My favorite photo: Marilynne on film

Marilynne Robinson relaxes in one of her favorite workspaces in this 2003 photo.

Photo by Kirk Murray. (Click image to enlarge)

Digital photography has changed our thinking of image-making in profound ways. I’m pretty confident this statement won’t result in an inbox flooded with outcry or outrage. (Please don’t flood my inbox with outcry or outrage.)

Technological advances in digital photography allow photographers to accomplish so much more with their work, in volume and creativity, than they could have just five years ago. Scenes that were too dark to register on all but the slowest of exposures now are easily captured. Exposure and color settings can be fine-tuned before taking any photos. Numerous images can be produced without using (or wasting) chemicals or water. The advantages are abundant without me even mentioning what can be done with images after they’ve been captured.

There are some downsides to this technology, though. With the cost of great imaging equipment no longer being prohibitive for a good number of people, it seems that everybody has a camera. This is not a bad thing in itself—more people are becoming interested in and excited about something I hold quite dear. It’s just that so many photos are starting to look alike to me. In fact, there are imaging programs whose sole purpose is to make digital photos look different, imperfect, and even filmlike.

Even the language of photography has changed. Recently someone told me that the only way he liked portraits was if the people in them were “camera aware.” I countered that I only liked “camera aware” people in photos taken as part of an undercover police surveillance operation. In those photos, you can see a truly genuine expression (usually of surprise) when people become aware of the camera. I’m pretty confident most people are aware of the camera during a portrait session.

All of this brings me to this photo of Pulitzer Prize–winning author and University of Iowa professor Marilynne Robinson. This photo was taken before she won the 2005 fiction award for her book Gilead. Our department was working on a story that highlighted a few of the many amazing people involved with the Writers’ Workshop. My task: get portraits of them to accompany the article.

I chose to use my own personal medium-format film camera. I did so because I wanted the images, and the shoots themselves, to be more deliberate. It takes a little while to load film, take light readings, etc., when you work with a film camera. That extra time allowed us to become much more comfortable with each other. I wasn’t there just to shoot and run.

Working with Marilynne was an absolute dream; she was very accommodating of my numerous requests. She knew I was taking her picture, but she wanted the image to be as honest as possible—that thinking is completely in line with how I approach my photography. She suggested the spot pictured in this photo; it was a favorite of hers when she was working and thought it would make for a nice scene. I didn’t disrupt her surroundings, and she was more than happy to allow me to include the clutter around her.

We both liked what we got in the image.