What I learned from working with Gillian Murphy

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I said, two posts ago, that I would give some insight into the things I’ve learned from various personal projects that I’ve done. I’ve shown some of these images before, but now I’ll go into a bit of detail on the lessons I’ve learned and the skills I’ve gained. I’ll talk about the behind-the-scenes of each image and what obstacles we faced.

In October of 2017, Ben booked a trip to New York for our “babymoon”. I was pregnant with Sofie, and I was determined to shoot all the things, to keep my business moving forward. I wanted everyone to see that I could be a mom and a professional photographer. Earlier that summer, I had been chatting with a dancer about working together, and when she said yes, NYC became a must-go for this trip. It’s not that I didn’t want to relax on a babymoon, it’s just that I also really wanted to do this personal work.

On a whim, I also decided to reach out to Gillian Murphy. Growing up as a ballet-obsessed bunhead who absolutely loved spending time watching and studying DVDs of ballets, I had watched and re-watched Gillian dance the roles of Odette and Odile in the Masterpiece Theater production of Swan Lake. She quickly became my favorite ballerina, and I couldn’t wait for my chance to watch her perform live. So reaching out to her on Instagram felt like the scariest thing I could have ever done. I thought there was no way that such a high-profile dancer would ever agree to be part of my personal work or that she would even see the direct message I had sent her on Instagram. And yet, after asking me for a brief description of the purpose of this photoshoot, she agreed to be photographed by me.

We settled on doing the shoot in Central Park near the Bethesda Fountain, which was probably a bad idea, as I soon realized. When you see pictures of Bethesda Fountain, it’s always empty. But what I didn’t know is that all those photos are from sunrise when nobody is in the park yet. At the time of day, we needed to shoot, sometime in the early afternoon, the park was a madhouse. There were street performers with boomboxes encircled by crowds of, what I can only imagine were, tourists. There were people making massive bubbles, there were people hanging out on the stairs. There were skateboarders and children with balloons. There were other photoshoots going on. After seeing the crowd, I felt overwhelmed, and we decided to go to a quieter spot up a hill and into the trees. This was my first lesson.

Sometimes the location you covet is not the location you should be shooting in, and sometimes, your subject or you will need to change locations. We made the fast decision to move and possibly catch a few shots under the pavilion if it cleared out. I shot for an hour or two, trying to capture different crops and angles, trying to keep the momentum flowing. And to be honest, I probably didn’t do the best job of keeping the energy up. I was so nervous to be in front of someone who I considered to be the best, someone who people knew, that I let myself act like a fangirl rather than a professional.

After I got back from New York, I edited a whole wad of images and sent them to Gillian to get her final approval before sharing them on social media and my website.

Now, some photographers might be shaking their heads at me right now. How could I let the subject make decisions on which photos I could share? I own the copyright. Correct? Yes. I do, but I also am a human working with humans. I had already made it my mission to ask dancers for their opinion on the images before sharing them after having worked with a few who were concerned that I might share one that would have caught them from a funky angle. And to be honest, when you’re shooting film or still-frame photography at all, this is a real possibility. I wanted to make sure that I was doing the ethical, the kind thing. I felt that this would be better for everyone involved. And rather than dig my heels in and force subjects to let me share their pictures because I legally can, I decided that building a relationship and sharing fewer pictures from a shoot was worth more to me. The learning experience of how to capture the best angles and the best skin tones and even down to just how I held myself in front of any person is the most important part of doing personal work.

It’s not about the image you end up with, but about the entire process, top to bottom. And, if you’re thinking about how much money I spent on the film, then you’re right. It is expensive to shoot like this and to discard a bunch of pictures. But here’s the thing. I didn’t discard the experience. I still made every penny worth it because I learned from the good and bad images, and I still did the entire project. You wouldn’t say college was a waste of money because you only got a small diploma to take with you. The growth and learning are what you’re there for.

From this shoot, I learned how to see lines better, understand how to navigate shooting in a crowded situation, how to find a second spot in a pinch. I learned more about how curating can be so important, how seeing your own images with an objective eye is important. I learned how to see my images from the eyes of the person in them and not get offended by their opinion of the pictures. I began to build a relationship with Gillian and chose to be as respectful as possible of everyone who steps in front of my camera. I also made the decision to bring my digital camera to more dance shoots so that I can be showing the dancer the back of the camera. And I learned that everyone is human. Celebrities and people who are my idols are also just humans who work hard at their crafts and who want and deserve respect and love and who are kind and generous if you are kind and generous to them.

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