On Artistry

R Family Whittier College Family & Pet Photography by Ellingsen Photography

Because I come from a background in history*, when I first got serious about photography, the goal was always preservation. I was the Keeper of the Moment. The Documentarian. Much like my mom’s mom and my father and aunt before me, I believe in the power of documenting the “everyday” (or as I see it, the things you care about most that aren’t momentous occasions), which is now so popular thanks to equipment affordability paired with the rise of the internet.

When I take or view photographs, there’s always a storyline going on in my head. Pictures are a means to help narrate. I was never able to write a novel like I dreamed about as a child, but photos help me tell mini stories all day long. That’s why I took to blogging (and, for several years, digital scrapbooking) so wholeheartedly back in 2006/2007. It has almost completely replaced journaling for me, because it makes it so darn easy to combine my photos and words. It’s also why album design is one of my favorite parts of the business today.

So, this is all to say that say that when other photographers talk about a body of work and artistry, I tend to become a bit uncomfortable. I started this little one-woman business of mine in order to provide people with the same thing that I always want for myself – this day, this smile, this wicked glint in the eye, this feeling encapsulated for them to keep forever and hand down to future generations. To cherish like I cherish the portraits I have of my great-grandparents hanging in my upstairs hallway. Or the stacks of albums with handwritten chalk notes my mom has from my grandmother. And the big brown 80s binders of photos that my dad has scrupulously organized and cataloged. I like to experiment and play and grow, but the most important thing for me is to make sure that I’ve captured that classic expression a person is known for, or how a couple snuggles together, or the funny way a beloved pet likes to sit.

I suppose then that is the driving force behind my work, the desire to see other people have The Photo that makes them smile with a slight tearing up in their eyes or catch in their throat. How I manage to capture that, with whatever lens or how I processed it, etc., is a distant second. This is not to say that I don’t have a style or particular way I love to shoot and create my images – I believe that’s hugely important for any photographer, no matter their specialty. But the why for me is different from many – it’s not to get a gallery show or make a political statement, it’s to be able to give others what is so incredibly precious to me (and hopefully be able to upgrade a lens while I’m at it). And different does not mean better or worse. It’s just an alternative approach based on my life’s experiences. And I’m pretty positive I’m not alone.

I should probably note that this all doesn’t mean I don’t love to play around with photography on a regular basis. It’s why I like to shoot film, and bring my camera along when I go on walks with Dante or on day trips, because then I have flexibility and I’m not worried about missing something.

But when it comes to providing for my clients? Always, always, always: Their Happiness Comes First. (Without compromising my style, naturally.) I suppose really the camera is just a delivery system; it’s an instrument that allows me to share better than, say, a paintbrush. Believe me, you really don’t want to see my horrible-scary drawings. ::shudder::

Perhaps this is why I always find it fascinating to view the work of photographers that shoot more for themselves or for a certain theme they have in their minds, or documentarians who are out to help a cause become part of the news. It’s such a different approach from mine and I love exploring that side of the trade. Dorothea Lange, Eugene Atget, Eve Arnold and Yousuf Karsh are among my “old school” favorites, and current-era loves include Tara Whitney, Jamie Beck, Garance Doré, Grace Chon and Benoit Paillé.

So, my fellow photographers, what first drew you to your camera? And for all artists and creatives – what led you to your pursuit? The historian in me loves to hear/read/see people’s stories, so please share! And if you like exploring artistry, particularly photography, I highly recommend listening to the On Taking Pictures podcast.


*If you really want to know, my degree is in history with an emphasis on Europe (know your roots!), and my senior thesis was on Florence Nightingale’s little-known lifelong work on sanitation reform in India.

P.S. Big thanks to Sesame Ellis for the inspiration to just go ahead and hit publish on this post, which has been hanging out in my drafts section for months.