Sketchbook: Capturing the Right Photo

Connect the Grey works with artists, entrepreneurs, explorers, and inventors to instigate reflection, critique, and change. In the Sketchbook series, these creative catalysts show their work and their process. Here, Connect the Grey founder Janie Hanson shares her photography practice.

I've been taking photos ever since I was old enough to hold a camera, but I started using photography as part of my art practice in college when I majored in studio art as a ceramic sculptor. After college, I shifted focus to primarily photography as a medium, mainly due to the fact it is much easier to transport a camera and photo prints than a kiln and sculptures!

In both my sculpture and photography, I tend to work intuitively: to follow wherever inspiration takes me in the moment, rather than devising a plan ahead of time. Perhaps due to my ceramics background, I'm often drawn to texture, shapes, and patterns in my photography. At times, those aspects can create an almost abstract feel to my images of urban landscapes, playing with depth and dimension, color and composition.

This photo, Third & Main, Bricelyn (2012), is one of my favorites from the "Surface" series, a group of images taken in New York City, Italy, and rural areas near my hometown of Frost, Minnesota.

Third & Main, Bricelyn

The building in this photograph is in the town of Bricelyn, population 365, located 5 miles from the farm where I grew up. Decades ago, it was the local butcher shop, but years of neglect have taken their toll on the structure. As I walked around town with my camera in December 2012, the deep blue color of the building initially caught my eye. Then I noticed the symmetry of the trees against the building, as well as the way the white of the snow was echoed in the peeling paint. I liked the subtle weirdness of the ladder, too  only after you stop to study the building do you realize that ladder leads nowhere.

My proof sheet from that round of shooting shows how I explored the building from a few different angles, trying to capture what had caught my eye.

Proof Sheet Excerpt from Bricelyn

Looking closer at some of the other photos I took provides a window into my thought process as I moved around and experimented with focusing on specific aspects of the scene.

Alternate Images from Third & Main, Bricelyn

The contrast of the blue wall and the white snow initially caught my eye. I liked the backdrop of the crumbling building framed by the silhouetted trees:

Checking out the reflections in the glass window:

Then I noticed the weird little ladder:

And tested out another perspective to try to show the variations in the windows, from intact, to broken, to missing:

Stepping back to capture the building and its setting on the street corner:

And zooming back in to a symmetrical, straight-on viewpoint:

The “Third & Main” image was one of many I shot that day, but its symmetry and dimension stood out when I reviewed the proof sheet. The direct angle of where I was shooting from flattens the image, but the texture of the wall and the trees' shadows adds depth  creating a tension that draws the viewer in. And that mysterious ladder adds an intriguing asymmetrical twist.

The photo became part of my "Surface" series, exhibited in NYC in 2014 and Minneapolis in 2015. Here, you can see it alongside some of the other photos from the series:

You can see the full "Surface" series online at my personal website.

For me, capturing the right photo is a combination of curiosity, observation and testing different approaches when actually shooting, and then identifying the themes and patterns among multiple images to create a cohesive series. 

Whether you're a photographer or not, you likely have to make creative decisions in your work. What's your process?