It took a pandemic to make me realise how important props are to my photography practice. Dreamy landscapes are still my jam, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the beauty and storytelling abilities that lie within ordinary household objects.
Words and Photography by Caitlin Fullam
Picture a sizzling hot day in the middle of nowhere, many miles down rumbly dirt roads. Vast still reflections stretch in all directions, and pink frothy waters gently lap the crystalline shores of the Great Salt Lake. The landscape is as strangely beautiful as it is inhospitable.
I heave my camera pack onto my back and trudge a half mile through the sinking salt flats, while clumsily dragging along a plastic white lawn chair and an enormous rainbow beach umbrella. You might call it odd; I call it my typical photography process in action.
See, I’m not the kind of photographer who shoots every day. Instead, I won’t shoot for weeks at a time, while I collect ideas for images I want to create. I love journeying to unusual landscapes to shoot because I feel like they evoke a certain surreality and dreaminess that I’m after. However, the setting is just one element of creating the images I have in my head. I often use props to spark my imagination and create a sense of awe, intrigue, even perplexity.
One great thing about props is they can be free – you likely already have them at home. A book, car headlights, flowers, or an umbrella can all be used to create more drama or action in a photo. Props can be subtle or whimsical or they can even be the subject of a photo themselves. They can create light, shadows, or reflections. You can anthropomorphize them, sit on them or toss them in the air. I like to keep a list of prop ideas for future shoots that I read through every time I’m looking for inspiration.
“They provide a foothold for your imagination to latch onto.”
Spark your imagination
Props are just fun to shoot with. They provide a foothold for your imagination to latch onto, a tool to loosen up the flow in your shooting practice. Perhaps you aren’t feeling inspired by a location, or the light feels dull. Breaking out a prop can help you find direction or see your scene in a new light. I always carry one or two small but powerful objects in my camera bag (such as mirrors and matches) to use in cases where I feel a bit uninspired or want a little more intrigue. If you’re shooting with a model, props also give the model something to do, something to hold or pose with or laugh about.
A plastic chair or a message in a bottle
Using meaningful objects in your photos is a way to add depth and start a conversation with the viewer. To me, the plastic lawn chair is a symbol of casual, fleeting relaxation. People all over the world have the same one. So I love shooting with it in distant or unusual places to create a sense of daydreaming, like as if you sat down in a chair in the alley during a work break, and through the power of daydreaming you transported yourself somewhere magical. It’s through this symbolism that I can tell my story.
“I like to keep a list of prop ideas for future shoots that I read through every time I’m looking for inspiration.”
I find that props can help bring the viewer in and create totally different moods depending on one’s association. People always surprise and delight me with their interpretations. For example, I added the rainbow beach umbrella to my plastic chair image to send the message “vacation from my mind”. The image felt both nostalgic and relaxing for me.
Yet when I shared it, people around the world came back with totally different interpretations because the rainbow umbrella is familiar but evocative in the barren landscape. One person said it reminded her of feeling disconnected and lonely at a party, while someone else saw it as “plastic-ish Barbie world asking what is real anyway?”. Yet another saw “a physical representation of my mind after traveling for a long time through an objectless landscape… an invitation to rest”.
Finally, during times of restricted travel, props provide a way to be more imaginative and playful with tools that are already at our disposal. Whether that be an umbrella and a street lamp on a snowy night or a clothesline on your patio, you are sure to find ways of bringing ordinary objects into your photos in meaningful or imaginative ways.