Photography as Art, Part 1

Following is an interview I did with photographer Jane Speleers of Royal Squirrel Photography (http://theroyalsquirrel.com). I’m always fascinated by what draws us to specific forms of art. And photography, like so many forms of art, tells a story.

Besides being a photographer, Jane is an adventurer, horse woman, climber, and all around very nice person. How do I know? I’ve known her for a few years now and she was very nice when my dog peed on her new carpet.

Vala - the carpet-peeing slob

Vala – the carpet-peeing slob

Jane asked me to edit her comments as she worried about English being her second language. I chose not to for two reasons – I didn’t see anything to change, and I prefer to have the words remain true to the voice. Hope she doesn’t mind!

When you pick up the camera, and your subject is before you, what are the first things that come to mind?

What I think is: “Who is she? What is she feeling? Does the camera make her uncomfortable?”. I try to not affect my subject with my presence. I try to understand and relate to my subject’s emotions so I can act/interact in a way that would make them feel that I’m part of what they already know, their environment, and keep them comfortable.

It seems like light and shadow could be manipulated to tell the story and I know those can be used to illuminate or create depth. But how do you know to use those tools? Or, more simply, how do you know how to use light and darkness?

Light and absence of light can be manipulated to intensify emotions in an image. These are perceived by our senses like music in horror movies. If you cover your ears while watching a suspense movie, you might not get scared at all. If I use artificial lighting when taking a picture of a living room, it will make it look bright; all the furniture, built-in features and details will stand out as a “whole” since they all receive the same amount of light. It might even look spacious. In this case you can see it all. Maybe this image would be used for a home ad. However, if I take this same picture without studio lighting, with only natural lighting coming in through the window…you will only be able to see what is within the light reach. Or not even that…you might only see furniture silhouettes. In either case, many questions would come up to your mind, like.. “Is that a chair or is there someone behind the table?” “Is that an abandoned house?”, “Is that a haunted house?” The absence of lighting changes the concept of this picture from ‘A nice living room’ to ‘a haunted/abandoned living room”. I’m not saying that absence of light has negative connotations. When light is absent in some parts of the image, this increases the tension on whatever is brighter and leaves more room for the imagination to complete the image based on what this is able to decode.

Your photos, especially those that are taken outside, always look unrehearsed, as if your subjects are part of their surroundings. How do you pose them to get this natural connection with their surroundings? Or do you pose subjects?

It depends on the subject. It normally takes me about twenty minutes to understand how my clients think, how they verbally communicate, what subjects makes them laugh and the way their bodies unconsciously communicate. This last is the most difficult to understand and direct. I would say that I usually manipulate 50% of the image by choosing the location and directing the photo-shoot. Ideally, the other 50% is natural and spontaneous. Some clients are a bit nervous at the beginning and later on they get super creative and silly during the shoot, which makes the most fantastic portraits. Plenty of laughter, playful poses, and some people even dance in front of the camera! I want my clients to enjoy not just the final product but the photo-shoot as a great experience and the portraits as a souvenir from that memorable day. However, for some people it’s hard to be spontaneous when there’s a camera capturing every move they make. And I can include myself in this group. For which I am in constant communication with them, joking around and explaining to them what I’m doing and what my vision is. When they feel that I’m being honest with them, that I am aware of their emotions and I explain to them that there’s nothing to be worried about. They seem to feel a lot more comfortable because they understand that I’m working with them and for them. And looking at the camera is not an issue any more. They share thoughts and memories with me and this leads to making spontaneously happy and meaningful portraits.

As you go about daily routines, what kinds of things catch your eye and make you think, ‘that would be a great photo’? A similar question would be the more traditional ‘what inspires you?’.

Most days, I’m inspired by my dogs, Frida and Whiskey. Their body language, facial expressions, silliness, naiveness, and the way they communicate with me. I could photograph them every day of my life and there would always be something new to smile about.

Other than that, nature with natural light in the early morning.

Storytellers ask themselves ‘what if’ and that question can be the well that stories spring from. It seems to me that this would work for photography, too. Do you have questions that you ask yourself as you move through the process?

I ask myself “what if” every few minutes. There’s many, I even dare to say “hundreds” of ways to capture one moment in time. You can only choose one. I do it and I continue with the following “What if”.

When I go to bed after a full day photo-shoot, many of those ‘What if.. I did something different about that one” come back to me.. and I try hard to let go.

It seems that photographers, just like painters, musicians, and writers, hope to elicit emotional reactions in their audience. Do you think about what sort of response you want as you take photographs, what you hope the photo translates to the viewer?

I hope that every one of my images say “I feel alive”.

Have you ever been surprised by someone’s emotional reaction to a photograph?

Yes, many times. It was precious.

Do you have a preference between taking photos of landscapes, still life, animals, people, etc.? What draws you to that specific preference?

Professionally, I love capturing people when going through strong emotions. Weddings are the best for these. My favorite moments are when the bride walks down the aisle and when the bride dances with her father.

Personally, landscapes & natural events that show how alive the earth is.

Have you ever thought about why photography speaks to you over other art forms?

I’d say that photography can speak to you in a particularly intimate way because this can bring back and revive a real moment from the past, but this time it’s frozen, for as long as your mind wishes, allowing you to explore it, relate to the subject, and think about the possibilities. Even though it doesn’t exist any more. It can contain plenty of visual information to be decoded.

But I’d say that Video can speak to you over other art forms.

What are one or two questions that you wish someone would ask you about photography?

Personally, what do you love and don’t love of being a photographer?

I love to capture life for my clients to remember it, but I don’t love feeding people’s vanity.

Thanks, Jane, for taking the time to feed my curiosity. If anyone has questions for her, you can post them in the comments below or contact Jane directly through her website, noted above.

I called this post ‘Part 1’ as I’m hoping to convince another photographer friend, who has a different type of photography business (think on the yard line face to face with Seahawks) to answer similar questions.

2 thoughts on “Photography as Art, Part 1

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