In our AP photograph class, I start one of my favorite projects in the middle of the woods at sunset. Why? Dramatic, eerie fading light! Students are armed with a soft box (a type of photographic lighting device that creates diffused light) and digital cameras. Students sometimes show up for our demo shoot with a prop. I remind them that timing is everything, as is the fleeting gift of just the right light.
Dennis C., grade twelve, third-place winner of 2019 Drexel University High School Photo Contest.Left: Matt J., grade twelve. Right: Quentin C., Waiting to Apologize, humor combined with irony, grade eleven.Hobie J., grade twelve.Lorenzo L., grade twelve, photo of mother narrating sadness and isolation, with flowers representing hope.
Introducing Gregory Crewdson
Previous to this momentous evening event, I introduce the equally moody work of photographer Gregory Crewdson. I show students images from several of his series such as Beneath the Roses and Twilight, and we watch interviews with Crewdson about his staging processes and symbolism of light (both artificial and ambient) in the composition of the photographs.
Crewdsonʼs photographs are like scenes from a thriller or mystery, full of clues and details of an emotionally rich, complex story. We brainstorm the stories, using the abundance of visual clues hidden in every corner of his images. Crewdson uses lighting to illuminate the figure’s emotional and psychological state.
Creating a Photographic Scene
After they complete this background research on Crewdson’s work, students create their own scene by using both ambient light and the spotlight (however subtly they choose) from the soft box to contrast real and dreamlike worlds. We discuss the importance of the figure in the scene and how to make it feel surreal by contrasting low natural light with artificial light and using carefully chosen objects.
At this point, we venture outdoors at a precise time or place where the light is dim enough to allow us to play with dramatic shadows and details. Students make technical choices using aperture/shutter and speedlight to highlight the emotional impact of the figure.
Students have found the soft box a powerful tool for making portraits. They also discover the importance of composing a scene like the director of a movie. There is a wonderful freedom to this role. Invention. Make-believe. The supernatural. Students are accustomed to seeing photography as a medium that is only good for documenting and reflecting reality. Inspired by Gregory Crewdson, they can use the soft box to explore their imaginations, telling stories they themselves have written and investigating the line between fact and fiction.
September 12, 2022 | Catherine J. Golden and Pam Golden
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