We welcome you to a new Photofocus series called Creators Chat, where we interview photographers across the globe to find out how they create and get inspired behind the camera.
On the back of Chris Orwig’s book, “The Creative Fight,” he states that “Creativity is not a gift for a select few.” But how do you get to that place where you’re always feeling creative and inspired in your work?
Born just an hour away from me in Lansing, MI, Chris now lives in Santa Barbara, CA. He’s embraced the west coast lifestyle with his love for surfing, which was at the center of his very first photographic self-assignment. He stumbled upon photography by accident — quite literally — after being in a car accident.
Following that accident, his dad gave him his very first camera.
“I had gone through a car accident and had a lot of chronic health issues, and was not a photographer. I was really struggling and in a difficult, dark place. During that time, my dad gave me a camera. And because it was something I could do — I had a wheelchair — I could do it without any impact on my body. That helped me shift my focus off of myself onto the world.”
With his new tool in hand, Chris started to put it to use. He regularly visited cancer patients on his floor at the hospital, documenting their stories. His biggest inspiration came from Eva, who he struck a chord in him before she passed.
“At the same time I was in graduate school, and I had to do some practical work for my grad degree. That meant volunteering. I was at a hospital volunteering and they assigned me, among other things, to a cancer floor. I would sit there every day and visit people, ask them questions and listen. Eva, one of them in particular, I became close with her and her family.”
Chris said that, ultimately, picking up a camera offered him a restorative practice to heal himself.
“When you spend time with somebody who’s dying, you learn a lot about life. In a way, [Eva] and the others became my photo instructors because for me, ultimately photography is about life. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about seeing things other people overlook, about this small slice of time that would have slipped away.”
It’s that inspiration that Eva gave him that keeps Chris going, searching for the next personality he can encompass next in his camera.
Finding his style
Throughout my conversation with Chris, it was clear that he put an emphasis on finding your style as a photographer.
“There are two trains of thought I’ve encountered. One, you don’t try to have style — you just shoot and your style emerges. I don’t agree with that,” says Chris.
“The other side is you have some sort of intent and you clarify what that intent is. You come up with analogies and metaphors, you seek, you search and you dig. If you just shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot and kind of hope there’s something good in there, it’s really hard to find the thread. Instead, set the camera down, brainstorm and reflect.”
For Chris’ personal style, he goes right back to his roots.
“Talking a little bit about my own style, things I value — one of them is kindness and warmth. So I try to create images that have those qualities in them. I have a book called ‘Authentic Portrait,’ so I value authenticity. I want to see the sparkle in their eyes. I want to see that depth, the soul … all those kinds of things. This is all hidden, but every artist needs to have that hidden truth they’re searching for in order for them to get close to it.”
When he strives for that raw emotion, it’s clear that his portraits are effective. They help tell a story and offer depth that isn’t normally found. This is seen in one of Chris’ favorite photographs of his friend, Jeff Johnson.
“I feel like it’s deep, soulful, honest and true. Why I’m most proud of that is, I was shooting for a brand and then we did this other portrait after. It was during a time I was going through a really tough season in life. And Jeff was asking me about that, and I was very honest about it. I think it’s so easy to pretend like you have it together.
“I just decided at that moment, I’m not going to pretend and I’m going to be vulnerable in a way I haven’t about all the things that were going on. And I think the photograph is a result of that vulnerability.
“It stands as a reminder to me to just say, ‘Chris, you got to be human.’ I think those are the best photographs — the ones that we liked the most remind us of deep things.”
We’ve all been through creative ruts with our photography. So how do you take the step and make something truly inspiring?
“There are a couple of different trains of thoughts that I’ve encountered in photo education,” says Chris. “One is you want better pictures, stand in front of more interesting things. I wholeheartedly disagree with that. What that says is, if you aren’t inspired, then find the waterfall that inspires you or find the model that’s really more beautiful. But then you’re only going to be as good as what’s in front of you, right?
“So you take the picture but you’re not thinking like a photographer. You’re relying on the subject to create the picture for you. So when I’m in a situation where I’m not inspired, I say, ‘Chris, this is it. Like, this is where you get to become creative, like make it happen. This is where you become creative.'”
“So how do you find creativity? It’s rare, and often you have to generate it yourself,” says Chris.
“When you do that, when you are with someone at an amazing location or you’re with someone who’s a celebrity, you do the obvious shot. But then you do the work of the photographer — [as a musician] maybe you play the chord and say this guitar sucks. Now let me actually try to make music. I think people who can do that, they can then learn these hidden secrets that the rest of us long for.
Learn creativity for your photography with Chris
On Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, Chris will host a free live masterclass, where he’ll go over several topics on how to capture and create more interesting, meaningful and compelling photographs.
“The way we do that is kind of like a tree in my mind. There’s the treetop, there are the branches and the fruit — that’s all the technical skills. You know, Lightroom, Photoshop, lighting, lenses, cameras, all that. But then there are the roots, and it’s who we are as people that really affects the craft probably more than anything. You can’t have one without the other.
“I’ll talk about developing your own style, which is kind of a roots question. That is probably the most important thing for the modern photographer. Image capture is so easy — my mom can take a good picture. But to take a great picture or to take one that someone is able to recognize even though they didn’t know you captured it, meaning you have style, is really hard.”
Chris will also discuss how to capture images that have feeling or emotion.
“I am a big believer that the images that fall flat just don’t do anything for us emotionally. Over exaggerated photographs are trying too hard. They don’t do a lot for us because it just feels fake and cheap. But there’s the other side where it feels flat. So I’ll look at that within the spectrum where there is a sweet spot in photography, and trying to help people discover what that is.”
Finally, he’ll talk about natural light, which to this day is Chris’ starting point when photographing portraits.