On the cork board in my bedroom lives a photograph from my childhood.
Like a lot of old film snaps the focus is soft and dreamy and it’s also tad too dark, yet it lives pride of place so I can see it every day.
In the photo I lie on the shag pile carpet of my grandparents’ home; a tiny baby, mere months old. My big sister, still a baby herself, squats beside me, and our Pa sprawls to the side, propped on his elbows, lanky legs stretched out behind him. I love to see him there; neatly pressed trousers, socks pulled midway up his shins, glasses resting on the end of his nose as he smiles down at me. He aged quickly after this snap was made, so to see him lithe and springy and rolling about on the floor is a treasure. A precious little gift from the past. A gentle reminder of the fragility of time.
I’ve another shot that lives beside the one above; another from my nanna’s, possibly taken that same day. There are no people in this shot; in fact, you can only just make out the oh so familiar brown speckled carpet, the hardwood, floral patterned cushioned lounge chairs into who’s ornamental arms we used to sink our baby teeth while we watched cartoons or Wheel of Fortune, the leather pouffe we’d push up and down the hallway, and Leo – a scruffy lion with a deep orange mane, on whose back all the many grandchildren once rode.
I imagine this shot was a misfire; focus was missed, and it’s taken at an angle that makes it seem a stumble. In the days of 24 exposures, each shot was precious. I can almost see the shooter cursing beneath their breath as they clicked through to the next space on the roll. They couldn’t have known one day, 35 years from then, someone would look at that imperfect capture daily – a soft little whisper of when, so fragile, and so very much like a memory.
When I consider the favourite images I’ve made of my own children, they share an essence with the ones described above; perhaps technically imperfect, maybe not masterfully made, yet shrouded in feeling and meaning:
My daughter at two, standing in the stream of hot air coming from the back of the air conditioning unit, laughing joyfully as the hot wind whips her hair.
My then baby son, asleep in the middle of the messy lounge room floor, exhausted from a tough morning of teething and misery, his little baby bottom sticking up in the air.
The two of them playing beneath a line of wet washing, sheets above them billowing in the breeze.
My exultant daughter, hanging from a tree, dirty bandaids adorning her knees. My son bathing in the kitchen sink. Children riding bikes in tight circles on the cracked concrete driveway in late summer, or playing in the bathtub as a storm rolled in, lace curtains flapping.
Images that speak to memory, nostalgia, the tapestry of a beautiful ordinary life in motion.
This is the reason I take photographs.
To create a record of our lives. To tell the story of now. To slow down time, to make it count, to explore and observe and acknowledge the meaning of life by clumsily, crudely, yet devotedly transcribing it all through pictures.
I’ve discovered over time that becoming a memory catcher has made me into a more present, more grounded mother and human. It has slowed me down, taught me to see and to notice, and as days become months become years, shooting continues to bring clarity to the things I most tenderly value.
How wonderful it is to look at a sink stacked with dirty dishes and see it as beautiful, to notice the late afternoon sun lick the floorboards in the hall and be filled with wonder, to know dirty feet and messy rooms and an overflowing pile of laundry to be glorious and fleeting artifacts of now.
Let me share with you some things I do that have made me a stronger memory catcher and artist.
To make great photographs, you have to train yourself to notice the way the world is constantly changing and pulsing and breathing around you. To get into the habit, set yourself the task of wandering the house first thing in the morning, again at midday and late in the afternoon to see how the light changes, where it creeps in, the pockets and the spaces it creates.
Other things to notice are textures and patterns and colours. Once you see these things, you can begin to consider if there are ways you might like to curate your living spaces to reflect your taste. Earthy tones bring warmth and feelings of comfort, for example. Pops of brighter colours can bring vitality and energy. Textures can also be emotive. I was once struck by the beauty of a drawer of doilies in a thrift store and I bought them all on the spot. Now they adorn my spaces and bring a sense of nostalgia and romance to my every day.
Once you’re a noticer, you’ll begin to realize how quickly those little things that catch your eye can come and go. The light that kisses the wall in your kitchen is only there for the briefest of minutes before the sun climbs and the tress outside take it away. Your son will only snuggle her for a mere blink before the over-loved kitty slips away. The way your daughter stands on her very tip toes to drop her plate in the sink lasts just seconds, and she’s skipping off along the hallway.
Find somewhere close you can safely store your camera so it’s always on hand – on top of the fridge, the highest shelf of the pantry, in the centre of the kitchen bench. Then you need only reach for it when you see something that lights you up.
There are so many reasons for this. Imagine it’s going to take ten thousand rather ordinary photographs before you hit your stride and get to the good stuff. Picture it’s going to take three months of continuous shooting before your really reach the style that resonates, three years of that to develop your own distinct and artistic identity. And then consider the numbers. If you shoot daily, you’re so much more likely to have made a happy humble handful of keepers by the end of the week or month. Shoot daily. Edit daily. Rinse, repeat.
You’ve just noticed how beautifully the steam comes off that first morning coffee of a winter’s morning. How many ways can you take the one picture? Move your body. Experiment with perspective – shoot from above, to the side. Step further back and take in the entire scene. Compare centre composition, play with the rule of thirds, approach it from an unlikely and refreshing angle. Every time you pick up that camera ask yourself – what is it that makes this moment interesting..? What is the story here? Then strive to best show that in just one frame.
Take as many images at it takes to really work a scene, but tell yourself you’re only a allowed to share one of them with the world. This will help motivate you to find *the* shot; that single image that stands alone, that tells the story and is strong on its own.
This is a big one for all us parents, but I think perhaps most challenging for folk coming from traditional portraiture, where you’re used to giving a lot of direction.
The truth is if you try too hard to set up a scene or shot, your children will smell your desire and they’ll either run the other way when they see your camera, or they wont want to play with you next time.
If you’re asking kids to do things too often, you’re doing it wrong. The camera should be something they see so often it becomes as invisible to them as the socks on their bedroom floor. Balance *very* occasional gentle guidance with mainly just letting them be.
What to do instead..? Set them up where you’d most like to see them play if you like, but then take a big step back and stop talking. Don’t ask them to smile or look at the camera. Don’t tell them where to look, what to do, what you want to see. Be quiet, and notice what happens when children forget they’re being watched.
I know, it’s an unpopular prospect.
We actually got rid of ours for a couple years; a radical step to reset my daughter, who could only ask for it, regardless of how much or as little of it she watched. Now they have an hour or so in the morning while I’m waking up, and an hour or so in the afternoon while I edit.
The rest of the time they’re doing other things. Sometimes we cook, sometimes we craft, sometimes we do chores, but for the most part they’re free-ranging alone. The more time they spend DOING stuff *on their own*, the more interesting and surprising their childhood (and therefore your images) will become.
There is something easy and obvious about photographing children. They’re inherently curious and imaginative, and it’s in their very nature to be rather cute. When your goal is documenting that’s fine, but if you’re also looking to strengthen your abilities and identify as an artist, it’s worthwhile taking intentional photographs of things aside from your lovely children.
To stretch yourself, practice making emotive and captivating imagery of inanimate objects, and watch your skill and self-expression evolve.
I hope some of this was helpful, and feel free to stop by and join the conversations on my page Michelle McKay Photographer, and our group, The Beautiful Ordinary Presets for Memory Catchers.
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