Life tips between celebration and sorrow so easily and often without warning. Our celebrations remind us that dark nights of the soul do not last and strengthen us for our journey ahead. Embracing our blessings with gratitude is essential to understand even a tiny bit of the mysteries of God, a lifelong pursuit of mine. So I wanted to mark in celebration two big milestones for which I am grateful: turning 50 and my studio’s 11.5 years existence.
Reaching 50 feels like a milestone when I think of so many I’ve loved who were denied that privilege. My family and friends have poured love into me in ways that are humbling and make me grin widely. Some days I feel like I’m just a skip away from that brazen 18 year old girl who had crazy visions for her future. Other days I find myself dreaming of the rocker that awaits my elderly self with less daily demands. I can almost hear the great grandchildren my sons will give me giggling. I can’t say I’ll be striving to set any old age records though, I just can’t bring myself to cling tightly to this life knowing the future that’s been promised me in eternity.
It occurred to me recently that I’ve been creating and loving stories my whole life, but the two were always separate. Whether it was macrame, braids, scrap material, sewing curtains, refinishing furniture, recipe experimentation…always there was delight for me to create a product from the work of my hands. Stories were always a way to build connection with those I cared about. Creating portraits professionally has been a part of 23% of my life! (yes, I needed a calculator for that) I am so grateful that portrait creation was the first venue that allowed me to marry up these two joys. I had plans to host a fine art show to mark my studio’s 10 year anniversary 1.5 years ago, but Covid destroyed those plans. However, I’m unwilling to give up marking that 10 year milestone, so instead we’ll call it a 11.5 marker as I celebrate it alongside my half century!
To say it was strange to be directing my portrait time from the other end of the camera is an understatement. My studio manager Sara and stylist Jill were essential contributors to make these portraits happen. They joined in right alongside me and all the chaos that ensued! Jill created this elaborate updo for me that I adored! Upon inspection of it, I realized with astonishment, this was my first professional updo!
Many of these portraits had a specific vision planned from the start, coupled with a message to share. A few were created over the last year, but most on one marathon day with my team. We ended with sushi to refuel our famished selves! Those that I’ve just shared were created to replicate the Cinderella moments I have seen bring so much joy to my clients over the years. I literally felt, for the first time in my life, exactly what my clients tell me about when I put this gown on with my hair and makeup done. It was an incredible feeling and I just spun around laughing! So buckle up, as I take you on a little peek inside my mind and what fuels my process. It’s going to be all over the place as the portraits have a wide range of messages. 😉
Clients know this view well. It’s where their creative journey begins with me. It’s also where a bulk of the heavy lifting/behind the scenes creative process happens. We joke that Macy Mae is our studio mascot as she is a staple around here. She regularly attempts to ‘share’ seats with clients and helps herself to snacks in their bags or my desk. The stacks of art books have influenced me every step of my creative process and are foundational to my process.
So much has changed since the inception of my business, but my blog functioning as a conduit to share stories of life has been a constant. One of my greatest joys is to weave portrait and storytelling and invite our viewers in. I see that story in so many of my clients, begging to be told. I literally have zero sense of map direction, as I’m pretty sure that part of my brain was eaten up by the part that sees story in life wherever I go. There’s a constant reel playing in my mind not easily ignored.
So I’ve shared those observations, via my blog, once a week for 11.5 years now. That represents over 600 stories of life shared! Clients have expressed their gratitude repeatedly for the nuggets of observation I shared alongside their beauty. They felt they had a historian logging a segment of their life in a way that was precious to them. Telling these stories has only reinforced for me how fragile life is. Several times a year I am commissioned to create portraits with the specific goal of sharing a story of significant loss or triumph. I am honored to step into the lives of people who are on a journey often to find purpose in their pain. We are hunting for the beauty to be raised up from their ashes and sometimes that’s the most cathartic part in the healing journey to witness.
I realized long ago that the fragility of life is what compels us to record all that we love in photographs. It’s easy to look over the span of your life and see evidence of the momentous celebrations. Usually is groups of people surrounding you all looking at the camera and smiling. It’s a nice record, but what about the small, unrecorded but significant moments of joy? My goal as a creator has always been to catch those previously unrecorded moments for people. To surprise and delight them with revealing a facet of themselves they have never seen before. Years ago a client said I reminded him of a hunter, scanning the horizon for the perfect catch. I feel as though I am climbing into the mind of my client to pull out what they most long to see about themselves. I’m reaching in and bringing to the surface what’s gone unrecorded previously. When my studio was just a year old, a dear friend and client shared with me, “Jennifer, you are like Apple. You are giving people something they didn’t even know they wanted and now they have to have it.” I’ve never forgotten that.
When I look at photographs taken over the course of my life, I see joy, sorrow, love, exhaustion, hilarity, delight, frustration, surprise… Long ago my goal became to record facets of it all, for my whole family. Sometimes the emotions are obvious, other times hidden to all but the most intuitive. When my boys were younger, I remember one of them asked me for a picture of us together for his school project. I went searching through my files (this was before smartphones enabled us to create a picture on the spot). I couldn’t find any photographs of me and my son…or anything of me period for over a year in our family catalog. I was creating portraits for a living, but I was missing from my own recorded story. I knew that needed to change.
None of us are given a guarantee on the number of years we get to make memories with our loved ones. I know that one day people who love me will go looking for photo evidence of me. So, I got better about leaving my camera at home and marking down the recordings on my cell phone. It was easy to hand that off to someone else to ensure I was in the record and not just being the recorder.
Getting lost in story has been a constant through my life. Just about every room in my home has stacks of books. Sometimes they are hidden for a clutter free zone, other times on display so I am constantly reminded to settle in and sink into the inspiration they offer. Most of my fiction books reside in a Kindle app now, which leaves more room for the big beautiful inspirational books of art work.
A good story reminds us when we are in the midst of battle, that we battle not alone. That there are other forces are at play behind the scenes to which we are often totally unaware. It reminds us others have battled and made it out on the other side, even when all seemed hopeless. It reminds us that the Lord works in mysterious ways and we get to be a part of His plans. It reminds us how big the world is, which consequently reminds us how small we are.
Story is so wrapped up in all I do, I just figured it always was. I was a young adult when I found a record of my ‘reading challenges’ as an early elementary school child. I was shocked–I thought reading was something that always came natural to me. But, we were a very young family that moved just about every year, so books weren’t a priority. Makes sense that I started off behind. Who knew they would become so precious to me? Scenes from books, movies and plays have all become a collective well of inspiration for me that is priceless.
My brain has logged countless works of art over the years that guide my creative process. These two pieces represent the beauty of femininity that I have always been drawn to in art. They are quiet moments in a woman’s day where she prepares herself and she prepares for her people. They are moments that I find most beautiful for a woman.
One of my greatest joys of owning a studio is giving back a portion of the money we generate to people praying for help and rescue. I am honored to say that for our larger projects, we have built a well and sponsored a rescue mission to free sex-trafficked children. We also have several sponsor children and partner monthly with the following organizations that prioritize bringing rescue and justice in the name of Jesus: Hope for Justice, International Justice Mission, Compassion International, She is Safe, and Hope for Haiti. Just think of it–my clients trust me to lock down what is most precious to them and that in turn leads to the rescue of the most vulnerable in our world! We are doing this together! There are wonderful organizations to buy products from that support similar missions, like Carry 117 and Trades of Hope. Both seek to empower women through employment in making goods that can be sold around the world. Preserving and strengthening families is the backbone to help communities thrive and allow justice to prevail for all.
Many years ago I met Michelle Ricketts, who started the non-profit She is Safe, SIS. I was invited to hear her speak about this by a friend. I saw before me a beautiful and stately southern woman who shared what compelled her to step into the red-light districts of New Delhi on rescue missions. As a missionary she noticed that in impoverished communities, the first to suffer were always the young girls and women. When there wasn’t enough food, they were the first not to eat and the first to be sold in slavery to provide food for the family. She watched communities sell off their young girls with promises of great jobs in the cities…only to find they were brutally raped as an introduction into the life they’d be leading servicing a revolving door of strange men sexually all day in brothels.
Having witnessed this tragedy far too many times, she was compelled to be a part of the rescue plan these girls so desperately prayed for. SIS’s goal is to educate communities about the dangerous traffickers who come with false promises. SIS provides communities with farm animals in exchange for a contract promise that they will not sell their children into slavery. SIS is also involved in helping to bring safety, restoration and healing to the girls and women who are rescued. Michelle was astonished when one of their community partners asked if they could give some of their farm animals to a neighboring community to encourage them to stop selling off their girls. Her vision had become a reality and it was spreading!
Pain in life is inevitable. We can do our best to two step around it, but I’ve yet to meet a person who has done so successfully. Instead, knowing that the Lord is there to meet us in the pain and will go before us just has to be enough sometimes. For me there is a deep frustration and angst when I see the intense levels of pain in our world. I know what I can offer is only a tiny drop in the oceans of it all. What I wouldn’t give to end the suffering that ravages our world. This portrait came into being after a personally exhausting phase of life. I had just created for a few families through my volunteer work at Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. NILMDTS recruits professional photographers to create remembrance portraits for newborn babies who never leave the hospital. Stepping into this level of grief, alongside a mother who won’t be taking her baby home, to provide a gift that will become a priceless treasure is an honor, but also requires an emptying out of yourself.
This world is loud. As a culture we give the primo air slots to the loudest/basest/awfulest things out there. I guess as a people we are drawn to the train wreck while the millions of small acts of kindness aren’t sensational enough to hold our attention. I guess they don’t provide the necessary fodder for the latest shouting matches. So often it’s left me feeling like I wanted to hide away and live on a mountain top somewhere. I’m often not able to settle my brain which can’t stop spinning on all the voices clamoring to grab my attention. Burying my head in the sand isn’t the solution though. Instead I surround myself with people who are light in the midst of darkness. People I can count on who offer comfort rather than criticism. People who are eager to find the good and forgive the bad. The Lord has blessed me with these people. They encourage me to stay connected when all I want to do is shut out the noise.
A few years ago, amidst the kneeling/standing controversy, I passed by a stadium on the way to a museum in Philadelphia. The divisiveness I saw around me was almost palpable and seemed to be tearing our nation in two. Until that is, I stepped into the museum. I was carried back into a thousand different stories…moments in time frozen to be enjoyed hundreds of years later. It was so quiet and calm. I came upon one of my favorite Mary Cassat paintings of a little girl that I have enjoyed in books probably 50 times over the years. When I saw it I started to cry. There was such pensive raw emotion in the real thing and I was seeing the original! I realized how much of an influence artists like Mary Cassat have had on my own work.
I thought, wow, if everyone could step into a museum for the day our world would be a whole lot less angry. Moments that are locked down have value and weight and are testament to what is most important to us in life. Clients have told me, often with tears, how their child’s portrait reminds them of a beloved relative who has passed away. I am acutely aware that many of the portraits I am creating are going to be cherished possessions for people who have not even been born yet. Portraits connect the generations.
Years ago my husband told me, “Jennifer the part of your brain that knows how to set reasonable limits on things is busted.” I thought about it and replied, “There’s nothing that’s ever summarized me so well! 95% of the time that works in your favor and 5% of the time it’s a disaster.” He agreed.
About this time, I discovered the world renowned genius photographer Joe McNally and have learned so much from him and his process. It was a professional highlight of mine when one of my portraits was chosen by him, out of thousands of submissions, for a live critique.
While being interviewed about the process to create he reflected, “When you ask somebody to get in front of your camera, you are asking them to take a very palpable risk. It’s a very vulnerable thing to do, to be in front of someone’s lens. I firmly believe as photographers we have to be equally at risk. You have to let your emotions become involved with the process. You have to expose yourself. You have to make a bond with that person that you are going to sweat blood and tears to make them look good. So your ass has got to be on the line because if they are not feeling it out there, if you are just standing there going click, click, click, (shaking his head no) You start working with them, moving with them, getting involved with them, they will feel that something special might come out of this.”
I heard him say that and kept rewinding the interview so I could write it all down. I kept saying, “that’s exactly how I feel!!!” It was so affirming to realize we were wired up to create in the same way. McNally has been one of my most influential photography mentors.
This above scene was largely created from a collection of thrift store repurposed items…a place I swore off as a frustrated teenager who just wanted brand new Guess jeans. It didn’t take me long into adulthood to realize the genius of my mother to raise us to depend on buying 2nd hand for economy and variety that’s not easily reproduced shopping new.
Snapshots of me in action
McNally’s quote summarizes my approach to portrait work as well. It’s why our sessions always long and involved because it’s impossible to know where the magic is going to happen and I’m not done until I’ve locked it down. Most clients tell me the time went quickly, it does for me as well. After 11.5 years of doing this, I still approach every single session with the expectation of something amazing being produced that wows the client. I go in with nerves that are best described as expectant anticipation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pro-bono job, a 5k or a 25k job—they all get the same Jennifer in relentless pursuit of the best for each person.
My job is to arrest the eye. I learned years ago apparently that having the eye for what was compelling came naturally to me. I am grateful for that. However, the technical component to bring the vision to life, well that’s a whole different story. The number of hours that I have poured into studying and experimenting with lighting and post production is far more than what I invested in my first two college degrees. On average, I train approximately 10 hours a week to expand my craft and have done so for over 15 years now. I don’t plan to ever be done. My hope is to still be creating until I physically cannot. My husband jokes he’s going to retire his small business and come work for JDP! Not sure I can afford his rates though. 😉
Through my time spent with each client and my blog, I feel like I’m sifting through many layers of complexity to find what is the treasure in each person. After I have mined out their best, the next step is helping them to embrace this beauty in themselves. It’s why I always show clients the back of my camera throughout the session. I want them to know that we are locking down the beauty they came hoping for. It’s also why the relational component of my portrait work is essential to me. There’s no shortcut to building trust between people when vulnerability is being requested repeatedly, which is exactly what we are doing in portrait creation.
So if you’ve made it this far, thank you! I’ve been mulling over how to share all these thoughts that have been accumulating over the last few years. Please forgive the whirlwind, I just don’t know how to do it any other way. I joke that my studio manager and dear friend Sara is my Adderall and half her job is trying to keep my spinning wheels on track!
We are working on a video to share with you soon featuring me creating with clients! Can’t wait to share it with you! Peace and grace to you all!