But I Can’t See His Face

What can I say, this little guy has style. So does his brother. Been photographing him since he was a little bugger. It feels like yesterday, but it has been many years now. This image came up on the monitor and my wife looked over and said, “What I like best about your work is being able to watch these kids grow up.”

I hope that I occupy a tiny part of their brains. I really do. I hope that when mom and dad tell them they are going to do another shoot they have good thoughts, specific thoughts, not just to the images but about me as well.
I think having a relationship with the people you work with is absolutely critical to making images that go beyond the standard portrait shoot.
My favorite thing is working with the same kids three or four times a year. I would much prefer this to a new client or working in the volume shooting game, where you are looking at new face after new face. Don’t get me wrong, I need new clients, but so much or so little can happen on that first shoot and RARELY do you get something magical the first time around. Be honest folks. “Magical” means different things to different people, and I’m referring to the “magical” that is photographer to photographer, not photographer to client. I think this point might need a little clarification. Say you are photographing kids. Say you don’t have your best day. Well, you are photographing someone’s kids! You are gonna get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the pictures because, after all, they LOVE their kids. So getting a passing grade from a client is very different than getting a passing grade from another photographer. At least I think so. Yesterday I had a surprise visit from a photographer I really admire. She showed me her new book and I showed her mine. My book had one image I KNEW I needed to get rid of, but had yet to cut those bounds of love. And then, .11111 seconds after viewing that image, my photographer friend said, “Ah, I don’t think so, get rid of it.” It’s done. Gone. I trust her and respect her opinion because of what she has accomplished and what she knows about imagery and editing, heck and making books for that matter. A few years ago I began to hear photographers say something very strange, “Well, my clients aren’t complaining,” when they referred to their work that might not have been up to THEIR, the photographer’s standard. Quality bars in this profession of ours have gone from fairly high to nonexistent in a few short years. This can be a real slippery slope for your work when you are allowing the client to dictate your quality bar. My advice…don’t do that.
Oh, and the easiest thing of all…photograph the kids in your own family! You can do anything! I don’t have any kids of my own, but my nephews and nieces are fair game!
Okay, back to my little story.
I think my desire to work with the same kids over and over comes from my working as a documentary photographer, or I should more accurately say, “Me spending time making documentary pictures,” cause I’m sure not working for anyone else when I’m doing this stuff. Just spent two days sleeping in my car in 100 degree temps. Yes, it sucked, at the time, but was well worth it in terms of exploration.
When I work with the same kids over and over I lose those initial moments of awkwardness, where the dancers move around one another but are yet to begin the routine. We start instantly.
Sometimes now, mom and dad are not even home. I get text messages. “Just go in and do whatever you want, we’ll be there in a little while.” Trust, confidence, earned from past results. You can’t beat that.

What this means is I don’t need the routine any longer. I don’t need the expected. I don’t need those safe images that we all feel we have to make when we meet someone new. Now I find myself leaning forward, or toward the edges of what I can dream of.
These two images I like, and I can see printing them, but in my mind are still a bit too safe and routine. A few years ago, because you could not see his face or all of his face, I would have thought, “Well, I better get something straight to appease everyone.”
WRONG. Sellout. Choker. Conformist.
I should have had my shooter card revoked. Small minded thinking folks. Really.
So now I see these images, which I believe say volumes about this kid at this particular time in his life, yet don’t go quite far enough into who he really is, AND, who I am as a photographer. They are in the right direction but I need to go further. This might take more time, a different attitude, luck or simple communication with the boy himself.
You can take this too far, lose the bridge to that client trust, and I’ve come close. Sometimes it takes a good sit down to explain what your intention was or your vision. Sometimes this is enough, sometimes you gotta do over!
This folks is why I keep doing this. I don’t know where I’m going. I know I’m only in control of fifty percent of the equation and I will never be in control of the other fifty percent, so I’m teaching myself to live with this fact.
It isn’t easy. But once it does become easy it means you are either not trying hard enough, or have fallen into the routine of accepting what is average or expected. I’ve found myself more than once framing something up and then saying to myself, “Don’t do that, you are just falling back on what you know will work here.”
Look at what our industry is about these days. Total control. Over control. Volume. Mass production. Perfection.
I just don’t feel it. I just don’t understand it.
I feel myself losing control and I really like it. I realize now that is where the best images happen. Fractured moments, impossible to predict, impossible to know or create until you see it forming in front of you. And, images that only exist in my world, my mind.
I compare this to a great book(Assuming my image ends up being great…rare.) We all probably have a favorite author who churns out book after book. These books we really like and find comfort in, but when asked about our favorite book of all time they don’t make the list. Because there was a book by someone else, someone who only did a few, a book so powerful it changed our life. A work like that is never mass produced. It takes too much pain, good and bad, to produce. It’s like the author left a part of themselves behind when the final pen stroke was made. This is what I’m looking for. But again folks, these images, these true portfolio breakthroughs, the handful of images you will take into the next world, they don’t come around very often.
It’s funny. Actually making the images should be the best and most fun part of what we do, and most of the time it is. But, I think sometimes we grip so hard during the time we are actually working we limit ourselves by the mental baggage we carry with us. We find ourselves running so many scenarios through our minds, thinking of all those we are trying to appease, thinking of all the techniques we have read about and we actually, in some ways, close ourselves off to what is possible. We should have a clear mind when we work. Don’t look at me. I’ve, at times, got the Samsonite of mental baggage. I’m no Grasshopper. If you have the answer put it on DVD and sell it for $99.99 and I’ll buy it.
So go forth my friends and search high and low for your edge of control. Don’t be afraid when your breath comes in short gasps, it just means you are living.

13 responses to “But I Can’t See His Face”

  1. suzannerevy says:

    Well said, Daniel, and I will add that photographing the same faces over a long period of time forces you to make different pictures of them. It’s easy to think you’ve made all sorts of great portraits of 20 different kids, but when you get right down to it… they are often the same picture over and over. It’s an easy trap to fall into (I did), but I’ve been photographing my kids for the long term, and I don’t want it to get too boring!!! And sometimes those moments when they (or the camera) are being uncooperative the resulting pictures are magic!

    • smogranch says:

      I agree. I’m going to post two images of his brother, one very simple with normal smile, but another of the same moment, but a totally different look on his face, a look that is just another quick side of him that i think is different. I like the different one better.
      You can’t substitute for time and access, with kids or anything else.
      Thanks for reading.

  2. Sean says:

    Good stuff.

    I found your blog last week and it’s making me rethink a few things about my photography.

    I don’t have any kids either so have had to build at least half of my kids portfolio photographing my nieces (all seven of them, no nephews) and through the trust that they have in me I’ve managed to get the fundamentals sorted out. Well, I think I have.

    But I got bored last year and so did they. So I took a long break. I took a year off from photographing them and tried shooting other things instead. I’ve just started again but now there are new rules. I have to shoot more and more on their terms as they are getting older. Basically, I’m losing control. It’s a completely liberating experience and something that I need to embrace because they are kids and are naturally going to be much more imaginative than any thirty-year old uncle with a camera can be.

    • smogranch says:

      I think the work changes when you start getting either feedback or push back. I also think we can get too involved in the actual process of photography, deciding that “Okay, I’m going to do a shoot now,” instead of just living with your camera and shooting what comes natural.

  3. You are definitely my new hero, Daniel. I so totally agree. So many photographers make their entire career about simply delivering a satisfactory result to their clients. I don’t want to be remembered as the photographer who made his clients happy. I want to be remembered as the photographer who made truly memorable images that the REST of the world could connect with, and STILL CAN connect with in the present and future. If this philosophy doesn’t make me a fortune, then so be it…


  4. Kourosh Azar says:

    First, I gotta say I love the two images in the post! Second, I can’t tell you how much I agree with this post. You seem to have a nack for puting into words what many may have in their minds, but are unable to convey in a comprehensible and thought provoking manner.

    • smogranch says:

      Well, thanks for saying that. I’m just trying to get out what I feel, regardless of the popular opinion. Lots of odd things in the modern photo world to discuss.

  5. Adam says:

    thank you so much for sharing this. It’s so easy to fall into that trap of only doing the expected. I’ve been personally so wrapped up in focusing on the logistics of starting my business, that I have been losing sight of the ‘soul’ in my work. Thanks for the wake up!

    • smogranch says:

      Modern photography has shifted the focus from the work to the marketing and advertising. We always had to do this, but never at the level we do today. Consequently, I think people are spending less time working on their images, and more time working on promos, software and logistics.

  6. Missy Callero says:

    Thank the STARS I am one of the families that gets the privilege of being photographed again and again. xo

  7. Sarah says:

    Not to outdo your great post with quotes from someone else but it reminded me of something I just read by Seth Godin:

    “Being safe is risky.”


    • smogranch says:

      Safe can be frustrating. But, now, with the biz where it is, it has become the norm, even for photographers who are very good. It’s odd. Hopefully, like a kidney stone, it will pass.

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