Little Friend has officially discovered photographs. She alternately carries around and loses a wallet print of Big Friend and I mugging for the camera at our wedding. She screeches “Daaaa” each time she sees the shot of Big Friend riding a rhino statue at the Philadelphia zoo (don’t ask—we were crazy college kids). She points to each family member in the requisite family reunion beach photograph and recites them name by name: “Mama, Daaa, Meh-Meh, Ba-Ba, Lalala, Yeahyon,” and so on. At 22 months old, she’s slipping into the riptide of time, a baby disappearing into a toddler who resembles, a bit, the baby. She’s also paddling back against the riptide, as we all do, by memorializing the past in photographs.
I cling to truly talented photographers like a life saver in the sucking tide of time. Emily Ulmer is one of the rare, truly talented artists who can preserve a moment, a memory, a child, from the ravages of time. What sets Emily’s work apart from other photographers is the mature acumen and gravitas that she coaxes out of her pint-sized subjects. Her compositions still celebrate the frippery and frivolity that is all too fleeting in childhood, but somehow her camera lens also manages to catch the slightest foreshadowing of the adults these children will become.
While Emily Ulmer specializes in photographing children and families, a quick glance through her featured work necessitates an added category to her subjects: Light. She personifies light in her photography so that it is as substantial a focus in the portrait as the featured child. The resulting effect is one of nostalgia. Nostalgia for the moments in life we all think of as “the golden days.” Never before have I seen someone capture this elusive quality in so concrete a format: a picture that Little Friend could alternately carry around and lose, dog-earing the edges, smudging the image. Then again, Emily’s work could just as easily appear on an art gallery wall as in Little Friend’s grubby hands.
After featuring one of Emily Ulmer’s published photographs from Small Magazine in a recent post, I struck up a correspondence with Emily about her unique ability to capture portraits that might as well be considered capturing life. I just had to ask prying questions about how she divines such essential qualities of childhood. Emily readily consented to be interviewed for Belle Squeaks.
How did you choose photography for your profession?
I’ve worked in many areas of the arts but always knew my passion lay in photography, specifically portraiture. It was the one thing that made me happy and fulfilled, so I took a leap of faith and followed my heart.
What is the best compliment someone has ever given you?
I did a shoot recently where I shot a group of friends that were all going into kindergarten, which of course is a huge step in a child’s life. And one of the mothers told me that she cried when she saw a photo I’d taken of her daughter and her best friend. She told me that people tend to forget to capture those tender, truly sweet moments like holding a soft feather to your cheek. It was a beautiful compliment as it was the first time I realized my work was touching people. It made ME cry!
When you look through your camera lens, what do you see?
When I look through my lens, I see a young person who is about to take me on a journey… and sometimes a really crazy, tiring one! Of course, a 3 year-old isn’t always going to want to take pictures.
Who inspires you?
An amazing 5 year-old boy, named Graham, has been a huge inspiration in my photography. He was the first child I photographed and spending time with him made me want to photograph children full-time.
I’m also inspired by my younger sister who teaches kindergarten. And then of course there are many filmmakers and photographers that have inspired me artistically.
Can you describe what makes your photography so unique?
My background is more in the fine art photography vein, so my eye is trained in a non-commercial style. I took portraits of adults, trying to capture their innocence… which is funny as I look back and think about how I gravitated to what was most pure in them. So when I’m taking the picture of a child, I still look at it from a similar point of view as I did when I was photographing adults. I’m trying to capture the essence of children, which isn’t always when they’re jumping up and down, laughing– which is what a lot of children’s photography today shows. I’m also influenced a bit by snapshots of children from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I often reference the golden tones of the images from that era in my own work.
Your pictures seem to transcend portraits to tell a story. Can you tell us how you compose a shot?
A lot of it depends on where I’m shooting. Usually the story just happens naturally. If I’m shooting at a child’s home, I’ll find a great spot and go from there. The clothing definitely plays a role in my portraits and the overall feel that the pictures have. I tend to let the child dictate the mood as you can’t force a child to act one way or the other and have it look natural. And children like to participate in the shoot and always come up with ideas… it’s really a collaboration a lot of the time!
Your subjects seem completely at ease and almost unaware of the camera. How do you create such a relaxed atmosphere?
What’s really exciting to me about taking pictures of children is the challenge of getting them to trust me and forget that there’s a camera in front of them. When I meet kids, I try to relate to them immediately. You have to. So I’ll ask them what their favorite movie is or about their best friends, etc. The best shots tend to come when we’re having a conversation about Hannah Montana or their dog and there’s a pause and they just look at me and that’s the shot. As soon as you engage a child, they’ll let you into their world, which is what I’m trying to capture.
What photography advice do you have for parents (aka amateur photographers) on how to capture and preserve the fleeting moments of babyhood and childhood ?
Shoot when they’re not looking! Really, it makes for the best images most of the time. It’s the quiet moments that are so beautiful to capture in a picture. Once they get older and are aware of the camera, you won’t be able to get those same images.
What are your ultimate career goals as a photographer and artist?
I love doing private portraits and have taken photos of children across the country. I want to make timeless work that people will hang in their homes for years to come. My earlier work has been exhibited in galleries in New York, and I’d also like to show some of this new work in a gallery setting down the line. And the editorial market is something that I’m starting to get into and am really excited about.
A huge thanks to Emily for taking time to think about her artistic process and share the inner workings of her genius with us! She’s reminded me that the most beautiful moments of life spring from that which captures our passion. Personally, I’m glad Emily Ulmer and her camera are around to document life’s most beautiful moments and snag them out of time’s riptide. In a very real sense, she is a saver of life.
Emily Ulmer is based out of Los Angeles but will be spending a few weeks in October shooting in New York City. East Coast readers, this is your chance to snag one of her remaining time slots! Emily is currently booking shoots to document pregnancies, newborns, babies, children, and families. Follow Emily on Facebook, visit her website, or contact her at info [at] emilyulmer [dot] com.