Rear Curtain recently sat down with Minneapolis photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber to talk about their personal projects. This husband and wife team was recognized in PDN’s 2013 Photo Annual for their projects and was also selected by the American Society of Media Photographers in their Best of ASMP 2012 list. In Part II, we speak with Tim Gruber about his project “The Long Way Home”. Part I is published here.
How do you recognize a narrative before you begin your work?
It starts with a lot of research trying to figure out before we even start a project what we are trying to say but research can only take you so far. You have to get into the field and start figuring out for yourself what the story may be because you may find the story is completely different. It’s a combination of curiosity and some research to give you a solid foundation from which to work.
In your project statement you mentioned you are retracing your footprints and photographing familiar and new people and places. How do you connect with the people you photograph? Do you take the same approach whether or not you know the person? Does being familiar with either the person or the place change how or what you photograph?
For me sometimes photographing the unknown or something that is not familiar is a little easier because your head isn’t clouded with past sentiment. Sometimes I feel if I am in an environment I experienced as a kid, my mind is a little cloudy with thoughts or memories. It is like when you edit a project, you have this emotional connection to the work because you lived it or experienced it. Going to a new area is easier because I’m not bringing that emotional baggage with me. At the same time though when you photograph someone you know, you start off with this instant rapport or built-in connection whereas with a stranger you’ve got to work to break the ice and develop that rapport. It’s like a two-way street. In some ways photographing a strange place is better but when photographing a person having a little bit of a relationship is beneficial. Depending on the topic it can go both ways.
Did you pick Minnesota or did the place pick you?
I wouldn’t have necessarily done a project on Minnesota had I not moved back here. In a sense, it picked me. Coming back home, I’d been away for a long time and I felt like maybe this is something I need to explore with fresh eyes. My eye is a little more advanced and further along as a photographer. I had just started as a photographer when I lived here in Minnesota. The first year or two maybe I was a terrible photographer and just taking pictures trying to do my thing. I moved away not expecting to come back, and then ten years later to return as a much more mature photographer and a much more developed eye, I felt like I owed it to myself to explore it more and pursue it.
Do you feel you could have connected to the place in the same way had you photographed The Long Way Home using a digital camera rather than the Hasselblad?
A few years ago, maybe the first few frames I would have felt the camera (Hasselblad) really helps me slow down and connect with these people and maybe the subjects find something fascinating by seeing this older looking camera rather than a modern digital camera. But now I am more confident. A lot people think that a film camera slows you down which is, for the most part true but now I am comfortable with both film and digital, my approach is the same with both. I feel like I could shoot these projects with either camera because my technique despite using different medium—film versus digital—for me, isn’t very different at all. I shoot on my digital camera the same way I shoot on my Hasselblad. I view both simply as tools and I enjoy using both of them for personal projects.
You also do short films. Does working in this medium affect how you photograph something or is it the other way around?
It depends. For me, both have an influence on the way we work. With film, sometimes it becomes of a juggling act. Is this more of a video or motion driven moment or is this better captured as a still moment? When you are out on the field shooting that’s where trying to both becomes an interesting dance. Your mind is constantly racing and trying to predict or anticipate is this going to be a better video moment and if so, where should I be standing or position myself or is this going to be a better still moment. In a way you could compare it to a sport where you are trying to anticipate what your subject is going to do and where you need to position yourself to best capture that moment.
I don’t mind video but I definitely love the still image over video. Video can be very demanding in terms of you have other things you have to worry about like audio whereas with the still you can get more lost in the moment. It’s not so much about the gear getting in the way. With video I feel a bit more disconnected with what is going on around me, you’re monitoring the audio and watching all the movement going on around you and trying to anticipate. With the still photograph, I feel like I can stand back, blend in a little bit more, snap off a few frames. It suits me better for the way I like to work.
Is there a difference in how you approach your personal work and your commercial work?
There can be. With personal work you don’t necessarily feel the pressure. Recently I went to photograph this rocket club where they shoot off rockets in an open field. If I was shooting that for Popular Science or some publication, I would feel some pressure to bang out some amazing photos or get something great or I need to be worried about getting a set with a nice overall theme, or portraits or details. In my mind, I’d have this little checklist you know a magazine would be expecting. When I go out for myself, I am just going to try to let the photographs come to me instead of actively trying to get the photographs and not force anything. Just sit back and enjoy the experience. With commission work, there is more pressure because somebody is paying you and expecting you to come back with something great but with personal work, there isn’t that pressure because the only person you are trying to please is yourself. So for me it is just as much about the photographs as the experience when it’s personal work.
Although you worked by yourself on The Long Way Home, how does being part of a team affect your work or the way in which you work on an essay?
Even though this is a project I shot for myself, Jenn and I were still out there together. One of the greatest things about having a partner who is also photographer is that you have a creative partner who you can bounce ideas off of. If you have a partner in crime, you can randomly stop when you see a great photo a long the way or on the side of the road, or if you want to go to a little county fair together, you can go out and explore together. It’s amazing to have a partner to just go out with and make a fun day out of it.
Note: This interview has been edited for length.