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.
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.