Why are you passionate about this topic?
My photography is a means of creative expression that mirrors who I am as a person. I spend a lot of time in the narrative story of life—the things I like, the feelings that I have, and my beliefs about family and friends are all reflected in the pictures that I take. Being fairly low-key and not much one for fuss, I find black and white images are the perfect expression of this. I am drawn to people and lifestyles that are simple, straightforward, and if given the option, “from scratch”.
Our lives are the stories we create; long after we’ve faded from memory the stories we’ve been part of will still be told by those who knew and loved us. Most of my work centers around the daily story of life at home with children, which I’ve been since our first son was born almost 11 years ago. These images are comprised of the fairly run-of-the-mill antics of a family made up of us six: four littles, parents who work from home, laundry piles and–every once in a while–our lorikeet (pet parrot) thrown in for good measure. You won’t see staged photos, exotic locales, or fancily dressed subjects. I tend to shoot us how we are, as we are, because this is the real representation of our family life. I want our children to remember the stories of their childhood as they unfolded through these images, and not how I structured them so they would look good in a photograph. You can learn so much about people (children included) when you just sit back and watch; when you listen instead of talk. I like to think of my camera as a tool that allows me to do just that—sit back and observe, capturing little details here and there. Besides, the coupling of children’s unfettered imaginations with their simple interactions far surpasses anything I could ever try to dream up.
That being said, with planning out the window, I consider myself an intentional shooter. Alpana Aras, the photographer behind “Storybox Art” once commented that “unplanned doesn’t mean unintentional” and I agree. While I don’t plan shoots, I am always thinking about people involved in story our lives; our kiddies, and their interactions with everyone around them; light and how it plays out at different times in the day; the moods of our family that I want to capture, and the moments that are important to the story of who we are. All of that comes together and drives me to tell our story in a way that will have as strong of an impact 30 years from now as it did the moment I captured it.
When did you first learn this technique? Or, when did you first realize you liked this topic?
I’ve always been drawn towards black and white photography; it’s not only my preference for the photos I take but also the work of others that I admire. Growing up in Newfoundland, fog and cloud shaped how I saw light; pure, extensive sunny days were rare, so low light and filtered light were part of my every day. T.V. was minimal, and, surrounded by books, I was partial to those that featured black and white sketched drawings, like Marie Hall Ets’ book, “The Story of a Baby”. I was a pretty artistic child, but I used to get frustrated that I couldn’t translate the pictures in my head perfectly onto paper. My first camera (A Kodak Ektralight) bridged that gap, and I used to save my paper route money to buy 110 film in black and white—the camera store ordered it in just for me because I don’t think it was very popular! After years shooting with different cameras, changing from film to digital, and accepting that colour is a language I just don’t speak, I am now completely at home working exclusively in black and white.
While colour is a challenge for me, black and white is a natural extension of how I see things. Monochromatic images strip away all the distraction and focus on the truth of what’s going on at the moment in a photo. With colour, I think that you can craft an image to tell a hundred different stories. With black and white, you’re stripping down to the essence of what’s in the picture to tell a single story. To do this, you need to have a strong base on which build the story. With my camera in my hand, an image takes shape when an emotion unwraps itself somewhere between the shadows and the light. Creating timeless images requires anticipating these moments and being at the ready—all the post processing skills in the world won’t help if the foundation for the story isn’t present.
What are the tips you would share with anyone trying to achieve this technique or subject/topic?
Define your style: It’s been said over and over, but really shoot, shoot, and then shoot some more. Evaluate your own work with a critical eye and narrow down what you like. Don’t shy away from looking at others’ work (for inspiration, or just because) but don’t use it as a benchmark against which you measure your own. Eventually you’ll find patterns in your own work and the work of others that will speak to you and help define your style.
Blend technical know-how with learning and creativity: Don’t wait to master one before you incorporate the others. Don’t get so wrapped up in the technical aspects of photography (the “rules”, how your camera works, etc) that you forget that the creative side needs a place in your work.
Become your own teacher: Join a forum, ask questions of photographers whose work you admire, and read, read, read everything you can on the aspects of photography which speak to you. When I come across someone’s work that catches my eye, I’ll search online “interview with ______”. I love reading about what drive others to create, how they process their photos, what techniques they use to get the shot, etc.
Don’t ignore the shadows: Light has many components; understanding not only how shadows give dimension to light but utilizing shadow in monochromatic work is the starting point for strong black and white images.
Shoot what speaks to you: Don’t try to shoot everything; I love the stories told through babies, pregnancy and motherhood, children, and the elderly, but I don’t and won’t shoot weddings or staged events (cake smashes, for instance).
Close the gap: Your client work and personal work should look like each other: I shot personal work for ten years before venturing outside of my own family and close friends. Having only recently started taking clients I have realized that I like it when clients’ galleries look like something I’d hang on my own walls.
About the photographer:
Merritt James is a Newfoundland-born photographer who now calls Maine her second home. In the down time between laundry and matching up socks, she aims to capture the true moments that make up the everyday account of a family life lived in love. If she’s not in her kitchen baking up a treat, she is likely on her way to your house (unannounced, but camera in hand) to continue the age old Newfoundland tradition of “dropping in”—so put the kettle on and enjoy the visit!