Kate Densmore began photographing her children and before she knew it, people were hiring her to document their families because her photographs have such depth and emotion: the things people strive for but don’t always achieve. And then she found herself mentoring people on that very topic. Her photographs take us back to our own childhoods and help us see growing up in a beautiful new light. Kate’s eBook, Stories of Home: The Art of Photographing Family, is the newest addition to the C&V library.
You have a Masters degree in education and are now mentoring other photographers on how to make deeper, more meaningful family photographs; do you think there’s a connection?
Without a doubt. I've always been a teacher, from my high school days teaching swim lessons to teaching middle school geography to teaching photography to adults; it's just part of who I am. And my formal education absolutely helps me be a better teacher. I didn't set out be a photography instructor and mentor when I opened my business in 2009. It was actually the last thing on my mind, and was exactly what I was trying to get away from when I decided to try my hand at the business side of things. But as life and luck would have it, my business didn't take off until I started saying yes to mentoring inquiries.
They say play to your strengths—find what makes you unique or how you can best serve your audience—and the education side of things is definitely where I’m at my best. It's been an honor to get to work with so many incredible photographers, and to see them grow and go on to do amazing things themselves is the best reward. I'm always most comfortable when I'm not in the spotlight, and teaching lets me do what I love: make beautiful photographs, work with awesome people, and help them chase their dreams. And in doing so, I'm chasing my own dreams.
You have such talent in turning what could just be ordinary snapshots of an ordinary day into art: what is it that takes a photo from so-so to ooooohhhh?
Oh, thank you for that. I think we all struggle with questioning if our ordinary day is really anything special. It can be so hard to turn your camera to your everyday life, simply because it IS so very everyday. But I think that is where the most magic happens. Looking back, it's not the big things I cherish so much. It's the tiny moments between moments: the feeling of what it felt like to be there, not just what it looked like. It's the way certain pictures make me feel like I can smell my newborn's hair again, even though those days are long behind us. Or the way a husband looks at his wife when the kids aren't looking. I think you get to that point by chasing emotions over technical perfections.
Don't get me wrong; knowing how to make a properly exposed, well-composed photograph is important, and definitely key. But I think that there are a lot of so-so technically perfect images out there, but not nearly as many ooooohhhhh images that are technically perfect. If anything, it's the imperfect images that have the ooooohhhhh factor. Because perfection rarely resonates. Emotions are messy and imperfect and overwhelming, and so is family. So to make a photograph that is emotional, you have to be willing to experience emotion yourself. Be involved with the moment. Get to know who you are photographing as people not just as subjects. Laugh with the dad, don't shy away when the kids are upset or throwing a tantrum, give mom a hug and tell her she is doing amazing. Open yourself up to the idea that there is amazing art inside of you, but it's not the safe, technically perfect images that are going to show it. You have to be willing to take a risk and shoot what you are drawn to—how it feels more than just what it looks like.
What do you look for when framing your compositions?
I'm almost always drawn to the moment and story or emotion first, and then I look for things that help support it. Light is important, of course, but I'm finding that I'm concerned less with light now than I was previously. I used to not take the shot if the light wasn't great, and it makes me sad how many wonderful moments I missed because of that. Now I use depth and dimension more than I use light. Obviously light helps that, but so does texture, tonal contrast, lines, framing, and perspective. Since I shoot in all kinds of situations and I rarely manipulate the scene, having more things in my bag of tricks helps me think on my feet and find the best things—those that are already in the scene—to work with at my disposal. And all those things come down to looking for or creating a better sense of depth in my photographs.
I think of that depth as supporting the moment I'm trying to capture. Anything you can do to make your images look more like the real dimensional world and less like a flattened photograph, the easier it is for your viewers to identify with the emotions within the frame. It helps get the photograph part of the photograph out of the way and lets the story and emotion come to life. And that is my ultimate goal.
Why black and white?
I don't really think I've ever had a choice in the matter! I feel like black and white found me. When I first started, my photography favorites were those who used bright, bold colors. I loved how vibrant and life-filled their images were, and I wanted to make images just like that. And then as I got deeper and deeper into the craft, I realized that bright bold colors aren't my thing. I just don't see the world that way. I see mood, I see emotion, and I see tonal range long before I see color. And black and white lets me maximize that tonal range—that sense of depth and dimension—in a way that I don't feel like I can achieve in color.
For someone who wants to photograph families but finds that their images fall flat emotionally, do you have advice on how to improve on that?
Start with your own family. And that doesn't mean you have to have kids; we all have a family. Photograph your parents, your siblings, or the friends who you consider family. Whoever your people are, photograph them. You know their stories and who they are better than anyone else. You’re already an expert when it comes to your own family, so use that to your advantage and photograph them. A wise mentor always says of his travel photography that he has to let go of his expectations before he can really get to know and understand a new place. And I think the opposite is true when photographing a family: you have to realize that you already know more than you think you do and use that to your advantage.
We all come from some sort of family, be it good or bad. It's one of the few truly universal things that connect us. The challenge lies in expressing each family's uniqueness and finding the moments that make them, them. If you feel like your work is falling flat emotionally, you need to trust yourself more and follow your heart to tell the stories that you find interesting. Seek emotion over perfection. Chase your vision of family life rather than the one you think people expect to see. Because for as universal as the idea of family is, there is no "one size fits all" version of daily family life.
Tell us about your day-in-the-life sessions: what’s your role as photographer? Do you coach your families, or just let the day develop organically?
Day in the life sessions are my favorite. I love getting to spend time with another family just as much as I love photographing them. As the photographer, putting my camera down and getting to know them is as important as the actual work of making photographs. You have to find out what makes them, them. I'm spending a day with these people, often spending a night in their home, and if I want them to feel comfortable enough to be who they really are, I have to feel like part of the family as quickly as I can. While I have my camera close by at all times, I spend just as much time playing Legos with kids, helping mom with dinner, and chatting with dad as I do actually photographing them. My goal is to get a genuine hug from each family member as I'm leaving, and that the kids beg me to stay longer. If that happens, I know I've done my job, and that the images I'll have captured along the way will be a true reflection of who they are, because I've done my job of getting to know them.
I don't coach my clients at all during the session. I let them set the tone of the day, and I make sure I'm up for whatever comes. For some families, that means a relaxed, lazy day, making breakfast and hanging out together. Other families, it's non-stop go-go-go all day. Before the session, I'll speak with them about expectation and make it as clear as I can that my role is to hang out with them for the day and document whatever comes up, and not dictate what we do or what any of it looks like. I'm almost always hired by other photographers, usually so that they can put the camera down for a day and be in the images themselves, so setting the expectations about what a documentary session looks like is pretty easy. I think it's important to establish a sense of mutual respect, so that they feel comfortable inviting you into their home, and you feel comfortable just doing your thing.
Kids are admittedly unpredictable: what do you watch for to catch genuine moments? How do you handle meltdowns, tantrums, bad moods, and/or shyness?
Kids! They definitely make the sessions so amazing. This is a place where my background in education helps me greatly; I've always worked with kids in some way or another, and I find it pretty easy to relate to just about every age. And the key to getting a kid to open up is to treat them with respect and show an interest in them. That alone goes a long way in overcoming a bad mood or shyness. Sometimes, though, a kid just needs time. That's one reason I prefer the longer sessions; it gives me plenty of time to let a shy child warm up to me, or an energetic child to calm down enough to show me who he really is. Be warm and friendly but not overbearing, and let them settle into the session in a natural way. Anything you can do to move past being the exciting new stranger in the room will help those genuine moments come out more naturally.
I don't shy away from the meltdowns or tantrums, but I do photograph those from a distance. It doesn’t matter if you are 3 or 30; no one wants a camera in their face when they are having a bad moment. It can also be a great time to take advantage of the LCD screen on the back of your camera, and take a couple shots with the camera away from your eye. It helps make it feel like you aren't staring at the kids (and the adults dealing with the kid), while still getting the moment. And remember that you don't need a million shots of the meltdown. If it happens, I'll usually get a couple, and then go off to a corner and act busy with something else. It can help to make sure that you don't make the situation worse, while still being close enough that you can catch the moments of snuggles that often happen after the tantrum is over.
How do you want to be remembered?
Wow. That's a big question! Photographically, I want to be remembered for creating images that affect change and bring awareness to how the National Park System actually works because of the people who live, work, and love them. We are a park service family, and like others in our community, we live an unusual, unconventional life in service to our nation's "best idea." It's an incredible life, but not one without challenges. Remote locations, lack of family support, a career path that at times still seems best suited to childless, single men, little say about housing, and limited career options for spouses, to name a few.
I think that the future of the National Park Service lies in its people just as much as its resources, and if we want to continue finding funding and public support, we need the public to connect with the faces and lives behind the parks just as much as the spaces. I think the Park Service also has an obligation to its employees to honor how much of ourselves and our families we put into this job. In my case, it's my husband who is the ranger, but our whole family works for the good of the parks. As long as we are going to open our parks to visitors, the land needs people to care for it. I’m fascinated by the stories of those who are doing the work, day in and day out. I want to do for the people behind the park system what Ansel Adams did for the places we all revere and love so much. Where we live has become just as important as any other element of our family life. It's part of our identity. I want to be remembered for sharing the stories of the park service families because it's my story and my children's story.
To learn more about the art of photographing family, get Kate's eBook, Stories of Home, for just $10 until 11:59 pm PST on November 23. When you order before that date, you'll also get five of Kate's favourite Lightroom presets! (Note that presets will be sent via email after the end of the promotion on November 23.)
Kate Densmore is a sought-after family documentary photographer, workshop instructor, and mentor who seeks light, emotion, and authenticity in everything she photographs. When not documenting families all over the world or encouraging others to follow their photographic dreams, Kate spends time with her husband and two young daughters at their national park home (currently Grand Canyon, Arizona), dreaming up ways to best illustrate the emotional themes of motherhood, connection, and family in her work. Learn more at katedensmore.com http://katedensmore.com.