The brilliant writer Kathie Zaccaria of SoCal Kids San Diego interviewed me about my creative practice and approach to photographing kids, as a corollary to my trip to California last month. It’s included here in its entirety, and you can also view it in its original form on the SoCal Kids website.
What kind of camera do you use?
I use all kinds of cameras. I own both Nikon and Canon digital cameras, and actually still prefer to shoot film, when I can. For that I have a Nikon SLR, and a Voigtlander rangefinder that I love — as well as all kinds of other random ones. I love the look of film, and the artistry involved when you can’t “check on” the pictures to see how they’re shaking out. I find it’s an exercise in being present, and the images end up reflecting something ethereal.
What is your favorite type of setting for family or child shoots?
As a photojournalist-style photographer, any setting with ample natural light is great by me. I love the adventure of incorporating a sense of place at any location. I have a profound appreciation of architecture (it was briefly my major back in college, before switching to Film & Video), so I love incorporating unique lines and structures. People’s homes are wonderful places to record memories — particularly in an era where people tend to move relatively often; it’ll preserve their child’s first home in that magical way only the camera can. And, of course, nature lends its own tender touch to imagery, so parks, beaches, forests, and gardens are all wonderful backdrops.
Who is hardest to shoot: pets or kids?
Ha! This question amuses me. Honestly, I know both children and pets have a reputation of being difficult to photograph, but completely stiff adults are actually the hardest subjects to shoot, for me. I find it much harder to manufacture energy in a self-conscious subject, than to capture it flowing freely, even if the subject is in constant motion. I genuinely enjoy the challenge of being in the moment, chasing kids and animals for that elusive glimpse into their realities.
What draws you to photographing families and children?
My love of photographing families and kids comes from my photographic memory; I remember my own childhood incredibly clearly and with great fondness. Many people tell me I relate to kids so well because I never forgot how to think like one. That’s probably true. Kids come into the world thinking everything is full of wonder, everything is a miracle. The eternal optimist in me still wants to believe in that way of thinking. Photographing kids and their perspectives provides photographic evidence for my case.
How often do you travel for photo shoots?
Usually, shoots take me traveling anywhere from 6 to 10 times a year. It’s always interesting to get a taste of different markets — every city is different. Remarkably, though, there seem to be universal similarities between families — the clients I attract in any city all share the same love of photography and deep honor for their children’s life experience.
What is one of your funniest moments while photographing a family or child?
During a shoot in New York, I asked a mother where her daughter went to school. She went on to explain in several sentences that it was a dual-language and cultural school, so that her daughter could experience both the roots of her parents’ heritage, as well as everything the United States has to offer. Then, the five-year-old looked up at me sweetly and said, “I’m bilingual.” In case I needed to understand what her mother had meant by all of that.
When did your love of photography come about?
My love of photography actually started out more vaguely as a love of recording. When I was a little girl, I had a tape recorder, and I loved to record my siblings and I playing funny games, so I could cherish those silly moments again and again. I would build grand cabins out of my brother’s Lincoln Logs, and then stand on tiptoe to get my mother’s camera off a shelf so I could document the creation before my brother knocked it down to build another. It seems like I was born with a keen (and sometimes painful) awareness of how fleeting every moment is. When I realized via the Sears catalog, while I was still quite young, that there were cameras that would record things as clear as they look in real life, I became obsessed with photography. But it is secondary to my deep longing to record and cherish moments before they are gone. I think that longing is what enables me to anticipate moments and capture them as they happen. It’s always given me a little heartache when one moment gives way to the next, but I also think the twinge I feel is my greatest gift, since it now lets me know when to press the shutter.
Who is an inspiration to you?
My all-time favorite photographer is the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is famous for his candid, clever shots of French street scenes. Several years ago, I had the thrill of meeting Danny Clinch who is a natural light photographer like myself, and who photographs a lot of music artists. His style is very inspiring to me — he is amazing at using what is there in the moment to make a biography come to life in a single frame. I’ve never met Anton Corbijn, but he inspires me for the same reasons. And, David Lynch, too, for the dream-like cinematography in his films. (Plus, David Lynch has an amazing charity that teaches kids how to meditate — how inspiring is that?) I like imagery that has some honesty to it, even if it shows the flaws and shortcomings of the medium and the creator. An expression of truth or an interpretation of truth is what is most important to me in photography.
What is the best advice you can give Moms and Dads who want their family photographed, but don’t know what to look for in a photographer?
It’s admittedly difficult to give people advice who don’t know what to look for in photography. Any basis in art appreciation, wine appreciation, or any other kind of refinement of tastes would translate well, though. So, using the wine analogy, think of it like this:
1) First and foremost, consider your own palette. Does the work speak to you? Do you feel an emotional resonance when you see the photos? If you feel like it’s something you’ve seen before, it probably hasn’t really resonated. Try again, until something makes you smile, or sink deeper in your seat as you view it. An actual physical experience is a good sign — just like that first sip of a wine you love instills a certain physical excitement.
2) Read up on the photographer’s process, or call and ask how the shoot will unfold. Does it seem like the person would work well with your family? Do they seem flexible and easy to work with, or will you need to try to get your family on your best behavior? Can they accommodate you as you are, as well as any special needs you might have?
3) Consider what options will be available to you. For instance, if you have a substantial photo archive on your computer, it makes sense to want to have photos from your photographer in that form, as well. Be sure the photographer offers digital file options, or any other preferences you might have.
4) And, finally, FUN: I’ve never met a parent who wouldn’t want someone fun and warm to photograph their child. Be sure the photographer’s portfolio reflects those qualities. If the expressions in the photos seem too stiff or unnatural, it’s probably a sign of tension of some kind. Pay attention for subtle differences in expression — as parents you know what a genuine smile looks like. Hire a photographer who shoots those; it’s a sign they know what real fun is.