Shooting Inanimate Objects: Discovering the Spirit Within
The art of shooting inanimate objects is vastly different than photographing people, but the goal for me, is the same. To discover the unique story treasure hidden within, and share it with my audience. While there are voluminous writings about the technical aspects of this kind of photography, very little seems to be available about the creative process itself, without which, the technical can yield only proficient results at best. I’m hoping to change that just a bit, with this piece, by sharing my approach which I’ve developed over years as a Director of Photography for both film and television, and as a professional photographer interested primarily in storytelling.
When first approaching a potential subject, most often I leave the camera out of the process for a few minutes, and use only my eyes. Most objects, from cars to buildings, airplanes and ships, to dolls and toys, whatever your would-be subject is, have a story to tell. This part of my approach is simply “listening,” but visually, kinesthetically, while quieting my mind, rather than conversing with a human subject. It is, as portrait photographers call it, “building rapport.”
Frequently, that listening pays off, as the story emerges. It may require walking around the subject, squatting down low, or climbing up on a step stool, to discover it in a compelling way. It may be getting up really close to a detail, or pulling way back, across the street, to truly intuit the frame, to discover how my subject wants to be seen to best advantage.
Sometimes, a touch is most essential.
Fundamentally, it’s all about light, and how it plays, how you can utilize it to draw out the personality of your subject in revealing ways. Where the source, natural or artificial is coming from, in relation to both subject, and camera. The quality of that light is fundamental. The traditional photographer’s paradise, the warmth of the so called “golden hour” is frequently the element most sought after, but the “blue hour,” right before sunrise, and right after sunset, are often just as rich, if not more so. Hard afternoon shadows may reveal essential edgy harshness, as with the WWII DC-3 cargo plane to the right here. Can texture or reflection play a role in deepening your subject, lending an air of mystery, strength, or timeless fragility?
Sometimes the key element is patience, walking away from a moment missed, and returning another day at a more favorable time. Occasionally I’ll get home and review my shots before making such a decision, other times, well it’s just clear to the naked eye, or through the lens, that something’s missing, and on that day, it’s not recoverable. Then, overnight it rains, and the shot soars to life the next morning. This old Chrysler at the top left here, upon first glance, was noted merely as an appealing reminder of a bygone era. Yet two days later, in bright morning light, she appeared to me as a faded Hollywood character actress. One angle was pedestrian, just an old car. A few feet to the left, a slight downward tilt of the lens to reduce the glare from the morning sun, and there she was, a venerable, weathered steed, scarred and haggard, but still proudly potent, alive.
It may seem strange to some, but for me there’s an aspect of the spiritual in photographing particular things… trees for instance, or a raging river, a still reflective pool in some ancient place, like the one here below. Old creations, of man or mother nature, things which we so often anthropomorphize.
I indulge that urge, and ask their permission for the image I seek, and listen for the answer. Some things feel welcoming, others clearly don’t wish to be seen or revealed. Rather like their human counterparts. I respect the reply when there is one, and have upon occasion walked away when I felt that was the right thing to do, the shot not created. Other objects seem to whisper encouragingly, “over here, this is my good side,” and there too, I strive to listen and act accordingly.
This 1928 Hudson Super Six Coach interior, above, beautifully restored, sat unnoticed until about 40 frames into my shooting her exterior, when I turned away from the elegant antique. I was on my way into the resplendent Southern mansion behind her, when something beckoned me back, as though whispering “You’re missing something. Over here… see me.” I had been so captivated by the exterior, I hadn’t even truly noticed the interior. How very human.
In that moment which I have learned to heed, I turned back and approached the driver’s door. There was an actor playing her care taker, in 1920’s period clothes and a perfect Georgia dialect. He spoke to me for the first time, as I approached the window. “Like a reflection of yesterday, ain’t she” he said quietly. I smiled in acknowledgement, taking in the richness within, beckoning warmth, the amber reflection of the brick paved driveway… and my shutter went “snap,” just once. There wasn’t another shot to be taken, nor word to be said. Trust. The. Moment.
Her story was old, but echoed resoundingly through my lens. Of a gentleman’s delight, a woman’s perfumed scarf, and a valet’s loyalty. The engineer’s devotion to elegance and excellence, the fervent wish their creation would serve and endure… all there for those who listened, and saw. The magic is in the capturing of what one’s heart feels, what the muse inspires, the mind’s eye discovers, so others may share in that. This is all photography’s ambition, to connect.
I turned form the old car, thanked her quietly with a gentle hand run along her chromed door handle, and went on my way, avoiding the playback screen of my camera. I was wary to jinx what I felt had just been captured, by sneaking a peek. It’s that patience thing again, which I’m innately so poor at. I willed myself to wait, like a child on Christmas morning, till’ I flew back across the country, from Georgia to California, to take a real look at the resulting image. For me, it was worth the wait. I hope you agree.