, October 20 at the Novi Civic Center, So please, come out and meet my wonderful bandmates.
Here's what it feels like to be two weeks from a public reveal.
Another reveal of some of my bandmates from the Musicians' Portrait Sessions was published in Novi Today magazine this week. I've planned for this event so carefully, from coordinating 50+ photo sessions, to selecting just the right portrait to represent each at their best, to collecting their musicians' stories. I have a plan for how to hang the show, the photos are framed and ready to go, but what I didn't have a plan for was early release! I never cheat by skipping to the end of a novel to read the ending before it's time. I didn't know the sex of my baby until she was born. So letting some of the secret/surprise out ahead of October 1 was very hard for me to do.
Someone asked me recently which of the portraits is my favorite. I can't answer that, because each is a favorite in its own way for either the resulting photo, or for the experience we shared in making the photograph, or for the musician's personal story and significance to them of the setting or items in the photo. Each gave me a creative thrill in its own way.
These four portraits, released early for Novi Today magazine, are here because three of them are in favorite, perhaps surprisingly lesser-known Novi locations. The fourth was significant. Vietnam veteran, trumpet player, Dan had played taps for soldiers' funerals in the late 1960s. Wearing his Army jacket and boots, and Tet Offensive hat, he stood in front of his division's Huey helicopter 50 years later and played taps for us on Memorial Day weekend.
With each portrait, there is a story of the musician in their setting, but also the story of us making the photograph. The thrill I felt when I heard the motorcycle rumbling toward me, knowing he'd polished it up for my session with him, was just as emotional as listening to our veteran play taps.
There are many more stories. Looking forward to the real reveal in the Novi Civic Center atrium gallery in two weeks.
On display throughout October 2019 in the Novi Civic Center Atrium gallery. Art show opening Friday, October 4, 7-8:30 pm. Concert featuring music on the theme Pictures at an Exhibition will be Sunday, October 20 at 2 pm at the Novi Civic Center with intermission in the art exhibit. Come out and meet the musicians and learn more about their unique stories. Photography by Stephanie Smith Hall, www.WordSmithPhoto.com.
Prelude: I spent more than two years immersed in an excellent new photography certificate program created by a team of wonderful Detroit-area photographers. During that time, I learned how to use all the features of my camera, how to incorporate modern photography gear like off-camera lighting into my photos, how to make all kinds of photos in response to teacher assignments and teacher-driven locations. I stretched myself into realms I'd never considered like macro and color for color's sake. The whole time I was learning and practicing for class I was asking myself: "How am I going to define myself as a photographer? What is my niche? What is my style? Who am I as a photographer?”
Then, I had an a-ha! moment. I saw a photo of a young tuba player dressed in a suit, leaning casually, but with attitude in an old hallway. I loved it. He looked like a rock star. Showing a concert band musician looking cool is not very common. I’ve always hated that we’re considered geeks or nerds, because I’m one of them and I know how cool they are beyond their white band polos and concert black.
My personal mastery project was born as that fully formed idea. I launched into creating a portrait collection of adult musicians with whom I play in a community concert band. Not just a few, but a collection. When the project is complete in October 2019, I will have taken about 50 portraits of adult musicians ranging in age from late 20s to 90.
This process has also been about defining who I am as a photographer. Here's what I'm sure of now: I'm looking for exciting gigs with interesting people. I'm looking to make a connection, seal a memory, and create a small, but significant collection or one memorable portrait.
I do not know yet what my next project will be, but I guarantee you that for the rest of my life, the experiences and learning that took place while photographing my bandmates will continue to inform my choices as a photographer.
Here are five things I've experienced and learned from this project:
1. Hold onto your joy. This is a mantra I say to myself frequently. Like a carefully nurtured seedling, I cautiously, but excitedly shared peeks into my concept with my family, photography advisor, band's directors and a few of my bandmates. Although these trial balloons were well received, I felt the need to hold back on talking about it with them. I wanted to maintain my passion for the project through to completion. I also didn’t want them to burn out on hearing me talk about it too much.
2. There will be resistance. It's your dream, not theirs! Most of my subjects have been very enthusiastic about the project, coming up with a concept, and posing for me. It’s been so much fun, and I feel their commitment to the project through their participation. But there are a few who have questioned why they have to do this. My wise husband had to point that out to me. He said, “It's your project, why should they care?” Well, the idea is they each get a professional, carefully composed portrait of themselves. Additionally, the collection and the musicians’ stories that accompany each portrait will give us 50 stories to tell as a public relations and social media campaign in the coming years: “Meet the Musicians of the Novi Concert Band.”
I accept that not all of them will be willing to go out three separate times to get the shot without pouring rain. Not all of them will be willing to stand out in 6° weather for 20 minutes, drive to Detroit and sweat in the Detroit Public Library, or spend three hours getting just the right shot.
And I’ve come up with a few solutions that all involve my "Go With the Flow" mantra:
3. Everyone gets nervous in front of the camera. Even the stunningly beautiful ones. I’ve learned so much from my bandmate/photo subjects on this project. It's so important for me to communicate with them about what we’re going for. It always takes a while to relax and the best pictures will be at the end. Yes, it can take about 300 photos to get ‘The One.’ I’ve learned that a little wine can erase a furrowed brow and unsure, questioning gaze.
Most importantly, making portraits is not just about the photographer's eye and taste. It's about making an image that makes your subject feel good. Posing for portraits is not a normal act for most adults and not for us as musicians. We like to be in a group, in the background, or not photographed at all! So many negative voices are shouting inside our heads: "But...my hair, my wrinkles, my belly…my goodness I'm old."
As important as making the click to capture these portraits were the connections we forged. With each person, I’ve come away realizing the outcomes depended on developing trust, establishing the session as a collaboration, and making sure I kept my confidence up not to get flustered and be fully aware of the scene to maximize the outcome. I had to balance the creative, right brain activity (where I don't necessarily speak much or in complete sentences) with giving clear direction.
Showing my bandmates what the photos look like helps them trust that I’m going for the best possible representation of them – and even better, carefully edited photographs will follow. I’ve been working tethered to my tablet, so they can sometimes see their photos straight out of the camera in real time. They then leave the session knowing we “Got IT.” And I keep the complements, thanks, praise and appreciation flowing, too.
4. It won’t feel like work if you’re passionate about it. I was photographing an old friend and she remarked that I just lit up when she was in front of my camera. The thrill of the capture is what makes a photo shoot a great experience for me. People keep saying, “This project seems like a lot of work.” And I keep replying, “It’s not work to me. It’s exhilarating.” Again, holding onto the joy, I’m making sure it doesn’t become drudgery – each person is unique and the settings and stories they are telling are so fun to explore.
5. Plan for the finale. When I first came up with the idea, it was just to photograph every bandmate. Now I have a plan for closure. One night when I was performing at an art show opening in our city hall, I realized that I might be able to showcase MY photography in an art show, too. So, now, I’ve applied, been accepted, and set a date for a show. In addition to a personal show opening, our band will also perform a concert a few weeks later at which all of them, their families and our audience will be able to see the finished collection. When the show goes up on October 1, 2019, I’ll have photographed, edited, and framed 50+ portraits.
You’re invited to the Finale:
Part 1: Please join me at the opening of the show on Friday, October 4, 2019 from 7 to 8 pm in the Novi Civic Center Atrium Gallery, 45175 W 10 Mile Rd, Novi, MI 48375.
Part 2: Come hear the musicians of the Novi Concert Band perform on Sunday, October 20, 2019 at 2 pm, also at the Novi Civic Center, 45175 W 10 Mile Rd, Novi, MI 48375.
Our concert’s theme is perfect: Pictures at an Exhibition, and we’ll be performing the Ravel/Mussorgsky masterpiece, along with other pieces about pictures and photographs. You’ll see the portraits from The Musicians’ Sessions on display in the atrium during intermission and get a chance to meet my bandmates, too.
The experience of working with another creative on a photographic project can result in better work than either envisioned or could have made alone. The photos I've taken with Rachel Keown Burke were created in a collaborative, supportive, reciprocal and energizing environment and I'm proud of what we made together.
The first opportunity I had to work with Rachel was in January 2018 when she was directing a disturbing drama, Bug, on Stagecrafter's 2nd Stage. Together we planned the shoot with specific shots, themes, color toning, and moods in mind. When I arrived at the shoot, we moved smoothly from one set up to the next, 1,2,3,4,5. It was the first time I ever worked tethered - a cord from my camera immediately showed the resulting photos on my tablet which Rachel was holding as I took the photos. Together, we were able to see what we were getting and tweaked and critiqued in real-time, and left the session knowing we had succeeded. The photo above is from that shoot and depicts the character Agnes in all her broken, frightened, confused loneliness.
A year later, Rachel reached out again for headshots for herself. I have seen her as an actor twice on stage, so I knew there were many expressions I was looking to capture among her compelling range of emotions. Eliciting the depth and breadth of her skill as an actor was my goal. Again, we had a plan to show powerful, centered, fearsome and other expressions. Having such a self-aware actor in front of my lens gave us both so many options to choose from. Her transformation before my eyes was fascinating and thrilling.
Making a photography subject happy with their portrait is top priority. But when the process has been creative, collaborative, and supportive, its magic translates into special photographs.
A common mantra in photography is: "There's no such thing as mastery." Why? Because the skills and tools are forever evolving, and the concept that a photograph has achieved perfection is supposedly always a bit beyond our reach. That leaves every photograph open for ongoing critique and implies it can't just be a wonderful capture of a moment in time as interpreted by the photographer's unique editing eye and vision. I beg to differ.
I come from other disciplines where the concept of mastery is a gratifying life challenge. Throughout my adult life I've chosen mastery projects where I set a goal, however lofty, and work until I achieve it. Sometimes, it's harder than I ever imagined it would be, and that makes the finale that much more gratifying.
My most recent example is having handmade my daughter's wedding dress. I'm proud, as a seamstress, that I designed it by making my own pattern and the dress was perfect for her. Honestly, the hardest thing about this experience was finding enough time. It took four months of squeezing every minute I could to work on design, fitting, and sewing. The reason I stress that is that I've always said what makes a good seamstress or knitter is the willingness to redo or fix mistakes. Take the time to make it right. Now, I have had a mother's joy of zipping my gorgeous daughter into her dress then sneaking a peek to watch her bridal glow as she showed her dream dress to her groom. I believe it could not have been done without the willingness to invest the time, effort, and commitment to do whatever it takes (working late or early with bleary eyes) to achieve the goal. There's so much more than skill and artistry at play in saying "I made my daughter's wedding dress." This was mastery at both the most personal level, and making her dress was most high-stakes, high-profile project of my life.
As a flutist, I've sought mastery in music. I have a few treasured bucket list experiences where I played a concerto or a show that challenged me to push every skill I have to higher levels. I'm a slow learner, so when a piece is presented to me, sometimes I can't even read it, let alone coordinate it into music from the page to my brain, lips, fingers, and flute. But I practice, study, listen, and live with that piece until I know it inside and out, so eventually, or by the performance date, almost magically, it becomes a natural extension of myself. It becomes "my piece." As a teen, I knew I had achieved that level of mastery when I caught my dad whistling my piece while shaving, or sitting in the back of a performance space with his head tilted up while stroking his beard. I know, that's external validation, but I admit it's also important to the creative process. (Confession: I do not practice on a regular basis. I practice when I have a public performance to prepare for.)
Not everyone can play the flute or sew a wedding dress, but today, most everyone can make a photo. As I strive to define myself as a photographer, part of the task is separating the creative mastery I aim to achieve from snapshots or mass-produced, trendy uniformity. My goal is to capture special moments, glances, personalities. Just like I've held very closely to my sewing joy by declaring, "I only sew for love,"
Although I don't only photograph for love, I have found that I get that mastery kind of joy out of it when making a memorable connection with my subject. There are photos in my portfolio I could not have made if I had not invested time on them and made an emotional commitment to establish trust. The best is when my model and I both revel in sharing the creative energy.
I am striving to expand my photography experiences while holding onto that joy of being creative, not a technician. I'm always looking for my next mastery project, so I'm accustomed to endeavors that take a lot of time. I like massive projects! When I approach a photography session, I also take my time. This sometimes surprises my subjects. What? You took 300 shots? Why is it taking you so long to select and edit my photos? Last year, when two professional photographers called my work "fine art" photography, I was dumbstruck. But I think that helped me define myself as a photographer - I'm looking for experiences and people who want to participate in achieving mastery with me while in front of my lens.
I'll explore this concept more soon as I reveal a personal mastery project I've been working on that has further defined my work as a photographer.
Blog: Stories from Behind the Lens
As much as I revel in the final image and love returning to look at them again and again, the process of making a photo is also a treasured experience.