More already? Why, yes!

So to keep you all entertained as I go through the tedious process of giving www.pictureLOVE.ca an iGadget-friendly overhaul, I figured I'd use this time wisely... and write a bit of prose, because I've missed writing as much as I have missed shooting. (And man, do I ever have a BOATLOAD of pictures to share in a couple of weeks!!!)

Not that it's surprising but I digress... Anywho.

If you didn't know already, I am a bicycle commuter. I had to take a few months off last fall and into winter due to a herniated disc in my neck but generally, whatever the season, whatever the weather, I ride my bike, any and everywhere. Indeed, I am one of those people you see riding in the snowbank at -30, through sheets of rain, and when it's so hot you feel like your face is melting off and you are wondering, are they poor, stupid, or just crazy? (mostly crazy...)

I have a favourite route I like to take each way. On the way to work I stay on mostly main roads that are direct and fast, and I use a slightly different one on the way home that is a tad more scenic as it takes me through a couple of residential areas. There is one stretch of the ride home, down one specific street, that is particularly fascinating. I have watched it evolve over the past 5 years, and it makes for nice metaphor about photography. This is what I will ramble on about now.


~~~

About 5 years ago when the real estate boom had peaked and was set to start its descent, I think a lot of people must have used their home equity lines of credit to renovate like it was 1999, because 1/3rd of the houses were being gutted and another 1/3rd were already finished and up for sale, while the last 1/3rd just left well enough alone and went about their BBQs and lawn mowing as usual.

Now. This street was filled with a pretty typical collection of houses for a mature part of town - a gorgeous canopy of tall trees hanging over the gently sloping boulevard featuring a mix of tall and majestic pre-WWI and miniature depression "starter" homes and several cookie cutter 50s bungalows commingled with a handful of modern homes that had been newly built where the older houses were too small or in such disrepair they couldn't be salvaged.


There was one house on this street that stood out though, not because it was the biggest or prettiest or the newest, but because it boasted the most obnoxious paint job. Perhaps someone did a Facebook poll and took the first 5 responses to "Choose your fave colour" with no black-balling, or maybe they just went to the paint store and requested a colour scheme that would stand out and the paint mixing person had a great sense of humour, but it was (if nothing else) completely unique and unmistakable. I overheard on more than one occasion conversations drifting from people on the street or from friends who lived nearby - "eyesore" and "hideous" and "tacky" were the adjectives used.

The next spring, as people scrambled to sell the newly renovated houses they had wintered over in, hoping to cash in on the last of the real estate wave, the first house to sell was (of course) the one with the crazy paint job. Literally 2 or 3 days on the market! Several weeks later, with sales not coming, there were a couple of other houses that got equally wild colour treatments and sold as quickly. So by the next summer there were double, and as of last spring this street had taken on the garish appearance of what community development would look like if Joker was the real estate planner.


~~~

People are funny this way, how they adopt trends, even when they first feel opposed to it. Someone starts a trend to set themselves apart from the pack. While few copy it precisely, most at least attempt to mimic but with a twist. It's definitely like this in photography, and trends that have ebbed and flowed in the past 15 or so years are equally fascinating to consider as house paint. Post-process evolution has included the rise, fall, and levelling of spot colouring, vintage/cross-processing, grain and texture, the "peach" and "yellow" wash thing, and plastic-smooth skin with razor-sharp details. Genres have been updated with hip new names: intimate and glamour photography has exploded as the newly dubbed "boudoir" genre, while on-location and photojournalistic have been renamed "environmental." And while certain styles have emerged and faded relatively quickly (like "melancholy") others are still gathering steam in a way that will leave an indelible mark on the face of photography, like babies doing yoga or hanging off branches in knitted things, which will probably one day be considered a "classic" style.

~~~

The times, they have a-changed. These trends are what both clients (regardless of taste and familiarity) and photographers (regardless of experience or skill) view when they surf the web for a shutterbug. The "bar" (or expectation) has become set at a point by popularity more so than individual expression. I'm sorry to state the obvious, but by having a purple and green sock monkey toque and fancy organic blankets instead of a traditional red and grey sock monkey toque and a cheap imported grass basket, it's not *really* doing it differently, it's just unique just like everyone else. This doesn't matter, because as both consumers and producers of photography, we need to realize that the one and only thing setting ~insert style of photographer here~ apart from ~insert same style of photographer here~ is their personality and price. Anyone not paying attention to this is going to miss the point, and maybe the boat.


Regardless of what you do, it's sometimes impossibly difficult to actually set yourself apart from the crowd, fulfill client expectations, and still stay true to yourself. Some of us happily follow trends and pocket fistfuls of money, never once stopping to think outside the box that is so readily available if you sign up for the workshop, follow the formula, master the technique, and collect the fee. Some of us adopt trends but only reluctantly, somewhere deep inside feeling like a traitor, a follower, an imposter. Others will be the forerunners, setting new trends that will hopefully catch on and earn us some notoriety as pioneers of the style, while some of us will stick relentlessly to our own aesthetic, refusing for a myriad of reasons to bend, learn, or change. That's how it goes in fashion, art, photography, and apparently even house painting if you happen to live on just the right kind of street. And except for the weird house painting, I admit that I've been in all of these royal "we" categories over the years.
~~~

There are now only two houses that stand out on that street, both newly built in the past couple of years. Architecturally they are almost identical - boxy 2-storey houses with large flat panes of glass that resemble the cardboard box Barbie houses I made as a kid with shutterless windows cut out of the stark, spartan, square facade. Yet they are completely distinguishable from one another because the owners made it so. One house, freshly painted in the last couple of weeks, can be approximately described as "fluorescent mint green" with dark forest green trim, accents, and doorsteps. The other is clear-finished natural wood with a stone walkway and a rock garden. They are, without exception, the most memorable and remarkable houses on that 5 or 6 block stretch of glorious tree-lined boulevard. Considering the current market, I feel confident in saying that neither of them would be an easy sell.

~~~

I think, in photography, it's the same when you're trying to set yourself apart. The trick to success isn't following trends so you can be unique just like everyone else but finding out what you truly love and doing it unapologetically. That doesn't mean you don't borrow ideas and try on other hats, but it does mean you need to subscribe to one of two camps. a) doing what everyone else is doing then going above and beyond no matter what the neighbours think, or b) paying no attention whatsoever to what everyone else is doing. I think that when we stop trying to be what everyone else is or is not and just do what comes naturally, we have the time and space we need to decide what our proverbial houses should look like, and we can get comfortable living in them.


In the past year I have had a lot of time to think about what it is that I am as a photographer, and while I can't accurately describe everything I *do* (that would be a novel and a half I can only describe as picturing love) I *do* have a pretty clear idea of what I'm definitely *not* as a photographer. To sum up:

I like awkward and I like weird. I like honesty and relationships represented and accepted at face value. I like goofy expressions. Eye rolling and *facepalms* are both valid, and awesome. Laughter, regardless of a person's age, whether a tiny giggle or a full-out guffaw, is the sweetest sound in the world, with sighing a close second. And having a camera with me is like recording what I experience in real life that way. I'm not interested in (therefore haven't bothered to master) putting babies in yoga poses while wearing knitted things and removing their unsightly infantile pores, flakes, and uneven skin tones with photoshop, but I can take a mean picture of a baby in a suitcase and getting nuzzled by Mommy and Daddy with the contrast or hue set to "stun" though sometimes I like to play and get creative. I'm also aware that I am not real talented at mimicking natural sun with controlled lighting or putting women in slinky underthings and drawing out "sexy" BUT I've mastered some clever lighting and with a bit of coaching I think I am pretty good at helping women look and feel classy, beautiful, and confident. And I can make almost everyone laugh, both in real life and in front of the camera, because other people smiling makes ME smile. Therefore, I love pictures of people laughing and "melancholy" as a style of portraiture just doesn't appeal to me on a very fundamental level. I'm WAY not that serious. Ever. I just can't pull it off like I mean it.

~~~

If I had to describe myself, if I lived on that magic street where personal expression comes in house-sized proportions, I would come with a sloped tin roof and humble and sturdy natural wood siding with a lovely stone pathway that leads up to my front doorsteps... which happen to be painted in a double complete rainbow and are accessed via the the rock garden in which there are an obscene number of ceramic gnomes hiding in the petunias. I also have my lawn sprinkler set at just the right spot that I can sit on my little wooden rooftop deck and enjoy the ability to discover to whether you are the type of person who smiles like no one is watching to tiptoe through it like a kid, dodge it like it's acid, or stops to dig out your phone and take a picture of the rainbow in it. (I'd take a picture THEN run through it!)


Ansel Adams is credited with saying that there are two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer. As a client, I hope you respect that the fee you pay is for the photographer's vision, talent and skill to engender enjoyment of the creative process as much as for what you can view on a print, canvas, or just your computer screen. As a photographer, I hope that you will endeavour to create images that resonate with you so that when you see yourself in your clients' pictures, it makes you smile, too.

Whatever it is that lights your flame - hair, make-up, architecture, machining, sewing, fishing, computer programming, painting (of houses or canvas) the key to doing what you do best and not hating it every day is remembering who you are, then letting people SEE who you are. I am Hope Walls and I like to pictureLOVE. Who are YOU?

One year ago, today.

We're all on borrowed time here. Regardless of your religious or philosophical beliefs, not one of us, in spite of where or when or to whom we were born, really has any say in the matter about when our time on this planet is going to start much less end. Them's just facts, folks. From time to time, like everyone else, I'm prone to stuffing my head up me arse, though. (Or sticking my head in the sand, if that offends you.) Please bear with me while I explain in the way I know best: with unapologetic verbosity.

~~~

About this time (almost to the minute) one year ago, today, I got that phonecall that brought this into my field of view more than my uncle's, my grandfather's, my father's, my grandmother's deaths ever did. After the "death wail" (which you won't know until you've either heard or made it) crept its way up from my toenails and erupted from my mouth, the only words I remember saying were "no no no no no no no no no no no no no no..." and, "You're fucking kidding me." Surrounded by my family, I crumpled on the floor. Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” So if your heart is walking around outside your body and it suddenly stops living, what happens to you then, Betty smarty pants?

Death is never an easy pill to swallow and I am the first to admit I don't "do death" well. Generally, all I can find the concentration to do is a) bake cookies, b) write, and c) take pictures. In that order. A few days later I will blindly choke down egg salad sandwiches in a crowded church basement or a community hall amidst the chaos and devastation that seems to hit with the same lack of consideration for our busy lives each and every time. This is true, regardless of whether it's an infant, a child, a parent, a grandparent, a friend. Death is rude and ignorant that way.

When it's all said and done, when we've heard the eulogy and the stragglers have reminisced and laughed and cried over the last of the dried-up date squares and dredges of luke-warm coffee that tastes like rocket fuel, we all go home to pick up the pieces of our lives and carry on as best as we can. We each crawl into our own headspace and insulate ourselves as best as we can while we process grief in our own personal hell, whatever that hell looks like for us.

~~~

In July of last year I was still unable to find peace, focus, and purpose. I didn't know what to do, so I followed through on a decision that I had subconsciously made in April: to do nothing. Anymore. Literally. I shut myself down, resigned from several projects I had worked on for years, and closed the doors on my photography business. While I admit I can never ever imagine the pain of a parent losing their child, J's death hit close enough to home that I began to question everything I did. What was the point? Why should I care? Who the eff cares what I do or don't do? In the end we all just frickin' die, on some clock we can't see and can't tell time on - the cancer clock, the old age clock, the Alberta "don't like the weather wait a minute" clock - so screw it. I crawled into a pit of self-pity and guilt and felt like the only solution was to drop out.

Which lasted about 5 minutes, after which I proceeded to discover new passion on what it meant to be a woman, undertake a personal project, and eventually realize a decades-old dream. By taking time off and giving me, myself, and I the time and space I needed, I figured out why. This:


I have a few mottos I am teased for repeating ad nauseum while teaching and spreading my "photographilosophy" and every one of them exists in this picture.

"It's not about the camera..." (this picture was shot with a 1970s Pentax K1000 and a 50mm lens I bought at the flea market on 111 ave for $160.)

"Learn to love the blur..." (anyone who has ever tried to take a picture of a kid on swings - or motion of any kind really - will understand without me elaborating any further...)

"Embrace the grain..." (a saying I have unabashedly adopted from an amazing colleague and beautiful momma named Brandi Arndt, but this was ISO 800 film bought specifically because the weather and subsequently the availability of natural light is sketchy in September.)

But the one I really want to talk about is this:

"Pictures are both priceless and invaluable."

This statement, in and of itself, can be taken in any number of ways. I've heard it used to both bash and justify everything from crappy pictures taken by fauxtographers to lucky shots by momtographers to spending 5-figures on wedding photos. At the heart of it is the fact that we are all here on borrowed time and when we are on the front end of a camera, what comes out in those pictures are often part of what we all realize is too small a collection of means left with which we remember those who are no longer with us. Every single picture, from the blurry, grainy iPhone self-portaits to the underexposed pics from the fauxtog to the perfectly lit but completely cheesy school or department store photos to the professionally shot modelling portfolio/wedding/real estate head shot become immediately recognized as both priceless, and invaluable. And from the time I was 8 and had a camera of my own in my possession, I understood this on some fundamental level. My philosophy, without having the words for it, has remained true since childhood: pictures are both priceless, and invaluable.

~~~

I recently attended a workshop with what I would call one of the top "rockstar" photographers out there. While there were several useful bits of information, what I took away more than anything else was to agree to disagree and know, right down to my toenails where that primal wail began one year ago today, that I was and am on the right track.


Some might say this picture, despite the beautiful lighting and exposure, is "bad" because of "that" smile. Here's what I have to say about it. This picture is a picture of what happened that day. When we are ourselves unable to take pictures, we eventually discover in spite of their technical imperfections that we love each every picture of our kids, our parents, and our friends, at every weight, in any emotional state, at every stage of their life, doing what they do best: being full of joy and life and LOVE, in all its perfectly imperfect awkward glory, embracing life with complete abandon and responding to our very grown-up demand to smile on command with "that" smile. It's a part of growing up. It's documentation. I'd rather have 10 million blurry, grainy pictures of my kids laughing and making "that" smile (and every other familiar and loved silly face they can muster) than spend the rest of my life trying to create a picture of what they would look like of only they (and you) were magazine ready every moment of their (your) lives. Knowing that the clock ticks on unknowingly behind our backs, I will lay down my own life if anyone dares to dispute that this image doesn't fall under the categories of both priceless, and invaluable. Here's my anthem about it all.

~~~

I don't picturePERFECT. I pictureLOVE. As of last weekend I got my camera back on, and I'm ready to shoot people in the all perfectly imperfect, awkward, silly, beautiful glory of their personal love stories. Me and mine are, like you and yours, perfectly imperfect. I swear like a sailor when kids are out of earshot, I lose and gain weight, I change my mind, I suffer from social retardation, I am committed, loyal, and generous to a fault. I make mistakes, I quit, and I start over when I need to. I am Hope Walls. I am not picturePERFECT, but I can pictureLOVE like nobody's business. You OK with me coming off sabbatical? Because after a year off, I sure am. More to come soon. Watch out. I'm back.

One year ago, tomorrow.

On September 28th, 1994, I was wearing a little off-white dress that I had sewn myself with ample room for my giant pregnant belly. And a pair of strappy sandals. My distended belly button made keeping my navel ring from catching on stuff tricky - it bled every time I bumped it and I was self-conscious of the little spot of blood that had soaked through both the lining and the over-layer of my dress.

It was sunny outside, that crisp blue sky that only comes in autumn, and the leaves had turned but the wind carried a hint of winter bite to it, just enough to remind me why I should have worn something warmer than a little off-white dress with strappy sandals. This was what I was thinking as I rode the bus and headed up to the third floor of the hospital where an impatient little girl was determined to make her entrance into this world ahead of schedule. This would mark the start of J's life, a headstrong, spirited girl, gunning to get out of the gate early and take every minute thereafter by storm.

~~~

Our babies were due within a few days of each other, but by the time my son showed up almost 2 weeks late there were 2 full months separating my girlfriend's daughter and my son. My girlfriend thought she wanted a boy, I thought I wanted a girl (we were both wrong - we both just wanted healthy babies to love) but we made a pact to share nevertheless. Before they had cut their first teeth, my friend and I had betrothed our children - we figured it was the best way to insure we would like our in-laws.

In the early years, our children literally grew up together. We knew everyone had had a good time and the visit was a success when someone sustained a grievous injury - monkey bites, broken limbs, stitches, wasp stings, back sprains, rugburn... As the kids got older and school and extracurricular activities and our careers took over, making leisure time and travel between our two cities more and more challenging, Facebook became our families' primary means of communication. Keeping tabs on who was doing what, when, where was a simple matter of checking the news feed for status updates and recently uploaded pics, which in J's case was a lot (and I do mean a LOT) of self-portraits of herself and her bestie Q. with their cell phones.

~~~

It was one year ago today that I added text to my means of communication with this aforementioned impatient little girl, then a young woman of 16. It would be the first and only text conversation I would ever have with her. One year ago, tomorrow, will mark the anniversary of her heading out of this world faster than she headed into it when one of Alberta's stupid spring snowstorms got the better of her while she drove herself and her boyfriend along the highway between school and what she had hoped was just the beginning of her happy ever after.

~~~

Someone reminded me early this morning that what I'm experiencing has a name - it's called "survivor's guilt" and in my case, it's actually attached to my son, who, as of September 28th, 2011 finally "caught up" to her and started doing all the things J. would never do "first" anymore by turning 17. In a couple of months, my son will get to go to his grad; this September, he will get to start post-secondary education. I assume (like every parent does when they fantasize about the future) that after getting his career on track he will move out and (in no particular order) travel some, find a life partner, maybe have a couple of children...

In a completely irrational way, after the initial joy of thinking these things, I have a train of thought that always leads me back to "this is something Wil gets to do that J doesn't." Initially I thought, well, that's incredibly selfish of me, until I realized that as much as my heart aches and I am filled with sadness, what this inability and unwillingness to disconnect and begin to forget J. has done is translate into clarity and focus: I don't need to forget, I need to remember. By being unwilling to forget, I am reminded to be grateful for the time I've had with my children. By refusing to shut it off, I have a deepened commitment to milk every moment right now for all it's worth. By not letting go, I have held onto a genuine hope for the wonderful things ahead that, serendipity willing, are still to come not just for my own children, but for J's younger sibling, too.

Today, my heart goes out to all the parents out there who have outlived their babies. I hope that through sadness you are able to find gratitude, through remembering you are able to find hope, and through pain you are able to find strength. From the ashes rises the Phoenix - make sure you remember to let it fly.



muchLOVE,

Hope