An artist has to draw inspiration from somewhere. Let me introduce you to mine. Her kind, sweet soul came into my life at a time when I needed one most.
Before I explain the young lady in the photo below, let me say I was in a complete creative rut. I was down and out. Every photo I took looked like every other I had taken. I couldn’t see anything new anymore.
My artistic well had dried out. I lost myself in mediocrity. I just didn’t know where or how to look for new originality.
And that’s when the phone rang. A young person’s voice was on the other end of the line.
“Hello, my name’s Julie Bird. I wanted to know if you take work experience students into your studio?”
I had to work out how to reply. Calls like these usually came from schools. This sounded like a kid from one, not a teacher.
“Yes, I do, but—”
“Oh, it’s okay, sir.” She giggled. “I’m only checking for my school. If you do, I’ll let them know and they’ll sort out the paperwork. It’s just, well, I love what you do, sir. I’ve seen your photos and want to learn how to do it.”
She barely sounded high school-aged, let alone of senior stock.
“I’ve been learning photography. Our art block has a darkroom — and I really love your black-and-white pictures. I like yours a lot. I’m really good with a camera, sir. I am.”
Schools usually wanted their work experience students placed in offices. It’s all about document filing and answering phone calls. Camera work wasn’t all that important. There’s no long-term benefit for a student to gain good picture-taking skills.
I responded, “I see. You have an SLR camera?”
“Two, sir. One for colour photos, and the other one I use most, has black and white film in it. That one’s got an F1.2 lens. It’s better for natural light.”
That wasn’t the response I anticipated. Two cameras? Natural light?
I expected the kid to ask what an SLR camera was but it was apparent she knew much more. She knew lenses. She owned two cameras and used them for specific purposes. I had adult photography students with less knowledge and gear than that.
When everyone else was talking about digital photography, she was shooting with film and developing it in a dark room. How absurd was that?
“F1.2? Is that a 50mm lens, Julie?”
“No, that one is 110mm. I’ve got a 50mm too but it’s—”
“That’s a serious lens you’ve got there.”
“My dad bought it for me. He’s very encouraging.”
And that’s how it started. Although she sounded young, her knowledge and ability to speak intelligently altered my opinion of her. She also did all the groundwork for her teachers to create this work experience opportunity for herself. Clearly, she had put in the effort to make it happen. How could I not stop and pay her some attention?
When I met her and her Nun educators at her private all-girls school in the countryside, I was in awe. How on earth did she convince these conservative folks to come and work with me?
And she was so tiny. The voice on the phone matched her size.
“I’ve shown them what you do,” she said. “You just have to sign the form and it’s all done. If you like, I can make it on Wednesdays for the first two weeks and then for the whole school holidays.”
Oh my god! Did you show them my work? And they’re still going through with it?
Clearly, she was taking hold of her destiny. Whatever case Julie had made for the Nuns before calling my studio must’ve done the trick, because she was in charge and was set to come and work with me come what may.
I signed those papers and drove out of the school grounds wondering if I’d done the right thing. Religious conservatism aside, I didn’t need an assistant. Not at all. I worked alone. I liked my own company.
I’d now have to consider having someone else around the place.
“Maybe this distraction might work better for me,” I said to myself behind the wheel of my car.
The poor girl lived far away. She had to catch two trains and a bus to get to my studio. It took two and a half hours each time.
God love her dedication to the art of photography.
That first day was about breaking the ice. We talked about our respective histories in photography. Well, mostly it was her talking about her school and the difficulty she had matching her interests into its inflexible curriculum.
She filled me in with her academic background.
She told me she’d been a difficult student. According to her, the Nuns would’ve been glad to see her leave the school permanently. She had tested their patience many times, the last one while trying to submit an art project on pornography.
“I bet that went over well,” I said.
“I can’t see why it’s any different. It’s just the same as any other art.”
“Julie, I think you did that just to shock the Nuns.”
She smiled, “Funny, that’s what my mother said.”
Although she admitted to not being particularly academic, Julie’s grades were solid in most areas. She was well-spoken and clear of thought. She never swore or spoke ill of anyone. She may have been a rebellious student at school but she was a courteous human being outside it.
School just wasn’t her thing.
At barely five feet, she was a pocket-sized ball of enthusiasm and curiosity. Nothing was off-limits. I even had to pull her into line a few times when her conversations strayed into areas that others would consider to be inappropriate.
Yes, I was aware she was only a juvenile. My responsibility was to make sure her work experience period was safe and didn’t cross any lines of impropriety. I explained to her that certain discussions were off-limits, and so too were some photography assignments. This included taking part in the life portraits I’d been known for doing. I wouldn’t even let her into the studio when that was happening.
I decided that the black and white nude work she joined me for wasn’t going to involve her. Instead, we reviewed the shots she’d already seen. I gave her the technical details about what equipment was used to take them and then left it at that. I then gave her the mundane responsibility of editing puppy graduation photos — part of a small but regular contract I had with my local veterinarian. It wasn’t what she wanted to do but she understood the deal.
When she finished her work experience time, she proposed taking on a traineeship with me, after graduating from high school. I thought it was a good idea. She’d already been a great help to me and did all her work exceedingly well.
So, she’d work for me for two to three days a week and then get paid for it. It wasn’t much but she’d be able to keep exploring her photography interests with me while learning the trade.
This new arrangement was significantly different to the other.
The school was no longer responsible for Julie. She was over eighteen, and able to make adult decisions. I could include her in a wider scope of photographic projects.
One day, we were out scouting for a new shoot location — urban scenes with concrete and brick — and we came across an enormous water utility on top of a hill. It had colourful graffiti all over it. I felt it’d make the perfect location for an upcoming project. The edgy backdrop would be a contrast against the gentle ones of the human form.
“Did you say she’s a dancer?” Julie asked.
“I used to do ballet.”
“Gave it up because my legs weren’t strong enough.”
“I hear they break their ankles a lot.”
“Blisters, broken toes too — it’s really not for me. I wasn’t disciplined enough.”
I looked at her and wondered about how she went from ballet to photography. Were they just fads? Both require discipline.
I turned back to the tank, looked at where the light was falling and tried to imagine my ballet subject being posed in the space before it.
“Are you thinking of putting her against that wall?” Julie asked, pulling my camera out of its bag.
“Yes, although when I look at it now, it might not work. The graffiti is bold, maybe too strong. I get a sense she could get lost in it. I’ll take a shot or two but I have my doubts.”
She handed me the camera and put a hand on her hip. “But if you’re shooting in black and white those colours won’t matter, will it?”
I felt that was a mature question for someone with limited experience.
I lifted the camera to my eye. “It’s not the colour I’m worried about Julie. Those lines swirl about to the left and there’s no balance for it to the right. They carry a lot of movement with them. Lots of distracting movement.”
“We could do a test run,” she said from behind me.
“Yes, I’ll take a shot or two now.” I snapped off a few pictures and studied the results on the screen. “I guess we can be thankful there are no obvious expletives on the wall. I’m not even sure what any of those words say. We better check them just in case there’s a hate message.”
Just as I was lifting my head to examine the wall, a voice said, “See? I can do ballet too.”
I turned around to find Julie holding this pose in the grassed area!
Yes, it happened this way. That crazy kid stripped off and did this!
What a delightful moment. Not only was there a beautiful woman-shaped body under those petite garments, but that bold personality was expressing itself again. It’s no wonder the Nuns feared her!
Okay, she wasn’t making a perfect ballet pose but that’s not the point. She was keen to model and showed me some initiative.
“Well, it’s no good doing it out there, Julie. The wall is over this way. Go over there. Try against that bit. That’s where I’d put her.”
Julie smiled and walked across the grass with her bare feet and took it slowly when crossing the stony edges of the service road that surrounded the water utility.
“How about this?” She asked, posing against the wall.
I had to blink myself back to reality. Was this happening for real? We’d never talked about her being in front of the camera. She showed no interest in that part at all. It was she who wanted to take the photos… or did she?
I blinked again and looked through the viewfinder.
It was just as I feared.
Those swirling lines swallowed her up. They were way too distracting. A ballet dancer would have the same issue. The background was just too busy.
I took some shots and looked at the results.
“Come and see,” I said.
Julie gingerly trotted back over the pebbles. “Oh yeah! It wasn’t anything like I imagined. You’re right. You can hardly see me.”
She swept up her hair and threw it over one side of her neck. “Graffiti dominates everything.”
I nodded in agreement while she pointed to the screen. “What about getting closer? There’s a lot of extra space. A tighter shot would put more emphasis on me and less on the wall.”
If you’re imagining us having this weird creative discussion while one of us was wearing jeans and a collared shirt and the other was stark naked, then you’re right. That’s how happened.
I must admit, it was refreshingly different to share ideas with someone else while I was working. And the scenery had improved too.
“Tight framing is the easy way out, Julie. I’m trying to include more space around the subject. It’s working out how to connect the two of them without attracting this kind of imbalance.”
I never mentioned to her the rut I was trying to escape.
“Oh, I see. Well, if movement is the issue, why not work even more movement into the picture,” she said. “Why fight it? Go with more.”
Why did I not think of that? It’s something I’d say to my students.
She professed we integrate a moving ballet ‘leap’ into the sequence. After marking out some areas on the ground for where to start the leap, we came up with this panned shot.
Action shots are always challenging. Preserving the integrity of the primary subject while doing it can be hit-and-miss. If it’s done right the movement will make the subject practically lift off the page.
Again, the perfect ballet pose didn’t happen. She admitted that it was hard to concentrate while leaping and not stepping on a random pebble while landing. She looked more like a sprinter, but what we came up with looked great anyway. And her idea was absolutely right. The background falls away while allowing the subject to exist in a sea of space.
When the time came, I used this concept with the client. We went on to produce some wonderful shots that day.
For the next two years, Julie and I teamed up to create some outstanding shots in many areas of black-and-white photography. She posed for me several times and each time we came back with something worthy of displaying.
I can’t thank her enough for coming into my life at a time when I needed it most.
The footnote to this two-year friendship/collaboration is a question you’ll have about other areas of our relationship. Did we explore them and find other ways to be creative? The answer is no. We were professional. I was the photographer and she was the model/muse/assistant. We never went there. She grew up, met a lovely man, got married to him and now is raising a small battalion of boys. I can tell she’s full of love and blessed with a stableness and richness many of us desire but rarely achieve.
I hope in some small way, I played a part in that at a time when her life could’ve taken a different direction.
-Michael (Photographer and Author)