The client list of Aaron Anderson ranges from Ariat International and Dragon Alliance eyewear to Scholastic, and his images have been featured in magazines such as Surfer and CMYK—not to mention Springs. The composite photographer and photo retoucher will always have a love of his native state of California, but Anderson is committed to making a difference in his current home of Colorado Springs, where he lives with his wife Joy (a Colorado native) and two children. We spoke with Aaron a bit about his background, and how this commitment to the Springs has come to fruition.
Springs: How did photography come to be a part of your life?
Anderson: I kind of dabbled in photography in high school, but I don’t have that love story that some people have … I think it was 2006 or 2007, I bought my wife a camera — and then I took it. I remember buying it for her, and then every time we’d go out, she’d be taking pictures, and I’d be like, “Oh, no no. Let me do that.” I ended up pretty much acquiring it, and started shooting. I remember buying a reflector, and we went out and did a mock photo shoot, and when we had the reflector I was just oohing and ahing about what it was doing. Then I bought a speed light, and the rest is history.
I think once I started learning lighting, it just changed the game for me. … I started doing posed stuff, and that’s what I do still. I’m all about one or two shots. Not going out and doing lifestyle photography and trying to get 100 images out of a shoot. If I walk away with two that are awesome, great.
So does your wife shoot at all?
[Laughs.] No. She never had the chance.
You have what you call the Locals Project, in which you photograph community members in order to showcase people who you think are doing great things locally. Tell me more about this project.
I think I really just wanted to do more portrait work. I like the simplicity of it. I love meeting people. I love finding out a little about their story. It’s been my way of being involved in my community. It’s nice to have projects like that, that aren’t about money.
I think it’s important to showcase those people. … They’re the type of people where you’ll talk to a friend and they may or may not know who they are. But I think it’s important, for me, to know that at the heart of our community there are people who care and people who are trying to make a difference. When you look at the roots and the structure of your community and you find these people, it’s pretty cool. It’s nice to know that there are people out there leading a charge that is noble.
In one of the common threads I’ve found, the people here have a genuine interest in the people. It’s neat to see the culture growing, but I think the culture growing is just a natural shift because of how we feel about each other.
You have a show at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (on display until Sept. 5) called Periphery. How did that come about?
If I go way, way back, actually it started in California, in San Francisco. I went to school at the Academy of Art and then I worked in San Francisco. And the homeless population there is profound. … You get so used to it, that they become—it’s like they’re not there. … In order to justify walking by them, you have to sort of start seeing them as not people anymore. … I really wanted to notice. … I tried to start learning who they were. … I started to learn people’s names. And I started to buy them food and gift cards. I’ve never been a big fan of handing out cash, but I also don’t think that’s excuse to not do anything at all.
Fast forward to now. Honestly, now I see things in lighting, and we were developing lighting for the Locals Project, so they kind of tie in. And I was alone in the studio for hours and hours … and once I had it dialed in, I said I really think this could be our lighting for a project with the homeless. So I approached Stu Davis [at Springs Rescue Mission] — and this is the geeky part of the story — I said I have this new lighting and I really think this is it. I think if we can create something that really makes them feel human, and it’s going to be something that people are going to want to look at, that’s beautiful. … We’re so used to seeing these clichéd images of people lying in the street. For me, at least, that doesn’t really help.
What was the process like?
We set up a full-blown studio at Springs Rescue Mission. We had lighting and backdrop. We had music. And then we just sat down, and they came in one at a time. … The majority of what we did was sit down with them. I had to be really sensitive to them as people because it’s one thing for us to stand up in front of a camera, but for them, [it’s huge]. I know multiple times they were saying, “This isn’t who I am. This is just where I am right now.” …
I learned a lot about myself really on the photography side. So often, especially when I’m working for a client, it’s just about what do they look like. Get the hair; get the makeup. Make sure the outfit looks good. The light looks good. … But in this case, for the first couple of shots. I was looking through the camera, and I just realized that wasn’t going to work. And so I stopped. I was literally standing and talking to them the entire time, just clicking the button while we were having a conversation. It made it even more impactful on me because any shot that we have, either in the exhibit or that I have on the webpage or whatever, they’re all stories, because they were telling a story during the midst of a shot. It wasn’t like, “Smile. Turn your head left. Turn your head right. Tilt your head down.” … In this case, it wasn’t that at all. We had to somehow find emotion from them in a place that was really uncomfortable.
What’s your motivation when it comes to photography?
For me it’s always been about creating something that people want to look at. That’s what drew me to Photoshop in the beginning too, because making something unique is getting harder and harder to do in our culture.
I think I’ve always had crazy ideas, and photography was a good medium for that. I’m terrible at drawing. I’m terrible at painting. I think it comes from a need to express myself in a way other than words.
Anything else you want to add?
I just found out one of the people we took a portrait of [for Periphery] died. … I think it’s important for people to know that the emotional impact of this was pretty high. I cried when I was editing the photos multiple times because the stories are hard. And I think that the goal is humanization. … You have to look at their faces and you have to realize they are human beings and they have problems, but they also have hopes and dreams and favorite foods.
See the Photography of Aaron Anderson
Periphery: Fine Arts Center of Colorado Springs, through Sept. 5, csfineartscenter.org
Locals Project and more: aaronandersonphoto.com