January 9, 2012

Interview: Michelle Ensminger

Hello again. This week I am sharing my conversation with Writer and Photographer, Michelle Ensminger. Her work is beautiful and poetic, layered in stories - hopes - dreams - and wishes. With a deeper focus on her macro photography, Michelle is sharing some of her practices to approaching a subject up close. Please welcome my dear friend:

When did you begin to develop an interest in photography? Take me back to those first years and if you could, tell me about the paths you explored to expand on your craft?

I’ve owned a camera for as long as I can remember. I think my first camera was a Kodak disk that I received from my parents when I was in grade school. It was in my mid-twenties when I became more interested in photography. In one of the very first issues of Oprah’s O Magazine, there was an article about singer/songwriter Carly Simon and her “photo-a-day” project. She would take a Polaroid of some moment during her day and keep them in an album. I thought that was a fabulous idea. At that time I was using an inexpensive Canon 35 mm camera. I started taking photos every day and when the roll of film was finished, I would get the photos developed. Back then my photography skills were pretty rudimentary, but this challenged me to be more aware of the world around me. I was constantly on the lookout for moments that best defined how my life was shifting and unfolding. It also meant that I constantly had my camera with me, an essential ingredient to improving one’s skills.

An unfortunate accident at a Saturday matinee provided the opportunity to upgrade to digital photography. I attempted to sneak a beverage into the theater in my purse. It tipped over, spilling all over the inside and ruining my camera. When I replaced it, I decided to go digital. I purchased a Canon PowerShot. I used this camera for years and it went with me everywhere.  

It wasn’t too long after the digital upgrade that that my son was born. Most new mothers will attest to an increased interest in photography following the birth of their first child. That was true for me too. I wanted to capture all his special moments and the changes his wee body experienced during those early months of his life. He’s still one of my favorite subjects.   

I took my skills a step further when I began blogging. This was years ago and I no longer keep a personal blog, but my years of blogging acted as a similar encouragement as Carly Simon’s photography project. It offered the opportunity to take images that I could post and share with fellow bloggers. After a year or two of blogging, I purchased a Canon Rebel. That opened photography to new possibilities because of the ability to interchange lenses and the option of shooting in RAW. Because I knew I wanted to capture   the best images possible, I also began to teach myself some of the common tools of the trade: ISO, shutter speed, aperture and depth of field. Some of these concepts took awhile to sink in, but eventually I could start setting up shots using these new skills.  

For the most part, I am completely self-taught. I’ve taken a couple of e-courses and a class at a local art center, but most of what I’ve learned has been through practice and a lot of trial and error. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way but each one has been a valuable learning opportunity. I’m still learning and growing, and I’m always looking for new projects to hone my skills and challenge my creativity.

Do you feel as though your photos reflect or reveal pages of your own story? How so?

Absolutely. I think that’s what I love about photography. It’s an opportunity to creatively express where I’m at in relationship to myself, the world, my concept of god, etc., to tell my story. I rely heavily on my writing practice, and writing is perhaps the form of creative expression I feel I’m strongest at. But photography allows me to express myself in a different medium and provides a way for me to share my voice and vision when I can’t find the words. For me, photography can serve as a metaphor for what I’m experiencing emotionally and spiritually. Life is my practice, my prayer, and my poem. I tell this story, the story of my unfolding and my becoming, through the ways I express myself creatively. Photography is another way to say, “Look, here I am. This is me. I want you to see and know me.” To me, creative expression through any form is a way of saying I am.

I'd love to focus on your macro photography. What draws you to go deep and get up close to your subject?

I love the details of life. I like paying attention to and honoring the little things we often overlook. When I shoot with my macro lens it forces me to slow down, to really look at the object. And when I do, I see details I’ve never noticed before. That’s when photography becomes more than a hobby. It becomes a meditation and a spiritual practice. It becomes a practice of mindfulness. As a result, I become more awake, more aware, more present to the world. I’ve also found that there have been certain moments when the object I’m photographing (for instance a dried, decaying hydrangea leaf) seems to became something altogether different. Sometimes when I stare at the details long enough, the object as a single thing ceases to exist in that form. I begin to see so much more. The hues and textures begin to resemble the details of my own skin, or an abandoned field, or a dried up gulch hungry for rain. In a sense, it almost transforms into the truth of our oneness with all of creation. The more time I spend with an object, the more I’m reminded of the oneness of life and any ideas about separateness melts into the truth of our interconnectedness.

What do you love to photograph most? If you had to step out of your comfort zone, what would you photograph?

I love to photograph anything in nature. Petals, leaves, raindrops, moss, rocks, fruit, herbs. I can spend hours with a flower because a flower is a captive audience. It can’t get up and walk away or fuss at you because it’s tired of posing. A single object in nature can have so many different aspects, and I like exploring all the different possible ways of seeing it. Plus, nature supports my introverted nature beautifully. It doesn’t require anything more than my presence. For that reason, I find it very healing.

Photographing people, especially at important events like weddings, is definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’ve done it before. And I’d do it again for the right person, but it’s hard for me. It requires more extroversion than is comfortable for me, and you have to really train yourself to be quick and to read a moment before it’s gone. You have one chance to capture a certain shot before it’s lost. That’s too much pressure for me. I like to take my time. I prefer being an observer instead of the one who orchestrates the poses, etc. That’s why I’m happier with a branch of pear blossoms than a wedding party or a gaggle of warring cousins.

Would you share three simple things I could try to capture a great macro close up with my camera? my cell phone?

Give Yourself Permission to Play: If you don’t have a macro lens, play around with the macro setting on your camera.  (Most digital cameras have a macro setting. It usually looks like a flower or tulip.) Go outdoors or purchase a bouquet of flowers from the grocery store and play. Try looking at the same object from different angles. Challenge yourself to take 20-25 shots of the same object but with a different composition. Unfortunately, cell phones don’t offer the same kind of flexibility that cameras do when it comes to macro shots.  The focal length just isn’t as flexible. The good news is that Photojojo offers some great lenses for cell phones, including a macro lens. I’m on my second macro lens (I lost the first one), and I think they’re so much fun to play around with.

Practice Presence: To me that’s one of the gifts of photography: the opportunity to be present, to really see. Set aside some time (30 minutes—1 hour) to be still and present. Let the time serve as a meditation, not a photo shoot. Let the macro lens (or whatever lens you choose to use) act on behalf of your heart. And be sure to move the object around. You never know what you’ll see right on the other side of the petal or how the light will reflect off the steam with just the slightest adjustment. Let yourself be amazed and let your amazement be your prayer.

Embrace the Blur: A lot of times with macro photography you get a very shallow depth of field. The Closer you get to an object the shallower that depth of field becomes which can result in a lot of blur (not to mention the challenge of keeping your camera and hand steady when you take the shot). Blurry images can cause a lot of frustration, but there’s something I love about the blurriness. I guess for me it’s another metaphor for life. Even when we practice slowing down, life spins wildly on, a mad blur of faces and experiences that we can’t hold on to. So I say, embrace the blur. Have fun with it. Even be intentional about it.

When do you feel most inspired to go shooting?

Evenings, when the sun is setting and the sky is a brilliant display of color. Or when I’m in a new environment, one that I haven’t explored before and whose novelty feels ripe with possibility. Also, during spring and autumn when the world is alive with color and the transition between life and death (and vice versa) is most obvious. And on cloudy days, when the sky is one giant light box creating hues that catch your breath and shadows that resemble an intriguing door you ache to enter. And of course, anytime I want to reconnect with the whole of life, those moments when I need to move past myself, get out of myself, and become one with life. I’ve also found certain places call to my imagination more than others: coffee shops and the produce section of the grocery store are two examples…and the sea. My heart loves the sea.

Thank you, Michelle. You have always been a source of inspiration for me and I am truly grateful that you've shared parts of your photographic journey here today.

Michelle Ensminger loves poetry, photography, and dates with her 8-year-old son. A West Texas native, you can often find her curled up in a makeshift fort writing her way through the messiness of life. Michelle always strives to nurture her creative spirit and pursue an authentic spiritual path in the midst of motherhood and working an 8-5 job. She believes writing can heal and awaken us to life, that stillness holds great power, and in the sacred act of honoring the present moment.  She is currently taking a hiatus from blogging, but she is a regular, monthly contributor for Wish Studio. You can find more of her photography on Flickr. On January 16, her first writing e-course, Ordinary Magic, will launch at Wish Studio. You can find out more  and register for the course at the Wish Studio website.

*On a personal note, Michelle and I began collaborating on a photography project last summer. You can view our work at the photoblog Two Sides to Every Story.


Donna Wynn (Yogiknitgirl) said...

Wonderful interview Bella! I especially loved the cupcake photo . . . very inspiring words today! I want to play more with up close photos, and this inspired me to do so! I already have signed up for Michelle's writing class and am so excited to spend more time with her! The Squam connections just keep overflowing don't they? How blessed am I to know such wonderful women as you and Michelle!

Tracey said...

Fantastic! Splendid interview, Bella, great questions that really drew me in. Michelle, gorgeous photos and responses, such a beauty and a gift you are to the world. Thank you both! Lots of love!!

Sylvia @ From the Heart said...

Michelle, I love your story and your love for this beautiful art.

thea said...

I just love Michelle's work-she first captivated me years ago with her writing and then with her photography. She is such a talent. Lovely interview!