We all know that a photograph captures a moment in time, yet so often we extol the merits of a photograph’s “timelessness.” What does it even mean to shoot a photograph that is “timeless”? We define it variously as enduring, abiding, or withstanding the test of time. In characterizing a photograph as timeless, we often look to some combination of artistic style, photographic technique, story, and subject matter, asking ourselves, “Could this have emerged from any era? Is it likely to resonate with viewers decades or even centuries from now?”
With this in mind, we may also strip elements from the frame that could “date” a photo, such as contemporary fashion, technology, or brand elements. While there is certain merit in creating images that transcend time and trend entirely, embracing a more documentary approach serves a purpose of its own. Consider, for example, the extent to which there is value in using your camera to record concrete details of everyday life or to capture images that might later trigger meaningful memories. This month, we’re going to work on deliberately dating our photos — not with trendy techniques or processing, but with the elements we choose to include within the frame. Take a portrait of yourself, your significant other, your child(ren), or simply the world around you, deliberately incorporating elements that provide the clear context of present-day. Identify subjects or settings that are certain to become anachronisms within the next decade or so. Ask this question before you set out to shoot: “If I were to create a time capsule for myself or for my children that represents the present generation, what items would I put in it?” Can you include these in your image? Here are a few elements you might incorporate as part of this challenge:
1. Newspaper or Magazine
We know that a newspaper is the quintessential representation of daily events. What magazines are popular right now? What are the hot topics in politics, entertainment, technology, or fashion? Incorporating a notable headline makes for especially compelling context and might even provide the foundation around which you build the story in the frame.
2. Product Placement
Include identifiably branded products just as they do in television and film. Here, it’s less about advertising and more about the way logo typography, packaging styles, or the products themselves help to date the image.
3. Contemporary Fashion, Accessories, or Hairstyles
Some things never go out of style; we’re going to incorporate the things that will. Indeed, hair and wardrobe are primary cues when dating vintage photos. And remember, one day, your photos will be vintage, too!
4. Toys and Books
What are the toys of the moment? From Teddy Ruxpin and Cabbage Patch dolls to Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo, toy trends can often be linked to a particular generation. Consider, too, popular books or movies of today and the way they (or their accompanying products) can be incorporated in the frame.
It seems like nothing changes faster than contemporary technology. Modern gadgets, vehicles, or mobile technology provide wonderful context.
6. Architecture, Furniture, and Interior Design
How might your general environment help to define a present-day setting? This may not work as well if you tend to embrace a classic design aesthetic or live in a turn of the century home, but if you are all about on-trend colors or patterns, modern furniture, or your home’s architecture has distinctively contemporary elements, you can work these into your photo.
7. Local Culture
Is there a popular retail shop, restaurant, or downtown area that might provide a great backdrop for the times? Might you capture some contemporary fashion amongst strangers (as found in The Sartorialist or Humans of New York)? Or perhaps you could photograph elements that might be approaching the end of their existence, such as pay phones, the American shopping mall, or urban storefronts.
The goal this month is to compose an image that bears a visual time stamp of today. This is different, of course, from just shooting snapshots that include the authentic environment; you should still compose your images carefully and deliberately. The image might feature era-relevant elements prominently or formally — such as an environmental portrait of a child in her poster-adorned bedroom or surrounded by a careful layout of her favorite toys of the moment. Or the image might provide more subtle cues, such as the branded cereal packaging visible on the kitchen counter. The key is to create a beautiful photograph that someone might look at in 20 years and be able to identify as an image from today. For an extra challenge, think about how timelessness can coexist with fads, trends, and obsolete technology. In what ways might your children’s children look back on these images, learn a little something about the era, and still powerfully connect with the subject, setting, or story? How might you incorporate stories or emotions that are universally enduring alongside elements that will be fascinatingly outdated in a few years?
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted “The Unplanned Diptych.” We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.