Chris Crisman: It’s Personal

Author:  Rebecca Bedrossian

There is client work, and there is personal work. And never the twain shall meet. In most cases, personal work is departure from the norm, an opportunity to explore the fine art, unfiltered side of things. Not for Chris Crisman. He approaches his personal work in the same way he does for his clients.

“I feel like the photographer’s eye at the get go—through the camera—is such a massive filter to begin with. So I’ve never been concerned with those things.

“In my personal work, the process is similar to the actual commissioning process. With the primary difference being that I am playing the role of the creative director. I will have final say on exactly what’s in and what’s out. How everything blends together.”

It wasn’t always this way. When Chris first started out, money was tight. So when it came to personal work, he looked to the familiar—his family history. The son of a steelworker, Chris had grown up in Titusville, Pennsylvania. He says, “I would make the 330-mile drive back home [from Philadelphia], to the opposite corner of the state, and take pictures of former steelworkers who had worked with my dad.”

The work was response-based: Chris would meet and spend time with the men in their homes and make some environmental shots. He created 40 portraits in all for the Steelworkers series.

“As my work changed,” explains Chris, “the work that I wanted to do changed, and this included personal projects. The 40 different shoots I did with the steelworkers cost me about a few thousand dollars. Now, I’m doing a lot pictures that aren’t commissioned, which are a few thousand dollars per picture.”

The tables have turned. The process and the budget are different, reflecting the shift in his commissioned work from being mostly editorial and some advertising to the reverse.

And those personal pictures Chris is now making? Yes, he approaches them in the same way he does his advertising work. However the ideas are his and some of them come from being the father of two young children. When Chris began reading to his son, it set the wheels of his imagination in motion—and became the inspiration for his recent Storybook series.

“Imagine seeing a giraffe at the zoo or a zeppelin flying in the sky,” Chris begins, “try to take off the filter of familiarity to imagine how amazing things must be for a child who’s seeing them for the first time. Now strip those amazing things of their supporting context; a child doesn’t know that a giraffe is supposed to be in a zoo, a forest, or a topiary garden. And why wouldn’t a giraffe be in a topiary garden?

“I’m not making photographs of an illustrator’s work. There is a thing or a place, and I’ll create a character—inspired by character in one of Calvin’s books—and pair it with an animal and a place that is really unique. They create a beautiful mix of a palette that lives somewhere between fantasy and reality.”

As Chris and I finish our conversation, I am under no illusion: he takes his personal work seriously.

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