If you were lurking by a warm Georgia lake just south of Atlanta on May 17th around 11:00pm, you would’ve seen a tall, lanky DJ and a tall, gangly photographer scrambling around the fringes of a party tent behind an elegant lakeside home, frantically directing colored spot lights toward the center of a checkered dance floor. And, if you know anything about photography at all, you would have thought, “now THAT’S a horrible idea.”
Because it totally is. The bane of a wedding photographer’s reception experience is those glaring, colored lights that overpower our flashes and turn beautiful men and women into Teletubbies with their purple and green and red beams.
But on this particular night, I’d expended my booked hours and packed up all my gear, only to have a breathless groomsmen catch me at the door to plead with me to return to the tent and photograph the impromptu father-daughter dance that was about to start.
And there was no time. No time to set up flashes, no time to locate the secreted-away remote control that would turn on the overhead chandeliers. I grabbed my camera, a single lens, and a fresh card, and rushed back down to the tent where the DJ promptly began pointing those dreadful spots at the dance floor where my bride and her father would soon be dancing. I needed light; and that would have to do.
Less than a minute later, I made this picture:
Without a doubt, I know that there are better photographs of fathers and daughters dancing.
I’m positive that another, more technically-skilled photographer
But I used what I had, and I love the outcome. Even better? So do my clients.
Another photographer recently asked how one finds inspiration, particularly when the odds are against you: you aren’t connecting with the client, the venue is a disaster, the guests are all drunk, the DJ is an asshole, and the coordinator has made you her own personal punching bag. There are a million ways a wedding can be anything BUT fun. (Like the time a guest’s stiletto heel nearly punched right through the top of my foot. Oh, joy.)
So, what if this: what if The Inspiration is in the shitty light, the melting cake, the sweaty groom? What if it blossoms from the exchange between the setting sun and the shimmer of a silk tie? What if it grows from the merging of wild expressions and competent equipment? What if it lives in the collaboration between a photographer and a DJ desperately aiming colored spotlights over a dance floor?
In photography school, when it was time for the end-of-year, make-or-break portfolio reviews before a panel of stern judges, there was a possible controversial ruling that the student body eagerly awaited as each portfolio was scored: “Portfolio contested.” This meant that two or more judges’ scores were separated by more than ten points. And while it seems undesirable that one judge would have given a portfolio high marks while another scored it very low, the truth was that we all wanted a contested portfolio, because a contested portfolio was one which had made an entire panel of judges FEEL something. If one judge loved your work, and another hated it, surely you had made something that mattered.
These days, in my real-world experiences with people and parties, I find myself leaning into the space between wonderful and dreadful. I’m learning to value the difficult, to appreciate the contest. I’m experimenting with the teeter-tottering motion that balances us between tragedy and joy.
On that night by the lake, I could have grabbed my trusty flash and shoved it into my camera’s hotshoe. I could’ve bounced light off the neat white ceiling of the tent. And I would have had a sweet, consistent series of photographs, evenly lit and well-in focus, shot at f/4 with low ISO and unobtrusive bokeh. But truthfully? It never even occurred to me to do that until it was all over. Until these were the photos I’d practically pulled out of a hat, the way a novice magician extracts a panting rabbit.
I love these photos. And I’m certain there are plenty of people who will hate them, who will know better, who would have done more.
But while they argue about the could’ve, would’ve, should’ves, I’m relishing the nervous energy of, “Portfolio contested.” I’m sucking in the air between hot and cold. I’m embracing the collaboration of light and shadow, smiles and tears, between my intention and the magic before me.
Inspiration does not come to us. We unearth it at our most exhausted, at our least graceful, when we give up and finally align with the mess and the boredom and the work.
And then… then we make something that moves us.