How I Made My Favorite Photograph

My favorite photograph isn’t one that has earned me the most money. It hasn’t earned me the most “likes” or what have you. Very few people have seen it before now.

It’s a photo of the hands of the hardest working person I know—my father. My father has worked with his hands for his entire life so that I didn’t have to (if I didn’t want to). I have seen his hands beaten, bleeding, burned, broken, and scarred. I have seen them dirty, cut, scraped, and greasy. They are the toughest hands I know and the most gentle. They are the most special hands on earth.

 

my father's hands, dirty and grimy from work

 

An Artist’s Journey

As you may have guessed by now, the reason it’s my favorite photo is personal, and it took a long time to make. It didn’t take a long time to make the particular photo—it took a long time to be able to make it. You see, in every artist’s journey—whether that artist is a photographer, painter, actor, whatever—goes through a series of stages.

In the first stage, you start visualizing all the art you want to create. The problem is, you don’t really know how to make good art. You try, but you don’t succeed. You feel terrible, and you want to give up.

It is fantastic when an artist reaches that point! That’s because this is the beginning of the second stage. In the first stage, you don’t know what you don’t know. In the second stage, you know you don’t know anything. And so, you can begin learning what it is you need to know and begin improving your craft.

I Had a Vision

I first envisioned this photo several years ago. But I didn’t know how to make it. Photography. Literally, it means writing with light. To be a great photographer (and I’m not saying I’m a “great photographer”) you have to study light for years. Rick Sammon, who really is a great photographer, has a saying, “Light illuminates, but shadows define.”

This illustrates (no pun intended) what is so difficult about photography. It’s not just the study of light, but also the study of where light isn’t. It’s the study of how to control light and use its various properties. To put it in terms of painting, light is the paint with which a photographer works, and a camera is akin to the canvas.

So, I had to learn how to light.

But that’s not all. Many people think digital photography brought about photographer enhancing the image they created after the fact. That simply isn’t true. Photographers have used various processing methods ever since the early days of photography. Famous film photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams all worked in a darkroom to turn film into the image they saw in their heads. Today’s photographers do the same, but their darkroom is a computer.

So, I had to learn to enhance images to match my vision.

It’s a Guy Thing

I was finally ready to create this image that had been in my head for years. Yet, the hardest part was still before me.

I had to ask my father to let me photograph his hands. I guess it’s “a guy thing.” I was embarrassed to ask, so more time went by. Finally, I asked. Of course, like any father would do for his son, he said yes.

He Did What?

When I showed up to take the photograph, I discovered my father had meticulously cleaned his hands. These hands, which in my mind’s eye always show the signs of hard work, were scrubbed clean. I hadn’t shared my vision with him, and he wanted to look presentable.

So, in yet another example of a father’s love, my father dirtied his hands. He poured motor oil over his hands.

I positioned him over the engine of his truck, set my lights where they needed to be, and made the photograph. Through dodging, burning, and other photographic techniques, I made the photo match my vision.

I’ll Always Have His Hands

 

 A snapshot of my father.
My father in his chair

 

So now I have the photograph that I wanted for years. It may seem strange to want a photo of just a person’s hands, but when I envision my father, I picture his hands. His hands will never grow old or weak. They will always be strong and purposeful.

And I guess that’s what’s so special about photography, and especially about printing a photograph, to me. It makes a memory tangible. It makes it real and unchanging. With the photo of my father’s hands, I’ll aways have him with me, long after he is gone.

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