I've always loved working with people and helping them realize their creative vision. I think it's important to regularly be involved in something that's bigger than yourself, that expands and challenges your thinking, assumptions, and helps break you of stale creative habits. On the other hand, I have an uneasy relationship with collaborative work. It's easy for the result to be diluted and ineffectual. Or, for the voice of one collaborator to totally overshadow the other(s).
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Maggie Sasso to create some photos to be part of an upcoming exhibition featuring her work. She created an amazing hand-woven sail for the exhibition and was looking for images of it washing up on a beach. One of the images will be printed and accompany the weathered sail in the exhibition this coming August.
I've done photo work for other artists before, but it's usually pure documentation of their work. This was a little different. Maggie put a lot of trust in me to make these images, and was open and welcoming to my ideas. Fortunately for me, she was a true delight to work with. We started by sitting with the sail in a room as we worked out the location and time of the shoot based on the story she was wanting to tell, and how I hoped the lighting would best work to support her vision.
On the day of the shoot we arrived at the beach just before sunrise (the shore faces east), and got to work. I shot, showed her some images, we chatted about what she was seeing, and I adapted.
The shoot started out with me pretty much completely controlling all aspects of the images, and Maggie reacting.
This wasn't exactly what she had in mind. Craft is a huge component of Maggie's work. The nature and quality of the weaving itself is integral to the meaning of the work, not to mention the drama of taking an object that consumed untold hours of labor to produce, and tossing it haphazardly into Lake Michigan. These first shots were all about the photo, not the sail.
This called for a shift in thinking.
Maggie was happier with this, as the photos did show off the nature of the sail washed ashore on the beach. I was less sure. My concern was the sail 'overpowering' the image to the extent that the drama of the story was getting lost. I also felt that these photographs wouldn't function well as artworks in their own right. They would be dependent on the impressive physical presence of the sail to have any impact on the viewer. When making an installation that is object + image this can be the appropriate approach, but I wasn't convinced it was what Maggie was really looking for. Why have an image that just repeats what the sail is already saying on its own? This installation deserved an image that could stand on it's own, and provide a context that the sail can't do by itself. Maggie and I talked about this, and we decided to try to find a scene that provided the drama and context of 'my' images, and still placed the sail in primary importance found in 'her' images.
By this time, a fog was rolling in, causing the light to change completely. I waded out into the lake (brrrrrrrrr) and repeatedly tossed the sail into the water, and shot as it slowly sank. This was closer, but I still wanted to find the shot that showed the vastness and solitude of a 'deserted' shoreline.
In the end I think we both got what we wanted, without compromise. This shoot wasn't really a collaboration in the common usage of the word. Maggie was paying me to create images that told a story that was entirely her own creation. I used my experience as an image maker to support her vision. She is the author, and I am a contributor to her work. However, I feel the reason the images wound up working well was because the process was collaborative. During the shoot, our discussions weren't about what she wanted, or what I wanted. All we talked about was what the work needed. That, and the cold. This shoot served as a reminder that as a creative practitioner, your first duty is to the work. Take care of that, and the rest will sort itself out.