Monday Motivation: You Don’t Take a Photograph…



Image Credit: Getty Images

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams

I’ve been attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division for a little over a year now (with about a year to go before I have my degree). If there’s nothing else I’ve learned its that you really do have to create an image; you can’t just point your camera at something and start clicking away. You have to know what to keep in frame and what to eliminate. You have to determine how the light will make your subject look its best. Eddie Adams used to say that he was a “concerned photographer”. I think that, in the realm of creating an image you need to be a “conscious photographer”. You need to be aware of what you’re shooting and how you’re shooting.


Influencer: Alex Haglund

Every artist is influenced by the world around them. The people, places and things that define my work are what the Influencers post is all about. I hope you find inspiration from what you read/view.

Shortly after moving to Flora is when I seriously took an interest in photography. Searching for photography programs is what led me to connect with Alex Haglund on Facebook. He struck me as a real laid back fellow with a true passion for photography and over the past two years he’s be an awesome inspiration to my growth as a photographer. This is what he had to say about his life as a photographer (unscripted and unedited; it’s a long post but worth the read!).


Cemetery Flags © 2006 Alex Haglund

How did you get into photography (or a specific genre of photography)?

I’ve always thought photography and photographers were cool, but I got into it, I think, because of my gadget fixation. I found an old Kodak Retina Reflew S in my grandfather’s house and ran around taking pictures with that. Unfortunately, that camera was kind of buggy and it may have even been broke. If it had a meter, it didn’t really work and very few of the pictures even came out. I picked up a friend’s parent’s Canon Eos rebel and when it zipped around with its autofocus and smooth zoom, I thought, “This is what I’ve got to get!” My brothers and I got my parents to get a Rebel of our own and that’s what I used when I took photography during the second semester of my senior year in high school. I had a good time with that and I picked up and understood the technical concepts with a relative ease compared to many others I have seen.

At the same time as this, I was in a youth group with my church and one of our advisers, Mark Smalling, took me under his wing. He was a commercial photographer in Chicago. I was kind of getting into a fair amount of trouble (which I won’t go into here). Mark basically said, “You don’t need to be doing that,” took my mother and I out for ice cream and invited me to work as his assistant/intern – he asked her permission, because he didn’t want to weird her out. Mark made a good impression on my parents for this and for everything he did really. He made an even better one on my grandparents when he let me take photos of them for their 50th anniversary in his studio. “We’ll tell all our New York friends we got to go to a real loft studio!” they said.


Dave © 2006 Alex Haglund

Anyways, in the senior high youth group, we do a summer retreat called work camp, where we would travel somewhere and work on social projects. The one in my senior year was going to Cincinnati to clean out buildings in a pretty rough neighborhood and do mission work for a church there. We had a good buy session at the end of the trip for all of the seniors and any others that were leaving which was traditional a pretty tear-filled affair. Mark’s words to me were “See you next week.”

When I started at the studio the first thing he had me do was help models with wardrobe issues….nahh, I kid, I had to paint the studio, up to its 20-foot high ceilings. I was surprised but I trusted Mark and he never has let me down. I think he wanted to make it hard for me to help me learn about paying my dues, but to be honest, the experience as a whole was completely awesome. I think he was teaching me about the workings of his Mamiya RZ the first night after I painted, so it wasn’t really like I had to work very long to get into the good stuff. I worked for minimum wage, $5.25 an hour or so at that time, payable not as cash, but towards a camera– a Nikon F100, which was completely awesome. I knew I was going for Nikon over Canon when I held it in my hands. It wasn’t because of the feature set, there was a comparable Canon, the Eos 3 out at the same time, but because of the way it felt. I still tell my students to go to a store and hold and try using different cameras to see what is most agreeable to them, because they’re all cool, you need to see what’s cool for you, and honestly, Nikon vs. Canon seems to be more of a matter of preference than anything else.

So I did a lot of cool things with Mark: shot models for a clothing catalog, did annual report photography, shot album covers for rock musicians. The experience was great. At the same time, I was majoring in photography at Columbia College Chicago, which didn’t particularly agree with me. This is when Mark did the thing that would affect my future as a photographer most: he suggested I check out his alma mater, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He even drove me down there for a visit where we checked out their photo program, run by Chuck Swedlund and Dave Gillmore, who actually both retired by the time I ended up there in my sophomore year of college. Still it was great. I could go to school, tuition, room and board, books and extra cash for expenses for less than Columbia’s tuition alone. More to the point though, the school was just much more my scene, as were my fellow students. When I took basic black and white photography, taught to me by Gary Kolb, I knew I was where I was supposed to be, mainly because of my awesome classmates. Gary was cool too, giving in depth critiques of our work and useful criticism where my instructor at Columbia had a habit of saying “Boring,” and knocking students prints to the floor, the jerk.

SIUC was also where I veered off of the commercial photography path. My father, an editor at the Chicago Tribune, informed me that one of his former co-workers, Phil Greer, who had been the photo chief at the Trib for some 15 years, was coming down there to be their “Professional-in-residence.” At some point it got suggested to me that I apply to work as a photographer at the Daily Egyptian, SIUC’s student-run newspaper. I was hired by the DE at the beginning of my second semester at SIUC. If my fellow Photo students had become my friends, the DE staffers became like a new family to me (Although it didn’t exactly happen instantly). I caught the bug and for the rest of my college career, while my major was Cinema and Photography (The art and commercial side of things), my heart was on the photojournalism side of the hallway.


Phil Greer © 2004 Alex Haglund

How do you think others view your work?

Sheesh, the first one was long. How do others view my work– Ehh, I don’t know, I’m not really them, am I? I suppose that I am at the heart of things, trying to document things. At the same time, I want to make them aesthetically pleasing. I hope that people view my photographs, and I’m largely talking about my artsy or “for-fun” photos here as an encapsulation not of the scene, but of the feeling of being there. A lot of my photos are about the country and rural areas and I’m trying to bring some of that real life beauty into a photograph. So I guess I’m hoping that others get a little of the feel of being there: the pollen on the wind, the warmth of the sun, the golden crops, the swaying wildflowers– a feeling more than just an image.

Who are the artists that influence and inspire your work? Why?

I can tell you that a lot of the artist I’ve liked have been some of the famous ones, usually depression era. I like WeeGee’s(Arthur Fellig) stones and gall, making New York look like a crime drama. I like Ansel Adam’s beauty and the view of the American Southwest as someplace wild and unusual more than mundane as it kind of is today. I like Walker Evans views of American in a different time, the way his photos really bring me there and make me feel the dust and honestly, people’s sadness. More modern photographers, I like Steve McCurry for his portraiture and his ability to capture in an instant what it would take Avedon hours to do. And I like Avedon for that same formality that McCurry doesn’t have. I like celebrity photographers– celebrity photos make for a great yearbook. I’m talking about portraitist though, not paparazzi: Philippe Halsman, Annie Leibovitz, and most of all, Arnold Newman, who spoke at SIUC, which was amazing. I should mention Dave LaChapelle’s work which I don’t really like at all, but it gets under my skin– which is still a reaction and that’s what a photographer wants. I’m certainly not saying he’s a bad photographer, but he isn’t my cup of tea.

What do you like most about your own work?

The thing that I like most about my own work is doing it. Specifically, taking the pictures. When I shoot a good photograph, it’s like a drug. Switching to digital, where you can see images on the back of your camera could be analogous to switching from snorting heroin to shooting it– the rush is just much more immediate. I’ve actually been told before, by someone who probably knows pretty well what they are talking about, that I need to be working with my images past that initial moment more. I think photojournalism, and my blog are both things I like because I can get my images out there in relatively short order and be moving on to my next “Fix”.

What about your works brings you joy?

See above. I guess other people seeing, liking and commenting on my images gives me joy. Still, I’m not doing it for others, which is probably why I haven’t gotten more into or done better at photography as a business. When it comes down to it, I shoot for me. I don’t feel that I am a particularly selfish person in other areas of my life, but in this, I am. I saw a local portrait photographer who takes rather racy (to me) pictures of teens. Not illegal or anything like that, that isn’t what I mean. I don’t think I’d be particularly comfortable with that, and it’s not my thing. His response to why do you take pictures like this was that it was what they wanted. If he didn’t, they would find someone else who would. I don’t mind taking senior pictures in general, but when it comes to swimsuit images, for instance, even though they might want to go somewhere else to have them taken, I don’t care. It’s what they want, but it isn’t what I want.


Dance © 2006 Alex Haglund

What do you do to positively influence the next generation of photographers/visual artists?

Positive reinforcement. Take those pictures. We’re in a great age where cameras can do a huge amount of things and images are free (at least from the point of view that film is no longer an expense). This has led to many, many more people calling themselves photographers, which is great. Another’s success has very little impact on my own. If I’m really lucky, maybe a newcomer will be better than I am, or the best ever, if you can quantify such a thing. Seeing really great photographs from someone young makes me envious, but that’s good, because it motivates me. But a photographer needs to shoot. If you aren’t bitten by the bug, I don’t care who cool your Instagrams look, you’re still just a poser. On the other hand, you could take a picture that looks like garbage that won’t matter if you’re really a photographer, because you’ll keep shooting and you’ll get better. Newsflash here, this stuff very rarely pays well. You have to love it. If you don’t you aren’t wasting my time, I’d be doing my thing anyway, you’re wasting your own time.

What are some of your favorite processes and techniques?

I love vignettes, maybe too much. I love off-camera portable flash. I learned to take photos using lighting and I’m so glad that nowadays, I can light my pictures with stuff I carry in my camera bag, not 90 pounds of Speedotron gear and stands. I like to work without a tripod, most of them time. Most of my “look” comes from working with an image in Lightroom, which is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but don’t just stick to the presets, get wild and make your own. Oh, and I cannot credit learning how to do things in a real darkroom enough for being my stepping stone to digital photography. I would never have figured out tone control in Photoshop if I hadn’t been using the darkroom as an analog.

How can readers find out more about you and your work?

Read my blog! 🙂 Another place to see my pictures is on my Flickr page. I warn you, it’s not exactly edited, so you may want to go to “sets” to avoid having to wade through family photos and the like. Or send me an email at Seriously, get in touch with me, because I love talking about photography. There’s no question too amateurish or inane. Or if there is, I’ll just pretend I didn’t get the email. Hah! 😉