I once shot a self-portrait for my high school photography class that I thought would be very artsy. My hair was wet because I’d just showered, and the long black tendrils looked like they were crawling over my shoulder like vines. I set up my tripod and took a shot of myself slouching, capturing just my chin and upper body.
A few days later I was walking around the park and took a shot of actual vines. I had the brilliant idea that I would do a double exposure in the darkroom. The actual vines over the figurative vines…it would be genius, I tell you. Genius!
I spent hours in the darkroom trying to get it just right. This was always my favorite part of the process. While you waited for the image to manifest in the fluids, there was always hope. You hoped that the image developing would match the one in your mind. You even dared to hope that it would exceed your imagination.
When the photo finally developed, I stepped out of the darkroom, the paper still dripping, to get a better look.
It was crap. Really, it was way too ambitious for my skills at the time. The blacks were a dull gray, the vines didn’t blend together like I hoped they would, the model looked bored and like she needed a nap.
So I trashed it. I literally put it in the trash and went back to the darkroom, determined to move on to more traditional photos. When I came out, my photography teacher had salvaged the photo and set it to dry. She called me over and said, “This isn’t very good, but I think you can still do something with it. Have you thought about painting it?”
Up until that point, I’d painted very few photos. My feelings were that if you wanted something in color, shoot in color. If you wanted it in black and white, shoot in black and white. But the more I thought of it, the more it made sense for this picture. I’d been trying to do something a little on the surreal side , so why not straddle the possibilities between colors?
The result was an image beyond any I’d envisioned. I went for the blues and the greens, giving my self-portrait an underwater look. I titled it Mermaid (even dotted the i with a heart; I was still in high school, after all), mounted it and turned it in to be graded. The next week, my teacher told me it’d won Best In Show in a county-wide photo competition. I didn’t even know she’d entered me.
Things I learned in photography that year, aside from the ability to see the world a little differently?
Take risks and don’t give up when they’re not going as expected. They wouldn’t be risks if they were predictable. Keep going past your comfort zone and let the risks surprise you.
P.S. Thanks to Emily Suess for the “not your typical writing prompt” that inspired this post. It’s part of the Writer’s Week writing contest she’s holding on her blog, and I’ve donated a critique of a query letter + first 30 pages a manuscript as part of the first place prize. Interested in entering? Learn more about the contest here or learn more about my writing critiques here.
When’s the last time your work surprised you?