Two Pictures: Matt Burkhartt

(This is another post that comes from my invitation to all of you to send me two of your pictures to get my thoughts on them. Send two photos at 544 pixels/72 dpi to me at: tekamah at me dot com Explain something about yourself, the photos and what you'd like for me to address about them.)

Matt Burkhartt is a photography student at a community college. My first photography class outside of my Air Force training was at a community college, so I can relate to where he's coming from.

He writes: “The two photos that I am sending you are part of a series in progress in which I document the day to day life of a woman named Sylvia who lives in my town. Upon seeing Sylvia, one might think that she is homeless, however, she is not. I have seen her walking around the village and have always been curious about her. This series is my personal way of satisfying my curiosity about her and her life. My objective for this project is to attempt to humanize her as well as delve into her personal life and explore who she is as a person. I want people who live in my town as well as anyone else who sees these images to see her as a human being rather than assign her an inaccurate judgmental label. Do you think these two images help to accomplish my objective? Do you think I am on the right track or am I going about this the wrong way? What types of images do you think may be imperative in this essay?”

Here are the pictures:

Both photos made by Matt Burkhartt ©

Before you make another picture, get a copy of KayLynn Deveney’s book, “The Day To Day Life Of Albert Hastings.”

It’s the nicest, most complete, lyrical, respectful set of photographs I’ve seen about an older person. Spend time with the book and think about how and why she made the photos, what makes each photograph work.

KayLynn – or Dr. Deveney because she does have a PhD. – is teaching at the University of Ulster in Belfast this spring. I'd love to be in her class there.

Your reasons for wanting to do the story about Sylvia are admirable. Unlike Albert, Sylvia appears to be on the edge of society. There’s a burden when you set out to tell a story about someone who is outside the mainstream, whether they be homeless, drug addicted, deformed or sickly. Photographs of any extreme start with a certain level of interest owed to the extreme depicted. The burden is to go beyond the surface of what people are about, and doing so with respect and honesty.

You have to exceed the cliché.

The first step in doing this is to know your subject, to earn and deserve her trust. You may have heard the notion that you as a photographer have to be a fly on the wall, the subject has to act as if you are not there in order for you to make telling pictures. This is sort of true. But the only way for people to become comfortable with you is if they trust you and that can only happen if you have established a relationship with the subject. In other words, you as a photographer can only be part of a person’s life when you are part of a person’s life; life happens in photographs only when you know the person you’re photographing and they know what you are about.

Connectivity with any subject is what makes photographs compelling. The deeper your understanding, the more you will know what to say and how to make pictures to best convey your impressions in given settings. That’s why I encourage you to consider KayLynn’s photos carefully, read what she wrote about Albert and what Albert says.

The two pictures you sent are good. The first one of Sylvia sitting on her bed is technically better. There is a sense of her space and how she fits into it and the feeling that comes from the way you made the photograph that this is all of her personal space. The reason the whole image holds together is the way the light falls on her hands and the position of her hands. Backlighting is your friend. 

As I’ve said elsewhere, the goal is to craft images where the smallest element in the frame is what holds the whole together. The hands do that here. 

In looking at these photos and others on your web site I notice that you tend to center the main subject. Get over that as a rote way of composing.

Another common thread is that you tend to make pictures from the same distance with the same degree of detail in the frames and there is a distant, observed-but-not-engaged feeling in the hope that the camera will make a telling picture. That’s not unusual for people who are early in their photographic life. Step into things, engage with the subjects, don’t over-think, respond to the visuals, the textures, the moments, follow your eye, your mind and your heart to where the pictures are.

Moving forward, this is not a story that you can script. Rather, you should simply explore and understand and experience her life with careful, considerate, thoughtful photographs. Tell stories as they arise. Chances are they won’t be huge, moment-driven pieces. Stories can be about how she spends her time, how she gets food, how she relates to friends or the lack of companionship. Strive to tell a story of her life through the pieces of it that you can see and suggest the past through shards that remain with her.

Be mindful of the range of images you make, from close to distant, complex to simple. And we must see her eyes.

Strive to make pictures that convey qualities and present ironies that you perceive, without being didactic or pedantic.

That’s a starting point for the story and an approach that you can grow from throughout the rest of your photographic life.

Two Pictures: Benjamin Brayfield

Two Pictures: Devin Wagner