Amy Feick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, was feeling trapped—not professionally, not intellectually, but psychologically—as she worked through a myriad of colliding emotions in the wake of personal trauma. She decided to explore this feeling through photography, and the mental image she concocted was a person wrapped in rubber bands. Rubber bands are elastic; you can push against them, but they’re still constricting. It’s a profound idea, she says, but “You can’t wrap people in rubber bands.” Instead, she used a Barbie Doll, and the image became the first of several featuring Yoga Barbies (with highly manipulative joints). “That was so therapeutic for me to do Barbie images to get my emotions out,” Feick says. “She kind of became this muse.”
Barbie, however, has not fared as well. Feick’s Barbies have been dipped in milk, wrapped in plastic, subjected to melted crayons, and set on fire. After torturing her dolls so much, Feick decided to do something nice for Barbie: She dipped her in plaster and painted her gold. “My intent was to make something positive and have her gold and beautiful and using tin foil to reflect back in her face,” Feick says. Over the course of the shoot, though, the crumpled tin foil became more prominent, and yet another tortured Barbie emerged.
Feick’s primary work is portrait photography; she’s the owner of Twin Shutterbug Studios in Port Huron, Michigan. Given her record with Barbie, she might seem a scary choice for high school seniors, families, and babies, but the evocative images she creates for clients are full of hope, strength, and fun. The link between her professional work and her personal gallery is all about making the mind matter. With the help of Barbie as well as her clients, Feick consciously strives to let unfettered inspiration stoke the fire of her creativity.
Just as photographers can hone their technical skills, they can develop a discipline for creativity, says Feick, who has presented the talk “Unleashing Your Creative Spirit” at photography seminars. Inspiration is a key to developing and using learned technical skills. “Creativity is what drives it all and pushes it all. You can have an idea, but if you don’t know what to do with it, it’s just an idea.”
For Feick, inspiration is “that heart-racing energetic feeling, something that gets your juices flowing and you start thinking.” That last word is key. It’s one thing to feel inspired and heed the clarion call to action, but Feick brings the intellectual element into this psychological process by thinking through the feelings themselves, however abstruse they may seem, to spark a creative reaction.
The first step is to allow yourself to be inspired continuously. This may seem intuitive, but many photographers talk of “seeking inspiration” in books, galleries, film, and this magazine. Feick lets inspiration find her. “Everyday life,” she says of her source of creativity. “I get inspired taking my son to school in the morning or by glittering snow.” These aren’t just images she’s taking in but emotions. A vista of glittering snow inspired her to experiment with lighting, not necessarily to find a formula that would emulate snow glittering in the morning sun but to replicate the adrenalin jolt her heart felt when she saw that snowscape. “It’s being conscious and aware of what makes you feel good and makes you feel bad and knowing what inspiration feels like,” she says. It could be as simple as seeing a flower or as complicated as divorce. “Sometimes it’s a bad feeling, not a happy feeling, but anything that makes you feel and act on those feelings and create with those feelings.”
After one snowfall she let her puppy out to play. “Watching him jump and hop and dig and bury himself, I came in and got my camera,” she says. It became a shoot of experimentation: “How do I capture snow, a moving target, and his joy in what he was doing? I learned along the way.” Her divorce from her husband inspired her to express her conflicting emotions through the camera. “I needed to find a way to get my feelings out, what was going through my head, and create a visual image.” Music videos are a primary source of inspiration because they tell a story in little time. “There are a lot of visual images and references,” she says. Watching Sia’s video for “Elastic Heart,” in which a woman and a man in a cage represent two ids—logic vs. wild child—in a battle-like dance, led Feick to Rubber Band Barbie (the song’s lyrics reference a rubber band). Along the way, she’s expanding her technical skills and experience.
Feick approaches each client portrait session with her mind open to inspiration. “The most important thing is to tell a story, who that person is in the image we’re taking. And sometimes it’s a personal story,” she says. “If I’m going to experiment with them, it’s not to tell my own stories. I feed off their creativity and ideas they might have.” Seniors, children, and, of course, babies let her play, she says; family portraits offer less opportunity. “They want a family portrait.”
She’s built her senior portrait business on a style students appreciate. “I enjoy seeing kids coming into their own, learning to be themselves, just starting their lives. I like being able to help them express that.” One young client brought her Elvis records and magazine covers to the session, so Feick had the girl lie on a polka-dot pink blanket and talk on a rotary dial telephone (Feick’s prop) with the other memorabilia scattered about her. The image, taken from above on a ladder, evokes the classic movie “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Nurturing creativity also means letting serendipity have its way. Feick is open to clients’ and assistants’ ideas and, more important, to her own blossoming ideas as she works. Another player in this creative team is her subconscious. “Only one or two shots came out exactly as I imagined in my head,” she says of her body of work. “If you allow the process, your subconscious will find the right way to make something work.”
Feick is a second-generation portrait photographer, but she didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps. Bill Barrons started Barrons Photography when Feick was growing up in St. Clair, Michigan, and made his last senior portraits in 1997 when she was 18. “He did great work, but it wasn’t art for me,” Feick says. She wanted to be an elementary school art teacher and started on that track at St. Clair Community College, where she discovered she’d need to learn all forms of art to be a teacher. After one year she left school and went to work in customer service at AT&T in Port Huron. “I was never academically a good student, never excelled at anything, even art. I couldn’t find my groove.”
That changed when she had her son 14 years ago and started taking pictures of him. “My entire existence changed the day I got the camera. I started playing with it, and I came alive. I found the one art form that allowed me to be creative, to work and paint and do the things I love about art.” Three years later she opened her studio in downtown Port Huron and joined PPA, taking advantage of the association’s educational programs and, more important, its competitions. “PPA introduced me to people. All my friends in the photography world are PPA members. But competition has been the biggest thing advancing my work.” Winning isn’t everything; it’s what you learn playing the game—submitting her Barbie images, for example—which “helped me define and express my own style.” She attended PPA’s International Photographic Competition judging workshop in 2014 and became a juror in 2016.
Staying creative makes photography fun which, in turn, fuels inspiration. “I’m in a good groove,” Feick says. “I keep busy enough to keep myself going and my skill sets sharp. If you’re working too hard, it’s hard to feed your creativity. Money is great, but if I can’t feed my creative side, there’s no point: I’ll just get a job in customer service.”
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Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.