Monday, January 7, 2013

The Hat Picture

We were recently invited to comment on the story behind what we felt was our most memorable image (so far). They asked: "Why does this image matter to you? What do you remember about taking the picture? Did the picture get published? How often do you think about this picture?"

If you know us well, you won't be surprised to see what photograph we chose...

The Hat Picture

When we were first starting out, in 2002, a one-day shoot in Charleston, South Carolina for a page story in Travel + Leisure was A Big Deal. Our assignment was to photograph a handful of new businesses that were opening up on the edge of downtown on Upper King Street, and we brought our A-game. What appeared to be the most photographable subject on the list that day was Magar Hatworks, where Leigh Magar was making a go at traditional millinery in an old part of town. We spent about 2 hours photographing there. The hats were gorgeous, as you can see, and the shop was functional — focused on the artisan’s workshop in the back. One of us — we don’t really know who—no, really, we don’t know — took a relatively instinctual shot of the wall from the opposite wall. The railroad-width shop meant a shortened frame that give the image its distinctive crop. I’ve often wanted to go back and see if we took other versions that day, but I never seem to get around to it. I guess I don’t want to spoil the magic.

When we got home, these pictures from our day in Charleston formed the backbone of a portfolio of images we were building to get our photography business off the ground. When we were awarded PDN30 in 2008, this image was used to advertise a talk we gave at Parsons for emerging photographers. The sponsors printed the image A0 on foam mount to greet the audience as they filed into the hall. The poster then rode around in the back of the sponsor’s SUV for a month before finally arriving at our home in Brooklyn. We hung it on the bedroom wall, and re-hung it in our new bedroom when we moved to Asia, and will hang it here in Boston when our shipment arrives. This picture might be the first and last image we see most days.

There was another shot of Jessie trying on one of the hats, that ran in the magazine. “The hat picture” did not. Most people love it as a print, but maybe not so much as an editorial image. I agree with James when he says, “it is rare that a single image stretches out to fill the space of one’s whole career so early.” In those early days, producing more and more new images was our tantamount concern.  Some of these early images, like our ‘hat picture’ became so representative of us-to-us, that it has become a sort of logo. It has been the opening shot of several of our portfolios. It is on our website to this day.

 As an emblem, it speaks volumes to us of the power of ingenuity, of talent, drive, and hustle in the production of art (hats and photographs, both) and it came out of a time in our artistic lives when an image this good, an image that sang aloud when we first cut it from the contact sheet, was like gold in the bank. The image is a simple, graphically-driven shot in primary colors, but it is also idiosyncratic in its way.  As James says, this was one of those images that wills itself upon you as a image maker. It wants to be the cover image for two or three book projects; it wants to be an ‘award image;’ it wants to print wall-sized. This picture has needs of its own.

Leigh Magar, Five years later in Budget Travel 

Five years later, we would return to Magar Hatworks, this time on an 8-day feature story assignment. Leigh Magar, too was thriving — her hats were featured at Barney’s New York now, her men’s line made popular by a celebrity trend. The Upper King Street area around her had grown up too, with the Lee Bros. marketing their cookbooks and boiled peanuts across the street, and designers and boutiques moving in everyday. This time, Leigh was much more comfortable in front of the camera. So we photographed her, making another of our favorite images [Figure 2, above: Leigh Magar five years later]. We also used the “hat picture” set up for a portrait of local designers. I remember wondering if we could “re-photograph” the hat picture and capture the same magic, but the shop layout had changed, and so had we.

Han Feng, fashion designer
Ming Ming and Jeff, gallery owners, art producers

The deep impression this image has left on us has something to do with what it says to us about what we do when we make photographs. Even though it isn't a portrait, we consider this work emblematic of our tribe: people who have scrapped together a dream of making things through a lifestyle of hard work, ingenuity, and creativity. The people we met in Charleston that day, and many others, are members of that tribe. The movement to upcycle, to learn heirloom artisanal crafts, to guerilla garden, to write poetry, we know so much about these things, and so little about taking a more regular path to riches and renown. We have photographed artists, chefs, silversmiths, fashion designers, weavers, architects, glassblowers, and more creative people than we can count on three continents now. We’ve eaten mangos from their backyards and tried on their hats. We even photographed another milliner, in Seoul [Figure 5: Mogool Millinery]. When there is a language barrier, we use the international language of Polaroid to make our vision clear. We hand out the files to these images to our subjects to use in promoting themselves. We believe that folks succeed in crowds, and we feel fortunate to be in a profession that gives us long afternoons photographing and chatting with so many successful and smart people. 

Mogool Millinery 

1 comment:

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