Chris Orwig brings passion to all that he does. He has an insatiable knack for creativity and discovery. Chris is a celebrated photographer, author, speaker, interactive designer and on the faculty of Brooks Institute Of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA. His work is widely sought after and he enjoys a diverse client base.
In fact, Chris’s work is often described as simple, stunning, poetic and engaging. He elaborates, “What the novelist says in 10,000 words the poet says in 10 and ultimately, after we read a poem we don not simply have more information, we have more experience. In the same way, I aim to distill idea, concept, vision, experience and emotion into poetic, provoking, intriguing and beautiful fine art and commercial images.” Chris is based in Santa Barbara, California, from where he travels the globe for his photographic work.
What’s the best thing about photography?
Life is short and time moves too fast. Yet, photography has provided me with the way to try to stop, slow and savor moments that otherwise would have been lost. Even more, good photographs seem to be a concentration of life, a distillation like evaporated sea water where only the salt remains. And photography has become a means and a passport to get out into the world and to live life with more focus, intensity and passion. In a sense, what’s best about photography is that it has saved me. It’s saved me from myself and helped me to focus on others and on the grand mystery of life. And in doing so, photography has given me a new way to see and live.
What’s the worst thing about photography?
Innovation has always been an integral and important part of photography. Yet, one of the things that I find challenging is the industry impulse which suggests that is new is always better. To grow as a photographer sometimes we want to push back against this tide. For example, sometimes getting to know an old lens is a better decision that getting a new one.
What’s the thing that interests you most about photography?
The idea that the camera can help you dig more deeply, see more clearly and live life more fully.
What’s the thing that interests you most about your own photographs?
In my own photographs I am always struck by the autobiographical nature of them. In a sense, I can look at a photograph and remember who I was when I took it and how I changed because of it. And collectively, these photographs help me appreciate, remember and make sense of my own life story.
What’s the thing that interests you most about other people’s photographs?
I enjoy looking at all types of photographs, whether taken by a high school student or legend who has since passed away. What interests me is having the opportunity to see and learn from someone else’s point of view.
Who were your early photographic influences?
My earliest influence was my father. It was my Dad who planted the seed of photography in my life as he enthusiastically told me about a weekend photo course he took at UC Berkeley many years before. It was so fascinating to hear about his experience and to see the pictures that he has made.
Who are your photographic influences now?
The list/family/community of photographers who influence me know has grown to include all sorts of types of photographers and genres of photography. I imagine that my list doesn’t vary much from other in that it includes historic photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams etc., etc. and a huge range of contemporaries. Yet, what is different about my list comes from being a photography teacher at Brooks Institute. Many of those who influence and inspire me are my students. They are the ones who are taking big risks and dreaming big dreams.
Who were your early non-photographic influences?
My mom is one of my earliest creative influences. As an artist, my mom passed on some important life/creative lessons. For example, when I was young she taught me that there is “no such thing as bad art.” While today, I now that this statement is a lie, I’ve found it to be true. In other words, it was the philosophy that the process of art is more important than the outcome. And if the outcome isn’t “perfect” that’s ok.
Who are your non-photographic influences now?
While my answer to this question may sound cliché, it’s nonetheless true. My biggest non-photographic influences are my three young daughters. Their ability to try, experiment and freely create art without being self-critical is stunning. Daily, I am inspired by their ambitions, curiosity and love.
What’s the most inspiring work of art you saw heard recently?
I recently had the privilege of having lunch with Robert Gupta. To say that Robert is an amazing musician (violinist) and person is quite an understatement. He started playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic when he was only 19! After hearing him perform, at lunch I was asking him some questions and eventually learned that he had recently been volunteering at Hospice by playing for people who were in their final stages of life. He explained that two of the times that he had been playing for someone, the person had passed away. Woa! What a powerful way to use ones gifts to literally usher someone out of this life in such a beautiful way.
What’s the best thing about gear?
My first camera is by far the best thing. It was a gift from my Dad and that camera started it all. I’ll always keep that camera as a reminder that at its core, photography is a gift.
What’s the worst thing about gear?
The worst thing is the boxes of discontinued film that is slowly deteriorating. While I embrace digital whole-heartedly, there are a still a few types of film that I am sad to see disappear.
How do you know when an image doesn’t work?
When an image is too obvious, too straightforward or too cliché I know that it isn’t going to work. Often, it’s these images that first catch my eye, yet the eye can easily be deceived. As one of my mentors once said, “Learning how to look and then look again, is as important as learning how to capture a frame.”
How do you know when an image is good?
I’m interested in capturing photographs that are authentic, alive and real. I like pictures that don’t feel staged but get beneath the surface of things. I like pictures that are simple, strong and can’t quite be placed in a particular time. What makes one of these photographs good is when I still feel it has these qualities a number of weeks after the fact. An image is good when it stands the test of time.
How do you know when an image is great?
An image is great when it can’t quite be explained. Rather than being “clear” these images have a poetic element of mystery that draws you in and deepens who you are and how you see the world. These images are timeless, they captivate and compel.
What’s the most useful photographic mantra?
As Marc Riboud said, “Photography is savoring life at 1/100th of second.”
Do you practice another art form? (If so, which?)
I like what Seth Godin has to say about art form and art, “Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
What makes someone an artist? I don’t think is has anything to do with a paintbrush. There are painters who follow the numbers, or paint billboards, or work in a small village in China, painting reproductions. These folks, while swell people, aren’t artists. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.”
From that stand point; I practice a number of forms of art including the art of living a full and complete life. In a traditional sense, I enjoy music (piano, guitar, harmonia, cello), woodwork, writing and many other active forms of art like surfing, biking, hiking and getting out in the great outdoors.
What benefits do you get from (this/these) other art form/s?
Becoming good at photography requires more than taking more and more pictures. I’ve found most of my photographic inspiration and education comes from the previous list (and other) experiences of life.
What was the most significant visual moment in your life?
The birth of our three daughters. Seeing and then holding them just after they were born is absolutely incomparable.
Which was the most important image to you that got away?
Early in my career there was someone who hired me and took a risk on me. That risk set my life on a new trajectory and I’m grateful for that. I have always wished that I had taken a portrait of that man.
What failure did you learn the most from?
Failures happen in big and small ways. Yet, when I put them together there is something that becomes clear. While it doesn’t feel this way at the time, mistakes are never the end of the road. Rather, opportunity and growth come from honestly facing and dealing with what’s gone wrong.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
One of my life’s biggest privileges is being a teacher – either as a faculty member at Brooks Institute, online at Lynda.com or through conferences and books. The accomplishments that I’m most proud of are related to those teaching experiences. In particular, the pride that swells from seeing a student grow, succeed or change is like nothing else.
What’s the thing you most hope to accomplish?
While I was in graduate school, one of the requirements was to volunteer in a hospital and I was assigned the cancer floor. My job was to spend time with the patients and to simply visit, care and listen. By spending time with people who are dying you cannot help but to learn about life. Those people became friends and some of them were lost. They taught me about the brevity of and the value life in a powerful way. And I think that’s one of the things that I hope to accomplish most. In big or small ways, I hope to celebrate, share and savor the value of life.
If you had to do it all over again, what would you change?
I would pursue mentorships more consistently throughout the various stages of my life.
If you had another life to live a completely different life, what would you choose to do?
Because of photography, I’ve had the chance to write a number of photographic or technology (Photoshop, Lightroom) books. I’ve really enjoyed the process of taking the time to think, process and share. Perhaps something I would choose would be to pursue writing in a more direct way.