Laurie Klein on Finding your Visual Voice
Laurie Klein’s wild hair and affection for quoting philosophers, poets, and writers signal a free spirit full of kindness and easy laughter. It’s one of the first things her students notice about her.
But Laurie Klein also works with a wavelength not visible to the naked eye. As an infrared photographer, she must know where the unseen light, reflections, and lines will appear in her images, how color, fabric and skin will display. And like her magnificent, mysterious works, Laurie herself contains more than what appears on the surface.
Hidden structure leads to inspiration and opportunity
“People think that I am that itinerant artist, that I just go with the flow. They don’t realize that there is a lot of structure behind everything I do,” she explains. “I plan it out. It is not haphazard.”
The first element of Laurie’s structure is a commitment to spend time on photography. Laurie points out gently, “Most of my students get upset because they don’t have time to shoot. We have busy lives, but it has to be a priority. It doesn’t have to be all day. It can be 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Any way to connect you to your creative process because you feel better and you will make more time for it.” Laurie has learned, from a lifetime in art, that taking this time is far from being about ego. “We have a tendency to think, ‘Oh, that’s low on the totem pole’ because it is self-serving. But it really isn’t. I know if I don’t shoot or look at my work a certain amount in the week I am not good at anything else.”
Second is the discipline to learn the rules and the tools of photography. Laurie frequently compares photography to the prescribed, specific process of baking or to the hard work of training for a marathon. “Today, people want to get into get creativity but they don’t want to learn the rules. They don’t realize that the people who are doing a great job of breaking the rules—it’s because they learned the rules first.” Photographers who haven’t learned the basics “aren’t in control. When you look at something and think, ‘I like this,’ it is accidental.”
In Laurie’s mind, the tools, the rules, and the process deliver inspiration that, from the outside, looks spontaneous. She explains that the tools are not simply physical and technical: your camera, lenses, and so on. Your interests and approach are also your tools.
You don’t have to discover your process alone
Laurie began her career as a biomedical infrared photographer. Early on, a teacher encouraged her to go beyond bio-medical work and to study with Ansel Adams. I asked what it meant to her to study with one of the world’s most iconic photographers. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much Ansel influenced me. He said you have a great eye, but technically you have a long way to go. I was good with that because I was going to college to learn the technical side.” At the time, Laurie admits, “I wanted to be like him, to be passionate about what I loved and do the best that I can.” And as an artist just getting started, “you just think it is cool” to study with someone like Adams. But “every year I feel more blessed from that experience. It was life changing, an incredible gift.”
As a result, Laurie is passionate about mentorship and teaching. The commitment to photographic craft is a tough one to make, and she doesn’t want students to feel they have to go it alone. An outside perspective is invaluable for helping artists discover their own visual voices.
When she works with students, Laurie says, “I listen to people’s photographs. I act as a mirror. I will notice something in their work, reflect it back to them. Everyone has themes, visual ideas that they gravitate towards. But it can take someone else saying, ‘Hey, did you notice this?’ to help you realize it.” Then “you can declare it, own it, and put it in your tool box.” It’s “instructive and so validating to have someone external say, ‘This is what I see here, this is what I see you doing.”
The experience, like training for a marathon, is not easy. Laurie knows that when “people come in to me, to a class, they have no idea how they are going to come out.” But just as she trusts her own process to deliver opportunity and inspiration at the right time, she trusts the experience of her classes: “I am good at listening to what people need. I plant seeds. Students may not be ready for it for a couple of years, but when they are ready, the seed is there.”