Of all the weird things I’ve asked people to do with me, I think this one takes the cake.
On one of my annual visits to India I went on a motorcycle tour. It came highly recommended and we were told it would be a really fun time. And it was, but not in the way we expected. We visited the Mother Theresa house, Garbage Mountain (where our motorcycle broke down in front of a pile of dead dogs), a cemetery, and finally, a funeral pyre.
We sat witness to a funeral and cremation of a man and saw the family gathered, grieving but also celebrating. It felt wrong to be there, and we soon asked to leave so that the family could have privacy, though the funeral space was open to the public.
On that same trip, I watched a a hearse went down the street, carrying the dead in a glass car so that everyone could look in.
I started to realize that death in India isn’t the same as death in America. That death in so many cultures is less taboo. Sometimes death is a celebration; sometimes it is a cause for weeks long mourning. Sometimes we put a wall between us and it, or sometimes a thick, ornate wooden box. Sometimes, that box is made of glass, and sometimes those in mourning ask others, strangers, to join in with them.
Death is not such an easy thing to grasp once you’ve started traveling and understanding other cultures. This peek into how death is treated in India gave me pause, and started me thinking about death as a subject for serious introspection. Two years later, the idea for this series was born.
Though these images will not be featured in the final series, it was one necessary step in my exploration. These images were inspired by that glass car in India, and serves as a window – or really, an invitation – to get a little closer to death.
The experience of this photo shoot was all of these things: hilarious, freezing, difficult, dangerous (at times), and above all, absolutely wild.
I had an amazing team helping me. And when I say helping, I mean doing a lot, if not most, of the heavy lifting. My friend Dave Junion had the coffin made locally and we used his forest, his fork lift, and his building skills to get it strung up in the tree. Dan McClanahan lent us his height and strength as we tied the coffin to the trees. KD Stapleton took behind the scenes images and drove some of the heavy machinery. And Randy Verhasselt worked the fog machine and helped work out the electrical wiring.
Not least of all, Payton Bottomley, our model, fearlessly got into that coffin. I got in first to test it, and we did put it through some rigorous testing to make sure she would be okay. She didn’t flinch at the idea, and remained excited before, during, and after the shoot.
Step 1: Put the coffin on a fork lift. Step 2: Drive the fork lift into the forest. Step 3: Tie rope onto two trees after the distance has been measured. Step 4: Raise the coffin to the height of the rope and attach. Step 5: Pray. (Just kidding, mostly). Step 6: Set up the heater underneath the coffin to warm it and set up the the fog machine. Step 7: Test shots. Step 8: Get model in place. Step 9: Shoot from every conceivable angle…because we are not doing this again. Step 10: Hot chocolate and high fives.
And so the shoot went. It took 3 hours from start to finish. It was a beautiful day, absolutely frigid, and we laughed so much we cried.
Do you want to know the secret to getting people to do weird stuff with you? Acknowledge that their contribution is worthwhile and appreciated. Be weird…as weird as you genuinely are. People love to hang out with weirdos. Create. Being part of a true artistic creation process is priceless, and a lot of people will recognize that. Give your energy and passion, and you will attract people who are looking to ignite their own energy and passion.
That’s my secret. I am wildly passionate and energetic about life, and I never fail to find friends who want to help me bring my visions to life. Though these images aren’t going in the series, they will remain a testament to what can be accomplished when your passionate vision gets loosed on the world.
Sometimes, particularly when I give lectures, I watch as a bewildered crowd looks at me with horror. Inevitably someone says, “your poor models!” and heads nod in agreement. You see, I put my friends through some rigorous photo shoots – nothing I wouldn’t put myself through, mind you – but nonetheless uncomfortable.
The way people react to realizing I’ve covered my friend in, say, wax, is almost always disgust…as if I did it without their consent, somehow. It almost makes me laugh, and we always get the misunderstanding straightened out.
Why yes, in fact I did have express permission from my model to pour wax all over her! “Oooh, okay then!”.
And so we have it again, another hair-raising story filed under “Things I Do to my Friends”.
I flew to Wisconsin to do two photo shoots for my death series called Samsara. What ended up being a $3,000 trip (more on that later) yielded no usable results, and I proceeded to begin my long, long artistic breakdown (yet again for another blog post).
But in the moment, it was exhilarating!
My friend Dave Junion in Wisconsin happens to have an abandoned train depot on his property, so I used that space to create in. Old, blank, beautiful, falling apart. All I needed was some candles, a table, and a candelier.
Unwisely, I brought the chandelier all the way to Wisconsin with me. I checked a bag just for it. It weighed 40lbs and undoubtedly TSA was concerned, but it made it through.
I found the table outside of another friend’s house in Wisconsin (you’d think I grew up there, but no, I’m a Pennsylvania girl). I assembled everything I needed, from a high-powered heater to a blow torch, candles, fabric, table, chandelier, and smoke bomb. All gathered, it took me a full day to organize with the help of my friends.
And then the torturous part. I asked my friend to lay naked on a table covered in ice for the better part of an hour while I slowly melted candles on her bare skin.
AND IT WAS SO MUCH FUN!
We laughed so hard through the whole thing that I was afraid the candles were going to fall over on her body! I kept yelling at her to stop laughing which only made us laugh more, but I promise you, no one was injured.
The high powered heater didn’t hurt either, especially since we were in an abandoned building and it was 20 degrees F in the room. Did I mention it was February…in Wisconsin? The only problem with the heater was that it created two very different temperatures in the room and my smoke just tabled off at a certain height. I had to run around like a maniac waving cloth around to get it to disperse.
I used the window in the space for natural light, but needed to make sure it was dark enough that the candles had some effect. I photographed the chandelier first, hanging above her, then removed it and lit the candles. After I had some shots of her and the candles, I ran around the room with a lit smoke emitter so that I could get the hazy, smoky effect.
This image, an homage to classic paintings and particularly religious art, didn’t end up making it into my series. I ended up going in a different visual direction in which no locations were used at all, and the figures were more abstract than literal. However, I love this image, so on it’s own it exists in my heart as everything it was intended to be: a meditation on mortality (using candles to signify a vigil) and a look at the delicacy of death.
I am often inspired by paintings, especially Gothic, and looked upon “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli as a great inspiration. The pose and the lighting played a large role in creating this image. Through the series, both what was not used and what is being used, which I will share with you at a future date, is inspired by Gothic paintings.
Next I’ll share the really harrowing story of how I hung a glass coffin tied to trees 10 feet in the air in a beautiful forest in Wisconsin. Until then, my dears…until then.
Model is my best friend KD who looks as though she’s stepped out of a classic painting, and we love taking advantage of that. She’s quite literally the best, and I hope everyone finds their own KD in life with whom you can melt candles on.
This image was meant to be exactly what it is, but it wasn’t meant to be what I tried to force it to be. I set out to create a new photo series all about death. I had personal reasons for doing that, but that story is for another day, maybe months from now or maybe years (or maybe never). I wanted to break down the barrier between the living and the dead. I wanted to confront what scares us most about death and in doing so, become better acquainted with my own mortality.
Alongside an idea is always a technique, or in other words, the physical manifestation of that idea. How was I going to portray death? What would the series look like? How would it come across?
At the time that I began the series, I was in a transitory period as an artist. What I didn’t realize was that it was just the beginning of a two-year struggle to find my new voice and vision. Back then, I thought I knew exactly what I needed to do to take my art to the next level.
High budget productions, ornate sets, and models.
So I started building a new series on paper, writing about it and casting models. I rented a few abandoned locations and decided to give myself a one year timeline to finish this new body of work.
As I went on, it became clear to me that something wasn’t right. I liked the images, spent thousands of dollars making them, and on some level, was proud of myself for creating in ways that were a bit foreign to me.
But on the other side..the IN-side, I knew it wasn’t right. It can be very difficult to admit, after so much money has been invested, that something isn’t working. But that is the conclusion I eventually drew after 1.5 years of working on this series.
The problem wasn’t with the series, but with the way I was creating it. I realized I stubbornly tried on different ways of creating, hoping in the process to find my new style and vision. The truth of the situation was that I was relying on visuals and techniques that I thought would make my art better, not that I actually wanted to utilize.
It also turns out that I needed that whole year and a half to reconnect with myself. I had a very scary, very honest talk, alone in my garage, about what this series should actually look like. And when I reassessed, I learned that I needed to go back to basics. That the simple, inexpensive techniques that have always served me well would serve me well again. That I didn’t have to change everything about my creation process to do something groundbreaking.
But, that’s for another time. For now, I want to share the story of this image with you.
I contacted my friend Kyna to do a photo shoot. She was 6 months pregnant at the time. It felt like harmony as I pursued a series about death and she was about to bring life into the world. I crafted an image around her, deciding to play up the themes of life and death.
In a really scary moment, I decided to ask her a question that I hoped wouldn’t offend. I asked her if we might create art using her father’s ashes. He passed away a few years ago and I thought, with new life and old, that we could create something really meaningful.
Here’s the thing about being a totally out-there, weird artist: you attract like-minded people. She didn’t flinch at the idea, but instead welcomed it openly.
I booked a location, drove 3+ hours away to find it, and then took a 1 hour truck ride on the most treacherous road to get to the house. It was off-roading to the extreme. But finally, we got within a mile and hiked the rest of the way.
I spent the day before gathering ashes. I went around to some local campsites and asked if I could clean out the fire pits, which the park managers happily agreed to let me do (that way they didn’t have to do it!) and I took those ashes with me to our location. They were HEAVY, which was unexpected, but we somehow managed to hike with them up to the house.
I scattered the whole room that I chose to shoot in with ashes, and then set up tall black candles around the space. In addition I set up a light outside the window to create streaks of light, and kicked up dust to create a hazy effect in the room. I also bought an old bassinet for the background.
When it was time to shoot I asked our helpers to leave so that we could have privacy. It was time for her father’s ashes. It was years working to heal through his passing, and this was one more step in that process. She had the box next to her, and I asked her to take some ashes and wipe them across her eyes. She did, and it worked, but we needed more. Eventually holding the pose and getting the fabric to stay up was too much to keep together, so she asked me to spread the ashes.
I felt such an interesting feeling of connection and disconnection in that moment. Connected, because I was permitted such a sacred rite. Disconnected, because I could feel the bone pieces in the ashes as I wiped them across her eyes and I recognized what I was doing in its component parts; that something can carry memories, and therefore be alive in one way, but be entirely inanimate, too.
We finished the photo shoot and packed up as best we could. Hiking down the mountain, I remember feeling such awe for her and the amount of vulnerability to do a photo shoot such as this one.
She thanked me for creating something so personal to her, but for me, it was universal.
We all touch death. We all touch life. In that, we are all connected. She gave me a gift that day that I will never forget, and it was the gift of facing death (and life) in a way that most people don’t get to. To hold the remnants of a person in my hand and to be entrusted to create art out of it. To be told, through willing participation, that my vision is worthy of creation.
That is the gift that this image gives me. And to my dear friend, whose baby girl is nearly a year old now, I thank profusely for participating in and helping to create this story.
Though this image won’t live it’s life as part of the series I intended for it, I’m learning that sometimes the things we create have a way of settling into exactly the place they were meant to be.
Photographed in January 2018 on a Sony A7RII + 24mm lens.
If you know anything about me, you know that I am not all about spending a ton of money to create images. There is a time and place for it, but as a sustainable practice, it’s just not in the cards for me. And if I had to guess, it’s not in the cards for a lot of people.
One of those things that can get pricey is shooting underwater. It doesn’t have to be – I actually use a couple of inexpensive underwater options. For example, I opt for a comparably inexpensive camera for my underwater work (Sony RX100 III) which requires a smaller underwater housing because it’s a smaller camera. It works great and I love the setup. There are also bags for DLSRs, but that’s a risk you’re taking.
A few years back I started creating underwater images…without being in water. I love the practice. It always challenges me to think outside of the box. It challenges my editing skills. And it challenges my sensibilities about posing.
I had an absolute blast filming this White Wall Wednesday. I shot in one of my favorite shooting locations: an underpass. It was loud and weird and I hope you love the video. But guess what – for next week’s White Wall Wednesday, I’m doing a longer editing tutorial for this image!
What ways do you find to 1) Shoot around your budget, and 2) Create outside of the box?
The creative process. Is it usually the same for you each time you create, or is it different? Maybe even drastically different? Do you know what to expect or is it a surprise?
I work from routine best, so my shoots usually go to plan, or at least follow very similar steps. Here are most common steps for my shooting process, as you’ll see from start to finish in this in-depth video:
1. Brainstorm 2. Sketch 3. Write 4. Costume/Props 5. Set the camera 6. Test shot 7. Shoot 8. Cull images 9. Edit image 10. Share!
When I started writing that I didn’t know it would fit neatly in to a 10-step process, but there we have it. Creature of habit over here. I love comfort and stability in my creativity. I thrive in a controlled environment.
I often wish I was different so that I could embody more of a traditional artist spirit. For example possessing any of the following traits would be kind of great: wanderlust, spontaneity, or fits of inspiration.
Well, that third one does happen sometimes. But in general, I am predictable and even-keeled. That doesn’t mean that I don’t surprise myself, that I am not wildly inspired, or that I don’t enjoy a big adventure. Simply, that I don’t thrive under those conditions all the time. I love to work with a list, an itinerary, and a closely monitored clock.
I actually attribute these characteristics in myself to success. Because of my frighteningly equal split of Type A and Type B personalities, I can focus, understand my tasks, and get work done efficiently. But, because I am naturally creative, I have lofty dreams, big ambitions, and a wild imagination. They work in really good unison and harmony to create steadfast creativity.
The before image.
Steadfast creativity. What is it?
It is the knowledge that creativity will always be there.
It means not relying on inspiration to strike like lightning.
It’s cultivating what inspires you to draw upon that any time.
I don’t like uncertainty. But I especially don’t like it when it comes to my imagination. I want to know that it is a muscle I have worked so much that it remembers what to do in a pinch.
I think that is why I’ve taken such a step by step approach to photography. It helps me to understand my job, which frees up my mind to focus on more creative tasks. If I’m confused by my process, I can’t focus on my creativity. Plain and simple.
So, that’s my creative process! What is yours? How do you work best?