Inspiration and brainstorming

If I were to summarise the questions I get asked about my photography, “Where do you get your ideas from?” would probably be top of the list. It’s also the most difficult one to answer. The easiest explanation would probably be to describe the way I work to achieve inspiration and sustain the resultant ideas.

I don’t have any illusions about ideas being the result of divine inspiration, or that they represent a carefully thought out plan. Quite the opposite. Everything I create is fragmented. Some of the fragments are thought through and coherent – many others are not.

20130608_MG_3448

My stock photo production can be split into two categories. One category covers relatively banal everyday images which represent life as it happens – in the kitchen, at school, in a room, in the woods or in a playground. The second consists of conceptual images which illustrate more abstract topics and themes – madness, abuse, death, illiteracy, hydrophobia, growing up, the feeling of exclusion. Both are fun to produce, but my passion is definitely the latter. Both categories have large chunks of images that are related. In the first category it is quite obvious which. In the second it could be considered somewhat more subjective, and this is undoubtedly the result of the way in which I work.

20131027_MG_9356

When I set off on a photoshoot, there’s always a series of images that have been planned. Some very meticulously, right down to the minutest detail, such as what colour shirt to use, the hairstyles, the angle of the light, which flower and/or lamp to have in the background. Others are planned in outline only, where intuition during shooting must decide the rest. Although I always try to set aside some of the photo session for improvisation. At least one hour out of four is usually set aside. And when I look back at the hundreds of model hours I have used, I must admit that a large number of my personal favourites, and some of the bestsellers, are the ones that were created when things weren’t planned. I have pictures that cost the equivalent of 10 seconds of a model’s salary, just because I suddenly had an idea. I also have pictures that have cost a fortune to create but which are not particularly good. There is absolutely no direct relationship between cost and result.

But where do these ideas come from?

20120519_MG_4605a

I naturally look at pictures. Every day. Hundreds of pictures from magazines, books and various photo communities like 1x, Flickr and Tumblr, and of course I often browse through the various stock photo archives in search of good ideas. Not to plagiarise – which is actually almost impossible when you’re talking about people. A new face or expression always gives a different twist to the picture, making it unique. Often it can merely be the fragment of an image that provides a good idea – the atmosphere, a certain light, something in the background, make-up or an interesting chair. The same is true with movies. I am pretty sure that many photographers will agree that they watch movies from a different angle. Again, you consider the use of light and shadows to create atmosphere – the dim light of a single lamppost, light and shadows in a railway tunnel, water running down a face, the effect of blurred focus and many other visual effects.

Important sources of inspiration. And at all times, one of my most important tools is always to hand: My notepad.

20120607_MG_7533

As soon as I get an idea, I write it down. No matter how abbreviated it may be. It needs to get out of your head and onto paper, so that the effort to remember it doesn’t block access to the brain for the next idea or modification of the one you have just had. And as soon as the next one comes – down on paper. And then you start the brainstorming. Don’t sort or argue for or against your ideas at this stage. Write them down – you can always sort them later and the process itself will provide the basis for even more ideas and refinement for those you’ve already had.

I always have a notepad in my inside pocket or my briefcase. And I always have a notepad beside my bed, in case I forget some of the ideas that come before falling asleep, or just when I wake up – or simply so that they don’t keep me awake. Not only photo ideas that end up on the pad – there are also notes about my programmes, articles and websites. It’s not important. They are all parts of the same scattered train of thought 🙂

20130209_MG_5312

Particularly when I am doing concept work I consciously brainstorm with myself. It could be a subject such as hydrophobia for example. I deliberately seat myself in front of the computer – often using Excel – and write down everything that comes to mind about the subject. All aspects which come to mind, such as lifebelts, bubbles, waves washing in, a hand on a pane of glass, revival, fishing and diving bell. Not in any order.  After this, I can continue working with these elements and slowly ideas begin to crystallise as to what pictures would best illustrate the topic.

I really enjoy setting myself some goals – define some projects that need to be covered to a particular extent. Preferably projects which are very precise and difficult to illustrate. One of my current projects is to illustrate the 25 most common mental ailments, behavioural disorders and phobias with 20 photos each. This gives me the opportunity to brainstorm about psychoses, ADHD and hydrophobia, as mentioned above, and some fun challenges that I find interesting and inspiring to grapple with. Like for a long, long time.

20110409_MG_1684

Sometimes I turn the brainstorming around. This can be very conducive to the generation of ideas. I pluck some completely random item from the wardrobe and begin to consider what images could be produced with it and what those images could illustrate. I am a notorious collector. My props room and basement are filled to bursting. Obviously many of the props were originally acquired for a specific purpose and are waiting for me to find the next one. But there is also a lot of paraphernalia that was accumulated without any particular reason other than that I found them amusing and interesting, or perhaps had a vague idea of what they could be used for. It could be stuff from flea markets or supermarket bargain boxes, or bits I have left over from a raffle or some old junk I found in a second-hand shop, which I also regularly visit for the same reason. They have everything from antique books, old telephones, candleholders, toys and teddy bears to small arms and knight’s armour, skulls, rubber toys, tools, decorations, huge, rustic chests, dumbbells and worn-out skateboards. To fish an old picture frame or a little coloured bouncy ball from the wardrobe, and then consider how it can be used to produce images provides a lot of ideas which are then noted in the notepad.

20120902_MG_6899

Exactly the same applies to locations. I make a number of agreements for different locations for shooting, whether it be a totally unique room, a totally gloomy basement, a long naked corridor or an ultra-modern school. Again, it is inspiring to sit yourself down and brainstorm about what can be expressed with the available locale. Later this summer, for example, I will be shooting in a local supermarket, and I have obviously been doing the same exercise. Here, the setting will be used to illustrate things as diverse as shoplifting and robbery, binge shopping and little Louise, who has lost her mom and dad in the supermarket.

20120906_MG_6915

Last but not least, I should also mention the old chestnuts – the topics and situations that we can continue to cover over and again and each time get something new out of them. Here it is especially fun to work with people, and perhaps particularly children. You give different people the same props or ask them to pull a particular face. This produces widely different results which can all be useful in different ways. I have a number of pictures of practical situations with banal everyday events, produced with different variations, made with different models and which undoubtedly will often be repeated.

In the same way, there are situations and materials that, just by virtue of their unpredictable nature, are an eternal source of innovation. Bubbles are a prime example. You cannot control bubbles, and whether you make pictures with them in the studio or outside, you get so many variances of reflections, sizes, wind and sunshine, that you inevitably get very different pictures that can be used to tell many different histories. Combined with different lenses, light sources and environment, the variations from just this little prop are almost infinite.

20110409_MG_2126

Water is one of my favourite mediums – I find it totally fascinating. Water runs down a face, a back or a foot, drops hanging from a nose or eyelashes, or beads of water on the skin. Fully lit or in subdued lighting inside the studio or outside in nature. Water splashing in a puddle or dark water, or in a lake which conceals the mystery. Water from a hose, a shower, a bucket or simply water from above in great cascades or a light drizzle. And water sprayed out of a mouth, a water gun or the splash on impact in the pool. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of water and I am always inspired to create new images with water just by looking at some of my past work.

And then it’s out with the notepad again 🙂

20130216_MG_5838-Edit

It’s all lights and makeup

That’s what I tell people when they are occasionally shocked by some of my creative images of gruesome subjects. And that is actually one of the aspects of photography that is the most fun: How important light is for the final image. To move a lamp or turn it off can change the message of a picture more than all the finishing in the world and is occasionally exactly what decides whether the image is dull or exciting to see. Even I forget it sometimes – just move the light. So it is only when shooting is going too quickly for all the lamps to keep up, and one of them cannot be recharged in time, that I am reminded of it. I have many examples of excellent pictures in my archive, which were actually only good because one lamp was left out.

But let us take the picture below for example. Created to be fun, and generally a good example of a studio picture that could have been taken with virtually any camera. At 24mm, f8 and ISO 100, even the simplest mobile phone can keep up provided there is sufficient  light.

_MG_7275

Evenly lit with a neutral background – particularly dull for a portrait, but a classic setup for a stock photo.

Let’s turn off 2 of the 3 lamps in use now:

_MG_7277 copy

Exactly the same setup (as exact as the model can keep his expression) but undeniably a completely different picture with a completely different atmosphere and story (I leave the story to you). In my opinion a much more exciting, photograph and story, but also clearly with much more concentrated applications as a stock photo. Let’s continue the experiment and subject the last picture to 10 seconds of finishing, so that it becomes black and white with a slight sepia tone:

_MG_7277

No longer a classic neutral stock photo, but a low key image that most of all resembles a split second in a movie. Just by switching off two lamps. Good for creativity and probably also good for the environment 😉

Absurd banalities

Stock photos is essentially about trivialities. Pictures of perfectly ordinary things in setups designed to give the impression of having been taken directly out of everyday life. Therefore the challenge is to get setups to look real while simultaneously creating an image which is photographically appealing – that is to say, not like anything taken with a mobile phone in everyday life 🙂

One of the truly fun aspects of my speciality is transforming mundane images to the absurd. Let us take an example of a banal image:

20081231IMG_1516

It doesn’t get much more banal than this! A totally simple image that anyone can reproduce without complicated equipment, and with a minimum of props. Yet – despite the banalities – this is among my most-sold pictures and will be found in hundreds of publications. The picture lends itself to different interpretations and it can be expanded upon using text on the toe label.

I very often create different versions of the same image. Either in the same photo session, or else I might return to the theme later if new ideas occur to me. I have a lot of visual themes in my archives that are repeated in dozens of moods.

A good black and white version is almost a must. It conveys a completely different atmosphere – a little cinematic in appearance, and it can be produced in no time.

20081231IMG_1517

Almost as popular as the colour version, but not far from banal. Let’s put some symbols to work:

20101113_MG_5740

An immediately improvement! The picture can no longer be as universally relevant and its marketability is therefore considerably reduced. We no longer have an image which will be sold on the volume market such as Royalty Free (which means cheap) but must instead be upgraded to a Rights Managed image that fetches a considerably higher price and for a limited purpose. If the symbolism is not clear enough, it may be better if you think about the exhaustion of Christmas. That’s enough to kill anyone 😉

20101228_MG_7111

If you think they are too abstract, then smileys (and sadley’s) are other obvious and easily understandable symbols:

20081231IMG_1532-2

The possibilities are almost endless. Replace the label with an air freshener, a pair of fluffy dice or a picture of the classic, old-fashioned jumping jack, and the picture suddenly conveys a whole new symbolism and tells a different story.

I get most fun out of creating images where the setups and symbols become so absurd that not even I have a clear idea of where they can be used!

20110409_MG_1903

The most fun, but not necessarily always the most profitable. It erodes marketability a little, but someone has to create them 🙂  On the other hand, the price can be high enough to produce a profit with the first order. And selling is what it’s all about.

My speciality – or at least the aspect of photography I am most passionate about – is not just the absurd and bizarre, but rather the grotesque. Pictures of the stories that are not allowed to be told. In an article soon to be released I will be telling more about how the absurd becomes grotesque, and how people react when you challenge the taboos.

20110409_MG_1874

Capturing reality

With the number of friends I have among photographers, I often get the chance to discuss the more philosophical aspects of photography. Photo sites, both Danish and foreign, bulging with pictures that fall under the headings of street photography and documentaries, and it is difficult to find a site without at least one picture from a run-down city with poverty-stricken people. On the other hand there are far fewer conceptual model images and in my experience these are held in disdain, especially by street photographers and photographers of nature.

Model photographs probably comprise 99% of my pictures and my approach to reality may therefore rightly be classified as “fabricated reality.” I occasionally hear comments like “come out into reality and take your pictures” and come across folk with the conviction that my work is too easy and an imitation of reality. Not surprisingly, I suppose, my view is the exact opposite. It is too easy, photographically speaking, to go into town or travel to an impoverished part of the world and take pictures of slums, dirty children and toothless old people. In fact, I believe that it often borders on misery tourism and a lack of empathy, even if it is perhaps done with the best of intentions. I love travelling around the world too – healthy and stimulating for the traveller of course, possibly interesting from a documentary point of view, but seldom particularly exciting from a photographic point of view. On the other hand I find it extremely difficult to create staged images that can have the desired impact and express emotions and stories without appearing to be staged. That for me is challenging photography and one of the reasons that I’m passionate about my work in the studio.

But then, thank goodness, we are all different and I wonder if we don’t basically all want the same thing but in different ways: to explain to others how we see the world and try to affect them in the same way that we are affected by it.

My favourite website for inspiration and emotions is 1x.com. Here the best of the best images are selected in a rigorous review, and every day about twenty new images are published. Although toothless old people do tend to dominate, the selected photos cover a broad spectrum across all genres and styles and the quality is undoubtedly the best of any photo site on the internet.

Ix.com produce an annual publication. Yesterday I received their 2010 issue – “In Pursuit of the Sublime“. 205 photographs from photographers around the world, including myself, covering every imaginable field of photography. A superb and inspiring collection and without doubt the largest photographic publication this year. I am extremely proud to have received a mention among these prestigious photographers and photographs.

Browsing through the book provides hours of amazement from the most stunning pictures. From architecture and insect close-ups, to documentary images, portraits, conceptual studio pictures, colourful photographs of birds, sunsets and pictures which cannot be called anything other than dazzlingly skilled photographic art. If you’ve got $100 to spare, I recommend you buy this book. If not, take the opportunity to browse around the photo session at 1x.com . You will not regret it. This is real photography – the reality as seen through the cameras of thousands of photographers.

Trust yourself

More than two years have passed since I decided it was time that I did something serious about my passion for photography. I decided that I wanted to show my work for a wider audience, and that I would make an attempt to do commercial photography – stock photography. I invested a large amount of time and money in the right setup, in equipment, models, studio, workflow, paperwork and corporation.

The intervening couple of years have been really exciting and it really did trigger my “career” as a photographer. Now I’m well-known in my line of business, I have thousands of images for sale, I’m represented at almost any stock agency, I get job requests from strangers, numerous model applications every week, and I experience to be both loved and hated for what I do. So everything is more or less as it should be 🙂

I produce two kinds of images (in addition to emotional portrait photography): Commercial stock photos and artistic photos. I have a passion for the genre that is best described as “dark art”. Many of my photos are melancholic, dramatic and morbid.

I have chosen to specialize in children and young people as my subjects in both stock and artistic photography. Mainly because I think they are really fun to work with, but more specifically because they are really good at expressing exactly the feelings I want in my images. And I’m really good at getting them there.

The combination of young people and my addiction to dramatic images resulted in many strange experiences in the last couple of years. The images often turned out as very unusual with strong emotional impact, and I have experienced being called ugly things, being “yelled at” and threatened by email because of this.

My dramatic images are generally categorically rejected by american censored galleries, while I’m receiving fan letters and excited acknowledgments at the uncensored galleries. A very strange combination that it takes some time to get used to. I do listen to criticism, of course, but my first and primary advice to others is that if they master the technical aspects of photography, they must simply trust their own judgement and beliefs. There are no absolutes in photography. It’s all in the imagination. The newcomer of today could easily be the star of tomorrow.