Out of the Dark

26 03 2010

Preface: I don’t think I’ve ever written a purely emotional, purely personal post on my blog. Today is going to be different, and I’m going to fully give in to my ADD and just let this one come out however it comes out. Hope you don’t mind.

It’s a bittersweet day for me. Today I pack up my darkroom for the foreseeable future. It’s like burying my best friend and hoping he will breathe again someday.

Don’t be scandalized, and don’t start penning your “I told you so’s.” I’m not leaving film behind, and not getting modernized. No, it’s just the circumstances of life interfering. In a few days, my husband will be starting a new job in Charleston, South Carolina, and the kids and I will be staying behind for practical purposes. It’s time to reduce expenses and live simply, which means a move to a smaller and less expensive home. It means saying goodbye (for now) to my hideout.

My darkroom and I have been together for eight years. When life overwhelmed me, when people doubted me, when I doubted myself, when anger took over, when creativity was making me insane, through a marriage, divorce, and remarriage, the darkroom was my haven. In it, I learned not just about photography, but about discipline, emotion, patience (sometimes), and true self-expression. I made ridiculous mistakes and indescribable messes, celebrated triumphs that I never imagined, and at times drank and cussed like a sailor. The things I learned!

Packing up today meant going through literally thousands of prints, some good and some “rustic”, and remembering shooting and printing each and every one. It suddenly feels like it’s been a long journey. Sometimes I forget that in going from point A (the beginning) to point B (now), there were so many twists and turns and roadblocks and bridges. Photography began as an outlet for a lot of pain and anger, and eventually became an expression of self-awareness and appreciation of life in every phase, witnessed by four black walls. While my goal in those years was to express myself and to learn the (sometimes frustrating) craft of good photography, I somewhat inadvertently created a record of myself and those I love. Going through all of those prints today was a bizarre journey, a tangible flashback.

I found some prints from my friends as well. Andy, you taught me to value simplicity and embrace sarcasm. Kathryn, you were the first peer I ever envied, and that envy motivated me in the early days when I was frustrated. Thank you both.

I came across some other images that, though they aren’t technically great and/or remarkable in their own right, speak to me now and always. I love this one not just because of the message from the literary graffiti artist, but also because the image itself just isn’t great. I find it charmingly naive, from the days when I had none of the confidence in my work that I do now. I think I was wishing to be misunderstood so I could feel great.


Note that the inverse is rarely true.

This image of Baby Caroline from six? years ago has never really left my head, but it’s a bit too emotional for me to have ever displayed anywhere. For those who haven’t known me long, Baby Caroline was born with only three chambers of her heart. Her parents and doctors knew she would only have a few hours to live, and I had the great privilege (and sorrow) of being there through her birth to photograph her with her family. This was Caroline meeting her grandmother, and is the most bittersweet image I have ever made.


Baby Caroline

But while we chase art and beauty in our work, it’s important to remember that images like this one, just a little snapshot, can mean more than any piece of art we ever create. This is me with Baby Caroline, taken by her grandmother from the image above, who in her eleven days of life taught me more about photography than any book or mentor ever will. This is when I truly understood my mantra, that effective portraits are a side effect of a strong human connection. (To Caroline’s family, I will always keep the heart pendant she “gave” me near and dear to me; I don’t dare wear it for fear that I’ll lose it.)

CJ and Caroline

Me and my mentor

In the end, I suppose losing the darkroom really is losing a friend. I wonder if I spent enough time with it, I wonder what could have been and how I’ll get along without it. In the end, I suppose I’ll cherish the memories until I can have another. But it will never be the same. True friends can’t be replaced.

Thanks for reading.

– CJ


Babbling like a brook

22 03 2010

Hello, all. It’s been much too long since I’ve updated my blog. The speed (and severity) of life can get a little overwhelming at times, which tends to kill my brain cells and leave me wordless.

Fortunately, I have an easy out today. I can share with you a interview I gave to Inside Analog Photography Radio with Scott Sheppard. It’s a fun podcast, around 30 minutes long, and I somehow managed to sound nearly coherent. If you’re looking for a way to burn some of that pesky free time we all have too much of, please do drop by and listen at http://www.insidemacmedia.com/rss/iap.xml, or you can download it for free on iTunes. You’ll hear us chat about how I work, upcoming projects, my short attention span, and lots of other stuff.

For my digital friends, although it’s called “Inside Analog Photography Radio” there’s plenty of non film-related discussion in the interview. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

A more invested blog entry soon, promise.

– CJ

from a fun session in LA

from a fun session in LA

A few little announcements

17 02 2010

I rarely use my blog to post business-related stuff, but I suppose that’s part of its purpose, so here I go. I’m working on another blog post for this afternoon, or maybe tomorrow morning.

I still have one space open for the Malibu custom workshop, taking place at a condo on the beach February 24 – 25. We have attendees flying in from as far away as Scotland. For more information on workshops, please visit my site at www.cheryljacobsworkshops.com.

I also have two more portrait sessions available in Southern California. I can do these anywhere from San Diego to LA, either February 21, 23, or 26th. Since I’ll already be in the area, the session rate will be the same as my regular Denver rate, with no travel fees added.

The Austin custom workshop is open for registration, with the deadline for early registration fast approaching, with the workshop taking place April 26 – 27. I am also open for portrait sessions in the Austin area.

I’ve been really enjoying my critique sessions, and am looking forward to doing many more. The introductory rate of $150 for a very in-depth, hour-long critique is still in place, but only through March 1. Sessions booked before that date will get the $150 rate, as long as the actual critique takes place during 2010. After March 1, the regular rate of $175 will be in place.

For those in the Denver area, a special offer for sessions booked prior to March 15: a $125 credit toward either your session or prints. If you’ve been thinking about booking, now is a fantastic time. Sessions are limited and are first come, first-served. Please mention this blog post to receive the credit.

This concludes the obligatory business announcements. Stay tuned for the fun stuff.

– CJ


A flower to pretty up the blog post.

Stop being modest. It’s irritating.

18 01 2010

I’m a talker, I’ll admit it. But I’m also a listener, and I like to ask questions. Nosy ones, often, but there’s always a reason for the questions I ask. I promise.

When it comes to photographers, one question I like to ask is, “What are you best at and what are you weakest at?” And it’s very interesting to me that those I ask are very fast to point out their weaknesses–thoroughly. But when it comes to talking about what they’re good at, the conversation takes a weird turn. Because almost all of them insist that there’s nothing they’re good at.

What? No.

I’m not sure if it’s false modesty or true lack of self-confidence, but it’s untrue, in every case. Are we really that insecure as a whole? Or are we just afraid to put ourselves out there like that, so something can disagree with us? Maybe it’s a defense mechanism.

I’m betting it’s a little bit of both, and it’s time to change that. I hate listening to people put themselves down. Everyone is a critic, which means that at times we are the only ones on our side. Stand up for yourself. Stand behind your work. Stop putting yourself down. (If you put yourself down often enough, you will start to believe it.) It’s unhealthy, it’s dishonest, and it’s unpleasant for others to listen to.

Some time ago, I wrote, “Do what you do brazenly and unapologetically.” And that is where this becomes an interactive post.

I would like to hear from everyone who reads this blog entry. I want you to reply (publicly!) with at least one thing you do well. Don’t tell me you don’t do anything well, or I’ll know you’re lying. Be honest with yourself and grow a set.

Let’s hear it. What do you do well?

– CJ

big pup little girl

I am good at subject wrangling.

Dirty trucker hands

I am good at finding beauty in unexpected places. I'm damn good at photographing textures.

Everyone’s a Critic

2 01 2010

Critique is something near and dear to my heart. There’s nothing like an outside perspective on our work to understand where we are as artists, and how to get where we want to be.

I think, though, that there are misconceptions about what critique is and isn’t, or maybe what it should and shouldn’t be. For that reason, the word “critique” tends to strike fear in the hearts of vulnerable artists. I’d like to address a few points for your consideration.

Critique does not have to be brutal and abrasive to be effective. I really do not understand the mentality that a mean critique is somehow more effective. I feel just the opposite; an unnecessarily abrasive critique tends to instantly put the “critiquee” on the defensive, and the hurt feelings can prevent the critique from really being absorbed. It is possible to be just as honest and frank without ripping holes in the self-esteem.

Let’s say you went to your hairstylist asking for advice on how you could improve your look. Would you want the feedback to start with, “Well, your current hairstyle is ugly and makes you look like a troll?” Of course not. It’s not necessary.

Critiques that include the word “can’t” are rarely valuable. I hear this a lot. You can’t center your subjects. You can’t use high contrast. You can compose your shots like that. You can’t have that much DOF. Can’t, can’t, can’t. This is art, folks. There are very few things that can’t be done successfully. An effective critique will not tell you what you can’t do; it will help you identify your tendencies so that YOU can decide how you would like to address those issues. A good critique-giver will help you understand why certain things generally work, and leave it to you to decide what is right for you.

The best critiques take into account your personal taste and what you are trying to accomplish. Critiques based solely on the preferences of the critic will only tell you how to make that person happy. It’s much more valuable for you to get feedback on how to achieve the results YOU want. I may personally prefer muted color, but if you love saturated color, my job is to help you do saturated color well.

A truly effective critique should help you identify opportunities for improvement and direction in your entire body of work — not just nit-picking little things in individual images. At the end of the critique, you should have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. And a really good critique will also help you understand what you do well, so you walk away feeling positive and motivated. it is at least as important to understand your strengths as it is to understand your weaknesses.

Critique should never be accepted blindly. You’ve heard me say it before. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it so. It’s up to you to listen to what is said, consider the point of view of the critic, and decide if and how you will act on it. Only you can truly understand your sense of beauty and what you want your work to say. Apply what it makes sense to apply. You should never have to worry about offending the critic; the critic who demands gratitude and obedience is (generally) just plain old insecure.


I'll break the rules if I want to, thank you.

The Photographic Circle of Life

29 12 2009

A few years ago on a forum, I stumbled across a group of photographers who had hit a creative wall. They were feeling that their work had lost its meaning, and that their perspective was “boring”.

This was my response. I hope you’ll find it useful.


You’re all going through something that just about EVERY photographer goes through at some point. It’s the photographic circle of life, and it goes something like this:

You started out taking snapshots because it was fun. You got a little more serious about getting good photos, so you began trying to figure out how to make that happen. The more you learned, the more you found out you didn’t know, so you knuckled down and forced yourself to get technically proficient.

Once you got technically proficient, you realized that you had techniqued yourself right out of the reason you started the journey in the first place — because you were intuitively taking some creative and rewarding shots.

So the challenge becomes embracing your unique perspective and values, while allowing them to rest upon the technical foundation you’ve constructed.

It’s simple, but not easy.

The problem is that you’ve forgotten what it is you want your work to say. You can’t really find that by forcing yourself to take hundreds of pictures aimlessly. It may eventually accidentally happen over time, but doing the same shots over and over again and expecting different results is an exercise in frustration.

Dig around in your personality and life experience. Think about what makes you smile, what makes you sad, what makes you angry. Think about the greatest lessons you’ve learned thus far in your life. Think about regrets, or things you wish you had known sooner. Figure out what defines you as a person (without getting paralyzed by analysis) and photograph that. Use your values as your voice.

Consider the dreams you have when you go to sleep at night. What are they about? Do they make sense? How do they make you feel? Are they clear, or are they fuzzy, or just impressions? Can you “see” them? Are they literal, or totally random? What do they look like? Mull it over. Photograph that.

You’ve figured out how to be a photographer. Now you have to figure out what you want to say. It’s easier to learn the rules than it is to let go of them.

It takes time, but when you base your style on your sense of self, embracing both your strengths and your weaknesses, you’ll develop something that is deep, personal, and consistent.

Enjoy the journey and embrace a little frustration, because it keeps you evolving as a person and an artist. I believe it was Martha Graham who said, “No artist is ever satisfied at any time.” That’s the truth.

– CJ

scarf in snow

scarf falling down on the job

The Un-Awful Family Portrait

23 12 2009

‘Tis the season when family portraits abound, whether made by a professional or with a disposable camera by Grandma. No matter how good or awkward they are, family portraits are just about the most precious possessions anyone can have.

In the years I’ve been teaching photography workshops, I’ve found that there are surprising numbers of professional photographers who really dread photographing families. I’ve heard statements like, “The dad always looks uncomfortable!” or “Family portraits always look stiff and cheesy.” Well, I’ve always responded, if every family photograph you’ve taken looks uncomfortable, stiff, and cheesy, guess what the common denominator is? You!

The good news is, you have the power to fix it. Keeping in mind that portraits are records of your subjects’ responses to you, you’ll just have to figure out how to change your approach to improve your results.

I have two simple “rules” for creating meaningful, non-traditional family (or group) portraits, and here they are.

Rule 1: Everyone has to be as close to together as possible. I mean, really, really close. So close everyone’s faces are touching. Now, I know that sounds strange. Silly, even. But there’s method to the madness, and here’s an explanation.

The closer your subjects are to each other, the less you have to worry about distractions entering the frame. It matters very little if there’s a Kleenex box on the counter behind your subjects if they’re too close together for it to be visible. And with your subjects positioned tightly together, you need much less space to get them all into the frame; this is incredibly important if you’re working in limited space, which I almost always am.

Getting your subjects very close together is also very helpful to the composition of a portrait. Nothing kills composition faster than boring verticals and horizontals. When your subjects attempt to get close enough for their faces to touch, it means they have to turn their shoulders (so they’re not square to the camera) and lean in toward each other. Not only does that give a feeling of being a close family (literally and figuratively), it also helps prevent heads from being lined up and arms and legs forming those dreaded boring verticals.

When your subjects attempt to make their faces touch (and I say “attempt” because it really is the trying that counts, not actually succeeding) it also helps get them on the same plane. Why is that important? Because as an available light photographer, I frequently deal with very low light, which means wide apertures. It’s not uncommon for me to have to shoot wide open at f/2.8 to photograph a family of four or five people. The less depth of field I need, the better.

A few added benefits: because it’s so unnatural and silly to be THAT close, you can generally expect your subjects to giggle and laugh as they attempt to squeeze themselves together. It breaks the tension of being photographed and takes their attention away from what they look like, thus preventing “camera face”. And if your first instruction to your family-subject is to get as close together as possible, it means you, the photographer, don’t have to invent a “pose”. You can watch them pile together however they do, and simply adjust what doesn’t look right. Talk about a relief!

Rule 2: Everyone has to touch someone else. And I do mean everyone. Why? Because they love each other—or at least you want them to look like they do. Nothing works like a physical touch to show intimacy and affection. When a family lines up for a portrait and everyone’s hands are at their sides, it appears that they are simply individuals who happen to be in the same photograph.

Asking your subjects to touch each other allows a lot of room for interpretation, and I guarantee they’ll get a lot more creative than you’d expect. There’s the over-the-shoulder reverse hug, the poke-in-the-ribs tickle, the Dad-inflicted headlock. Whatever they come up with (within reason) will allow the nature of the family to come through. And again, all you’ll need to do is tweak what doesn’t quite work for you.

Compositionally speaking, the family grabbings are an invaluable tool because they turn vertical arms into diagonals, which are great for guiding the eye through the photograph. Watch for the shapes created by the arms; the closer you can get to forming a rough circle with them, the longer the viewer is likely to look at the image.

Last but not least, when everyone holds on to each other, it keeps your subjects in place. When working with low light and/or small kids, one of the biggest battles is keeping everyone still enough without yelling “Freeze!” This technique goes a long way toward minimizing motion while keeping the mood light and relaxed.

And I suppose I should add Rule 3: Let ’em marinate! Once the family is nice and close together and effectively grabbed, give them a few minutes to sink into it and make it their own. If someone is in an uncomfortable position, he/she will adjust it until it feels right, and the firing-squad expressions will disappear. I like to use the time to double check my metering, load a fresh roll of film, tie a shoelace, tell a story, whatever. Give them time. Let them breathe. Focus their attention on each other.

Other helpful hints from Heloise me:

– Don’t insist that Little Susie sit on so-and-so’s lap. There may be legitimate reasons why she doesn’t want to. Let her be where she wants, and then tweak it until it works.

– When you’re working with small children, let the parents know that you’ll take care of any child-wrangling or child facial-expression issues. That helps eliminate the problem of the kids looking great but the parents looking stressed.

– Don’t be overly focused on getting everyone looking at the camera. My favorite images are the ones where the family is interacting with each other, and just one person is looking up at the camera to invite the viewer in. I find that simply whispering one person’s name is enough to get their eyes without disrupting the mood.

– Set your clients’ expectations according to how you like to work. If you don’t like traditional, posed, studio portraiture, don’t show them that! Show the most out-there, limit-pushing, giggle-inducing, head-scratching stuff you can come up with. If they like it, you’ll know that you can do anything up to and including that stuff.

– Instead of thinking of it as a five-person portrait, think of it as documenting one relationship. That simple change in mindset can be incredibly helpful.

Enjoy your family sessions. It’s not enough to just survive them.

(Edited to add: my computer seems to be rebelling, so additional examples will have to wait. Check my site or back here for more portraits when my computer is feeling more generous.)

implied family portrait

The implied family portrait

Family with sleepy kid

quiet family portrait