How to make photographs that are wall worthy
With an artistic approach, photographs can add drama to the look of any room.
Jeff Amberg sees the world a little differently than most people. As a professional photographer for more than 30 years, it’s become almost second nature for him to find the mix of complexity and simplicity that will instantly tell the story of whatever he’s shooting. One day, though, inspiration led him to get even more creative and turn that rule on its head. “I was editing a commercial piece and something told me to go outside and shoot in a way that would keep me from pre-visualizing the final image until after the shot had been taken,” he recalls. “That’s the opposite of any kind of photography that I’d ever done, but it sounded like fun so I stopped what I was doing and decided to go with it and see what would happen.”
The resulting images were a beautiful surprise. Filled with color and light, shapes dance across the canvases on which they’re printed. Each is unique, and the styles vary, from blocks of color intersecting with others to create energetic mosaics, to ray-like angles and soft, swaying lines. Although Jeff’s technique is somewhat of a mystery, he does share the fact that every piece is a pure photograph of something real, not computer generated. Through Jeff’s lens, trees become grass and people turn into swoops of color. “I’ve transformed my camera into a paintbrush,” he says. “And now the world can be my canvas.”
For homeowners looking for an original work to hang on the wall, Jeff’s photographs, which blur the line between contemporary painting and photography, are a creative solution. “They work in a residential environment because they’re full of energy, but in a soothing way,” he says. “They’re interesting but not distracting. The cost is also less than an original painting.”
Linda Burnside, an interior designer who owns LGB Interiors and is also an amateur photographer, agrees. “Those gorgeous swirls of color that Jeff has created are just like modernist paintings in that they’re less about the subject and more about the color and the composition. Like abstract photos that turn out to be super close-ups of ripples of water or ice crystals, they’ll work in a variety of different décor styles.”
She should know. Over the years, Linda has used many of her travel photographs as the starting point for rooms in her own home as well as in showcase homes that she’s designed. Some are of people, others of buildings or scenery. Regardless, the results are dramatic. “People often hang photos in their homes, but they tend not to think of them as decorative elements. But the right photo, or group of photos, does so much for a room,” she says. “The best part is that if it’s a photograph you’ve taken, not only is it a beautiful work of art, but it’s personal, a memory of a wonderful trip or a fantastic day.”
Linda has also decorated with groupings of photographs, which may be a less intimidating way for a non-serious photographer to bring his or her work into the home. In one case, working with a neutral palette of taupes, grays and white, Linda used a series of photos from China to add color to a room. According to Linda, the four photos, which flank a tall mirror, fit into the room’s calm atmosphere with muted tones of red against a softly faded background. “In the same way that the right jewelry can bring out an outfit, I used these photos like earrings for the mirror,” she explains. “They add color, but they don’t overpower what’s going on in the room.” To support the tone she’d set, Linda hung a watercolor painted on rice paper above the fireplace and flanked it with a pair of vaguely Asian carved wood dogs.
Photographer Robert Clark, who’s known for his lush images of misty live oak forests, sun-dappled marshes and other South Carolina landscapes, as well as for his uncanny ability to capture unguarded moments of his subjects, feels that any photograph with meaning can be wall-worthy. “As you take in the scene, ask yourself what it says to you and how can you convey that in two dimensions,” he suggests. “If one photo doesn’t do it, take a few.” Robert also relies on the oldest tool of all: patience. “When you’re shooting kids, they start out with those posed smiles,” he says. “When the kids start to get bored is when treasures are made.”
What happens to the photograph between when it’s taken and when it’s printed can also have a tremendous impact on whether a photograph is considered art or a snapshot. Photoshop, a computer editing program, can remove distractions like overhead electric wires, stop signs or a tree branch that appears to be growing out of someone’s head. It can also be used to change colors, turning a brown lawn green or a steel-colored body of water brilliant blue.
Then there’s printing. While most amateurs have their pictures printed at a while-you-wait kiosk at the drug store, pros know that having photos processed at a specialty lab allows the photographer to brighten certain tones, dial others back and, with a little creative cropping, alter the composition to add interest. “If the shot you took didn’t quite do justice to what you were shooting, chances are, with a little help, you can end up with the picture you want,” says Robert. “Or go with black and white.” What the photo is printed on can also have an impact. Jeff Amberg has printed his photographs in canvas, but there are also different kinds of paper and even aluminum, which Robert says is a trend right now. “It’s pricey but very dramatic,” he says. “The image is actually infused into the metal.”
Then there are those beloved photographs that are too small to have any impact on a room, but so old that negatives or data cards are long gone and they can’t be enlarged. For busy photos that need frames to contain their energy, purchase frames for each that are different but share a unifying element that will transform the whole thing into a multi-image work of art. Calmer photos that don’t need to be framed can be mounted on foam core, a semi-rigid material that’s often used as a backing for posters, and grouped together in a simple frame. “The foam core will give the photos depth,” says Linda. “In effect, you’re creating a shadow box. It’s simple but interesting.” For a minimalist look, Linda often sandwiches photos between two pieces of Plexiglas and “floats” them on the wall.
Ultimately, Linda says, just get out there and take pictures. “You’ll end up with lots of memories and, more than likely, something very special to add to your home.”