The first time LeighAnn Edmonds picked up a camera it was 1994. Her interests led her to graduate college with a studio art degree and a minor in journalism, and out in the real world LeighAnn used her newly refined skills to start a family photography business. There were weddings, newborn babies in baskets, the whole nine yards.
LeighAnn’s photography business was a success, but she never loved it. More than anything, it was stressful. Making a living as a photographer meant making people look “picture perfect.” Clients wanted pretty pictures, posed and Photoshopped, something that made them feel like they belonged on a magazine cover. Any storytelling images LeighAnn took during a wedding or family shoot fell to the wayside. Her clients just didn’t seem to care about them. Over time, the whole experience started to feel superficial. LeighAnn came to realize that despite her genuine love for photography, working for the paying client made staying true to herself and her work nearly impossible. She was making a living, but she had lost her creative freedom.
Then came 2020. During lockdown, LeighAnn’s photography bookings suddenly became obsolete. Forced to turn elsewhere for income, she found a position in the flooring department of her family’s building supply company – an essential business. But LeighAnn still had the urge to take pictures.
As isolation steadily ramped up, LeighAnn decided to use her camera to fill the void and connect with others. Each time she headed out of the house, she kept Henri Cartier-Bresson’s words in mind, “Just live and life will give you pictures.” Some beautiful, spontaneous photos were born from those pandemic wanderings, like “Disconnected Connections,” a documentary series in which she focused on the effect of the pandemic on children living in her area.
But powerful photos weren’t all LeighAnn reaped from her pandemic photography. She explains, “I was no longer shooting for clients. For the first time in a long time, I was shooting for me again.” That taste of the fulfillment and freedom made it impossible for her to return to life as it had been pre-pandemic. Ultimately, it was a realization that would mean the death of LeighAnn’s family photography business and her rebirth as an “observational” photographer.
Slowing Down and Starting Over
To create work that was truly her own, LeighAnn had to take a new approach. She had to circle back to her early years as a photographer. She muses, “You’re at your purest state when you’re learning. You shoot for you. You aren’t influenced by money or what’s popular.” For LeighAnn personally, that meant returning to film.
Weddings had helped her grow as a photographer, to be in tune with action, and predict what would happen. It helped her see stories in images that went beyond just a pretty photo. But weddings had also ingrained in her the habit of quickness. It was a strength for a digital event photographer but, with film, it got in the way of the patience LeighAnn now needed for her craft. And film photography brought out other weaknesses too – issues that couldn’t be hidden in post like they could in the digital world. LeighAnn had new limitations, and new expectations, and she was ready to grow.
Armed with her very first camera, a Nikon N80, and a 1955 Nikon S2 rangefinder camera, she felt like a totally new photographer. It was a reawakening of sorts. The rangefinder especially required a lot more patience than she was used to. With an SLR you can shoot when the action happens, with her rangefinder, she had to anticipate the moment. Those limitations forced her to grow and progress. These days, LeighAnn calls herself a “stingy picture taker” and she can hold her camera for a good hour or better before choosing an image to shoot.
Then there’s the film element. LeighAnn shoots mostly with Ilford HP5 black and white film. For her, the expense of film adds value to her photographs. It’s a real commitment that helps her be selective. It also adds a certain weight to her personal work that she doesn’t feel when shooting digital.
To be sure, LeighAnn hasn’t completely forsaken digital photography. She still shoots digital for her commissioned work, which she does for a select few clients. But by shooting her personal work exclusively on film, she’s been able to create a clear distinction between photography that is for work and creative photography. Not only does this prevent burn out, it keeps her feeling inspired as she works on personal projects. And that’s what it’s really about for LeighAnn, the inspiration to shoot.
When Lightning Strikes
What really motivates LeighAnn to shoot is a desire to connect with people. For her, the act of shooting is more important than the image. It’s a way to try to understand people. All of this requires LeighAnn to be in tune with what’s going on around her and to notice the energy given off by her subjects. She compares stumbling upon a moment that resonates to being struck by a lightning bolt. When it strikes, it causes her to zone in on a person or group of people. She gets tunnel vision for those brief moments and knows the scene before her is worth capturing.
LeighAnn’s inspiration and her connectedness with her subjects is clearly visible in her photos. Her work focuses on the people of small town Alabama, including her family and neighbors. She says, “I love the intimacy of shooting small towns. The familiarity of it all and the seclusion. It is easier to actually speak to and get to know the faces I photograph. I feel more connected to the images and to the people.” LeighAnn approaches her subjects as more than just subjects of a photo. These are her neighbors and friends, and she’s curious about them. Instead of trying to disappear into the background (hard to do in small towns anyway), LeighAnn wants people to see her. And when they know a little something about her, they see more than just a soul-stealing photographer. They see LeighAnn Edmonds, the gal with the camera.
As a result, LeighAnn is able to build trust with her subjects over time. The intimacy of her photos probably comes down to that kind of honest interchange. Her personal interest in others makes for a more powerful photo.
The Power of Photography
LeighAnn sums up the true weight of photography this way, “Photography to the general public is merely only used to glamorize life, create a sense of importance, or capture people perceived in their best light. My issue is that photography is more than this concept. It is truly all we have to remember a particular time in life, as a society and as our unique and individual persona.” She feels that too many talented photographers are wasted on mainstream concepts – concepts that promote superficial beauty and the compulsion to compare and imitate. Instead, LeighAnn uses photography to free her from societal norms and pressures. It gives her purpose and the drive to share what she sees and what she feels is truly important.
LeighAnn remarks, “I want viewers to feel connected to other people in my work and, most importantly, I want my work to be relatable – not perfect, not polished, but relatable.” That desire pushes her to explore every aspect of life in her photography, even tragic and deeply personal moments.
“This is truly the ultimate power of photography,” she says, “being able to bottle up an emotion in an image, to share your innermost thoughts, to allow others to see what you felt. Photography is a way I communicate and remember how life is for me. My hope is that others can relate to the pain, loss, and love in my photos, so we won’t forget the humanity of ourselves.”
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