Michael Austin Stevens
Mr. Stevens contacted me to photograph his business profile image for LinkedIn and other social media. At the time, Austin, who used his middle name, was a lifelong Military man transitioning into the civilian work world.
The photo session was very straightforward. Austin knew what he wanted, and we completed the session in 10 minutes. While Austin was on the posing stool, he was able to see his picture right after I took each image. I have a large monitor in my studio. Not only do I see the photos after each take, so do my clients. After a few images, we agreed we had the right photograph.
After each session ends, the client pays for the service by check or credit.
“Austin, would you like to use a check or credit card?” I asked.
"How about cash?" Austin responded. "No one ever gives me cash Austin." I replied. "You'll take it, won't you?" Austin asked. "Of course," I responded.
He gives me too much money. "Austin, this is too much money. I don't have any change for this. No one ever gives me cash." I said. "Can we take another picture?" Austin asked. It was less than I usually charge for a second image but, "Sure! Let's go back into the studio." I replied.
I asked Austin to take off his coat and tie for a more casual look. The first two images were not to my liking. I decided to do something very different. Standing in front of him, I asked him to put his coat back on. Then I asked him that whatever was in his head, whatever he was feeling right then, go there. I asked him to wait a moment until I turned around and walked back to my camera. When I returned to the camera, I would press the shutter release immediately. That image came up on the studio monitor. We both thought it looked interesting and decided to stop there.
The image that became the genesis for "My Picture Tells A Story" was a quirk of fate.
One day later, I started the post photo session work in Photoshop. The business image of Austin was a straightforward, classic profile photo. The second image was a very different story. I stared at it for 15 minutes. In front of me was a photo as a business portrait photographer I had not taken before. It was a spontaneous, emotional image photographed in a portrait setting. Long ago, my beginning days as an artist were using charcoal and pastels, not a camera. I let the emotion of the image carry my artistic instincts.
Along with a note, I sent the finished images to Austin. Commenting on his second portrait, I mentioned that I had never finished a photo that way. I informed him, if he did not like the way I did it, I’d do it over.
His response was, “Don’t you dare touch it.”
Including the back story, I posted the image on a photography Facebook page. I was expecting feedback on the quality and the technical side of Austin’s picture. I got a string of personal comments instead. People in the same situation had been in that situation or were close to someone going through it.
I continued to receive emotional responses to Austin’s image. Before I showed the photograph to someone, I always told the story behind it. The story was simple, “This is Austin. He’s a lifelong Military man transitioning into the Civilian world.” The most compelling reaction came from an acquaintance and fellow photographer. I didn’t know he was ex-Military before showing him the image. When Dan saw the picture, his response was emphatic. “I know exactly how he feels. That was me.”
Although I continued the business portraits, I soon started doing street photography, but the desire to photograph spontaneous human emotion in a portrait setting stayed with me. Creating images that people could connect to emerged as a driving passion.
That Sunday morning, I went to a cousin’s brunch. I happened to be testing a new lens that weekend and brought it with me. I might use it to compliment my other lenses for street photography in the future. It’s also an ideal lens for sitting at a table and taking inmate images of people up close without being intrusive.
I noticed my cousin Bunny beginning to relay a story. She was telling it to a few cousins across and slightly to the right of me. Bunny was seated directly across from me. She is very animated when she is relaying a tale. I photographed about a dozen images hoping to get one or two I liked. When I put the photos up on my editing viewer, my reaction was entirely different. What I saw was an old-time film strip or storyboard. What would it look like if I took five of the images and put them together on a single canvas or print? I let my creative instincts take over; I created a complete story on a single canvas using multiple images.
Over time, I showed the print to a few fellow photographers. Their responses were positive and encouraging.