It happens to us all at one point or another (usually at many points), when you have a desire to create some artsy art, but no fantastical ideas. It's quite frustrating. You could just start shooting like a crazy person with no plan, but who would do that? One of my favorite things to do when I'm ready to shoot, but not sure where to begin, is to find an object to inspire me and then plan around it before I start shooting. For me, the very best place to do this is in the prop warehouse at work. (Yes I know, it's not fair. I have access to zillions of props. How the heck did I get so lucky!?) During the more than 30 years that the studio has been open, they have been acquiring props. Mainly these trinkets are from doing shoots for clients and them just leaving items here with us to use for future shoots. We have seriously anything you can think of. (Please don't actually test me on that. It's probably not totally true, but we have A LOT.)
There is everything from napkins in all patterns and colors you could think of, to vintage suitcases, tubs of pine cones, branches, leaves and moss, boxes of strange hats, bins of "old rusty things," plates, ropes, beads, Christmas ornaments, globes, random glasses, fake flowers for every season, big planks of wood, I could go on all day. Now, I imagine you're saying to yourself, "Wow Robert, that's sooo great for you, congratulations on your perfect existence." Well my friends, don't be like that. Allow me to give you some great tips and tricks for finding props for those of you that are not blessed with a giant prop room.
ATTICS: GOLD MINES FOR RANDOM CRAP...I MEAN PROPS
I'm willing to bet that all of you have some form of an attic. Maybe it's a pull down ladder crawl space sort of situation, or your typical walk up the steps to the cold, dirty, cluttered area of your house sorta situation. Either way you've got to have a spot somewhere in your house (or your parents') with a plethora of "stuff." Go to this magical dust-gathering place where things go to be forgotten, and start digging (but don't make it more of a mess than it already is). There could be all kinds of things up there to pull inspiration from. I know my parents have a really old antique phone, a big bin of lacy frilly curtains, a legit scare-your-pants-off ventriloquist dummy, and lots of other things I don't even know exist. Also, don't get me started on the basement; who knows what's down there...
OLD PEOPLE: THEY HAVE OLD STUFF
Here is how I see it: old people are old, and they have many things from when they were not old...so now their stuff is old too...and therefore cool to use in photos, amiright? I know I know, you're wowed by my logic. I'm pretty smart you guys. Seriously though, if you are lucky enough to have some grandparents still kickin', they are not only the greatest people ever (duh), but they have a wealth of fancy old possessions.
Maybe it's a great aunt or just an old family friend that you can talk to, but chances are they will be delighted to help out. Not only is it very likely that they have really interesting antiques and relics of their past that they'd be willing to let you use for a shoot, but they will be more than happy to tell you all about them.
I love hearing stories from my grandparents, the tales of what their lives were like growing up. So, perhaps I get inspired by a certain item of theirs, but then after they tell me how it came to be in their possession, and what is means to them, I could be inspired twice over. Furthermore, I'm willing to bet I'm going to make a piece of art that is therefore more meaningful to me. Also, um hello - if your elderly relative has an attic for you to scrounge though, that's a major win. Oh and be sure to give them a hug and a big thanks. Grandparents are great huggers. (It's a proven fact, check the books.)
THRIFT SHOPS: YOU JUST NEVER KNOW
Don't let me lead you astray in thinking that the only good props to inspire you are old ones. You can pull inspiration from all kinds of objects from any era. I find (and I'm sure most of you already do as well), that thrift stores are an amazing source of strange and inspiring props from all walks of life. You just never know what you're going to find in these kookie eclectic shops. Wander the aisles not looking for anything in particular, and see what jumps out at you as being visually interesting. Odds are that whatever it is, it can be used to inspire a super cool photo shoot! Also, do your best to not look at everything as it typically is; think outside the box. Just because that lamp shade is clearly made for lamps, doesn't mean it can't go on your head. Also, that empty frame is not just for putting pictures up on the wall.
OK I FOUND A PROP: NOW WHAT!?
So you've searched the attic, chatted up some delightful old peeps, did a little thrifty shopping, and you found that very special thing that said, "HEY! PICK ME PICK ME, I want to be immortalized in your artwork!" Now, how does one go about creating an image around this object? Well I'm sure there are lots of way that different artists go about this, but here is what I do:
Let's use this image for example, shall we? (We shall.) For this creation entitled "The Thread Of Life," I was meandering the prop room (as I tend to do), and I came across this giant bin of bull ropes. I decided these were to be my inspiration. I pulled the ropes off the shelf and looked at them for a while. You should do just that. (Pretty great tip, right? Look at it for a while...I bet you're glad you're reading this so you can reap the benefits of my bountiful knowledge, eh?) Take your item and just stare at it. Let your mind wander, but not too far or you'll end up in the kitchen making a Nutella, peanut butter, and fluff sandwich. Think of all the different ways it could be used (the prop not the sandwich), conventional or not. Examine it from all angles. Flip it upside down, lay it on its side, or maybe get totally crazy and break it! Perhaps it's a way better prop when smashed to pieces. (PLEASE NOTE: do not do this with the fancy family heirloom that your grandfather told you all about and let you borrow for a shoot.)
For "The Thread Of Life" I started with the question, "What can you do with a rope?" Tie things up seemed like the obvious choice. I only tend to shoot people (as you might have noticed), so naturally my first thought was that you could tie up a person, but how could I make that a little more interesting? I started thinking about ropes themselves, what they can represent, and eventually I landed on the Greek myth of the Fate Sisters and the thread of life. I go into much more detail about it in this post. The point is, I started with regular old rope and wound up with this crazy conceptual self portrait, and all I did was stare at a box of large strings.
For "The Collector" (which by the way I thought was a clever image to feature in this post because it's about collecting props *pats self on the back*), I found a full hazmat suit in the prop room, boots and all, and knew immediately that I was going to use it for something. (Because duh, it's a hazmat suit, need I say more?) In my natural fashion, I thought it would be cool to have my character floating. As always, I like interesting directional light, and the idea of the guy reaching for some sort of dangerous glowing nucleus sorta thing came to mind and I was off! I actually had a similar idea written down in my crazy long list of photo ideas I randomly add to, but the guy being in a hazmat suit just sweetened the deal.
Here is a speed edit video of "The Collector." Enjoy it.
LETS REVIEW: JUST IN CASE YOU WERE SKIMMING
-Adventure into your attic. There's got to be some great junk up there.
-Elderly people are awesome. (Give them hugs.)
-Thrift stores are like your prop room...except you have to pay for everything. (But come on, their prices are pretty spot on.)
-Just look at it, think about it, maybe break it?
-Be creative and don't let any prop keep you inside the box. Unless of course you want to do a shoot in the box. This is your shoot people, you can do whatever you want!!!