This past week I spent time with friend and photographer Karin McKenna. Not only is she an amazing artist, she’s a beautiful person. But I’ll spare ya’ll my girl crushing and focus on that first part. It was fascinating to get a glimpse inside someone else’s creative process – especially one that felt so very different from my own.
She was photographing the cover of my upcoming book. It isn’t often I get to work with others, at least not in this way. Mostly because I’m one of those people who stubbornly does everything themselves. I’d rather put up drywall or learn Publisher than simply ask someone for help. But, I’m working on it.
The day she arrived was sunny and warm. I greeted her like an overstimulated puppy. It’s been so long since I’ve seen people – we’re in a pandemic, after all. The only other people I’ve been around in months are either related to me or selling me groceries. Seeing another human being, especially one whose company I so enjoy, was like seeing the first spring flower poke out of the ground. Sure, the fields would be filled with them soon. But this one was special.
We wandered around and talked for a while, then she unloaded her gear and got to work. She twisted stands and turned wing nuts, creating an apparatus that cantilevered over my long wood table. She tethered and tested, running cords from there to here to make them all talk to one another. I put my hands in my pockets and awkwardly watched.
“How close do you want it to be,” she asked after a few moments. “Zoomed in, or far away?” “Sorta, yeah…” I responded, not at all helpfully. She took a few shots of the shadows on my table. I saw the image emerge on her screen, but barely recognized it. The light was strong, the shadows were harsh, the image was upside down. My work table, with its soft warm tones and familiar markings, felt foreign.
She asked a few more questions that I couldn’t answer and kept clicking. I shuffled awkwardly. It felt like a foreign language, or perhaps like watching a dance I didn’t know the steps to.
I suddenly realized I should probably be doing something. What would I want as an artist in this sort of situation? I’d want someone to communicate with me. I’d want candid reactions, not just foot-shuffling. I’d want to know how the other person felt so I could make something they genuinely liked. I motioned her over and showed her a quick sketch of my idea. “Like this,” I gestured caveman-like. “But… better.”
“Ohhhhhhh,” she nodded knowingly. “You want it CLOSE.”
She moved the the cantilever and the camera, the tethers and the table. A few more test shots, then suddenly I saw it. There on her screen was my work table, the warm wood grain I knew so well. I clapped my hands and squealed in delight. “Like that?” she smiled through her mask. “Like that,” I grinned.
What’s funny about that moment is that in hindsight, it felt like the beginning of the process. All the stuff that happened before was just a prelude. The real magic happened from here forward. She grabbed a handful of items and tossed them on the table – a scattering of pencils, a few tubes of paint, an old eraser. Click. She moved them around and grabbed some more. Click. I started to feel the rhythm. I grabbed the wooden sugar mold that holds my fine point pens and slid it into the frame. She smiled. Click.
It was a simple process, and yet subtly complex:
Click. React. Click. React. Click.
And then it shifted. She started to move things just the slightest bit, nudging a pencil, tilting a tray of paint a single degree at a time. “It’s all about the millimeters,” she said. A process of refinement not unlike a sculptor setting down a chisel and picking up a fine rasp. I watched the composition slowly emerge.
It’s all about the millimeters.
It made me reflect on my own process, which is so very different. If hers is about tweaking in the tiniest of ways, mine is about planning and preparation. All the decisions happen at the beginning. I determine what to make, I draft a pattern, I mark my cut lines. By the time I touch any tools, it’s all process. The deciding is done.
But there’s something satisfying about moving in millimeters. There’s a playfulness to it all. An intuitiveness about the process. Click. React. Click. React. Click.
“How do you know when it’s done?” I wondered out loud. “You get a feeling in your gut,” she explained to me. “It feels right. You just… know.“
Then suddenly, there it was. Just like I’d never envisioned it, yet simply perfect. I gasped. She nodded.