When I was a little girl, we had huge family reunions in the summer. Hundreds of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends came from all over the country and sometimes the world just to visit. In the humid Indiana evenings, we all gathered in the living room of my grandparents’ house with the windows letting a heavy breeze in, our hair still wet from the pool. The fireflies had all been caught, and the cucumber salad had all been consumed. I sat on my grandmother’s lap and helped painstakingly change out each slide for everyone to view on the humming projector they’d brought into the front of the room.
The images that appeared on the screen seemed so foreign to me; like ancient relics of a past time. I barely, if at all, recognized the people that appeared on the flickering white of screen. Truly though, they were all around me. The same people sat among the couches and folding chairs, though their bodies had changed and their faces had aged. Sometimes a slide would appear on the screen and the room would erupt in laughter; not because of what we were seeing, but because of the memory it conjured up.
Sometimes a heavy sigh would follow the image of a loved one no longer among us. With stories and tears, the mood of the room shifted with every slide. Those were the nights I learned more about people who had gone on before me and more about the people still at my side. I learned about their lives before me, about who they were before they were mothers and aunts, grandfathers, and old men. Those nights allowed me to connect to who they were as a whole and not just who they were at the family reunions.
As I grew up, those crowds around the projector dwindled and eventually disappeared. My only connection to those families that were a part of my own were the slides and the stories I remembered being shared. Stories I wouldn’t remember these if it weren’t for the slides. People I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for the slides. Those images became the only connection to a time and to people that were from my family’s past. That connection became the catalyst for a career meant to… connect.
I want to know my clients, to connect with them and to their stories so I can best tell the world who they are with images. Each detail is intentional, each pixel poured over, each element with meaning. I want my audience to connect to each story I tell. I want to bring generations back to life and keep alive the stories I’m tasked with telling now. Am I a little bit over the top? No, no. Not a little.
I’ve used this sense of connection as the background of my business ever since I figured out that’s where my heart was (rather than the beginning of a business, when I “specialized” in whatever anyone was willing to pay me to specialize in that day). The driving force of connection is what makes what I do every day meaningful to me. In marketing, I’m connecting to my clients. In creating images, I’m connecting my clients to their families of the past and re-presenting them to the future. In the exhibition, I’m connecting the audience to my story.
How do you create new memories with people who are gone? That is precisely what I set out to do when I began brainstorming for the image that ended up titled “Conversations with Our Ancestors”. I tell my kids the stories I remember, hoping to produce memories for them to hold on to these ancestors and their heritage. I needed a thousand words that only a photograph can offer.
So I went to work using what we had available: slides, original prints still (and permanently) in their frames, wallets carried through wars, pictures of pictures of pictures, etc. We were able to gather up six generations of family members whose names my children still carried. I digitally placed them all on the porch of our old family home, which barely exists now and certainly doesn’t hold family gatherings.
Even the home needed a total digital renovation. We’ve all heard the term “only as strong as your weakest player” and that rang true for this project. My image would only end up as strong as its weakest component so I had to strip all the imagery down to a bare minimum and build them all back up with the same momentum. Though most of the images were already grainy black and white, some were overly vibrant slides.
I took every single image I used down to black and white, even the modern images shot in the studio. I needed them all to have the same foundation. The setting of the porch would offer a variety of lighting options so blending the varying conditions would be more organic. Darker images tucked back into the shadows under the overhang. Brighter faces pulled forward into the light beyond the shade of the roofline. All the rest fell somewhere in between.
It was necessary to flip some images to help the flow of the portrait. I painstakingly shot varying body parts to reference details and paint them back in. I blended the skin tones with a soft painterly stroke to be able to more readily guide and soften the lights. Just when I started to think I was finishing up, I would back up across the room, squint, and find a thousand things I wanted to change or tweak.
I spent countless hours obsessing over every pixel; more than any other single image in the history of my career in competition, exhibition, and portrait art. There were a LOT of hours. In each face on the portrait, each gradient in the shadows, each curve of the face or weight under a hand, I made the connection of light and shadow, weighing together the images that were originally created decades apart.
The first entry into print competition, it bombed. I’m glad it did (though I didn’t say that at the time). It wasn’t ready yet even if I were more than ready for it to be done. The time and effort paid off in a Grand Imaging Award nomination in 2022.
But the real reward comes on the wall of my home. I am rewarded every time I look at the huge, framed print of it in our dining room. I am rewarded with the idea that my clients have that same feeling when they pass by the portrait art adorning their walls that I created for them. I am rewarded with the motivation to continue creating for myself and my clients.
One image connects a man to his grief in a way he can share with others. In another, a senior ballerina fills the room with billowing silk and represents the way dance has filled her life. Siblings carry on the memory of their brothers and sisters, families embrace where they are today, and in all of the images, we are representing ourselves to those we won’t get to know face to face. We are representing ourselves to the future. And we’d better make it good.
Whether the connection is between the elements within the image or the subject to the audience, it is the basis for every storytelling image I produce. It is the “why” that keeps me motivated to continue creating and creating in a new and fresh way.
As artists, we are able to connect people in ways that aren’t possible any other way. So while the projector at my grandparents’ house is long gone, the memories and stories need not be because they’re preserved in a new way. They’re preserved in the same way hobbies, feelings, and generations are connected…through photographs.
Aly Elliott is a PPA member and has earned her PPA Master of Photography and Craftsman degrees as well as CPP. She also has degrees in Fine Arts and Marketing. In 2022, she was honored with 2 Grand Imaging Award finalist images. She has work all over the world (29 countries so far!). Find her on her Twitch channel (twitch.tv/alyelliott), instagram (mrsalyelliott), and youtube.