PRO TALK: Chris Orwig, Portrait Photographer, Author, Educator
Written by Amanda Quintenz
Though there is perhaps no specific way that a photographic career is made, portrait photographer Chris Orwig embraced a nonlinear journey into his passion. When Orwig was a child, his mother told him that there was no such thing as bad art. The point in making art was to be creative. After a serious accident where he was hit by a car while on a skateboard, that pursuit of art became a way for him to get through some tough times. His father gave him a camera and Orwig utilized it to get away. “The camera was a way to shift my focus off of myself and the stuff I was dealing with. Somehow that brought about feeling the change,” says Orwig.
While studying a vast array of creative pursuits in graduate school, the next step of Orwig’s unusual journey lead him to an unlikely education. “In grad school, part of the curriculum required that I do some volunteer work,” explains Orwig. “I volunteered at a hospital and I was assigned the cancer floor. Basically my job was to sit and befriend people who were wrestling with cancer, who were dying from cancer. That, to me, I consider my photo school, which sounds kind of strange, but when you spend time with people who are dying, you learn a lot about life. For me, photography is really about life, about savoring life. Life happens so quickly and the camera allows you to get more out of life with camera in hand. Whether or not you even take a picture, it heightens and deepens your appreciation of the world, of people, and of life in general.”
With a greater appreciation for life both from his own experiences and those of the patients he worked with, Orwig created his own path to success – one driven by passion, enthusiasm, and challenge. He realized that life was short enough that doing something you weren’t passionate about didn’t make any sense, and he found his greatest joy exploring the unique opportunities that photography offered. But even when he was clear about what he wanted to do, his approach was again not the norm. “Early on for me, one of my career goals was to only take jobs that I wasn’t qualified for,” he laughs. “What I mean by that is to take a challenge. When you take a job that you’re overly qualified for, you don’t get a lot out of it. But when you take a job and you don’t know how you’re going to pull it off, it’s invigorating. That challenge is something that I enjoy. The photographer never arrives, ever. You’re always just barely scratching the surface.”
Though he remains humble and ever diligent about learning and growing, Orwig’s photography hit a stride that got some notice. As a knowledgeable and eager user of post-production software, Orwig became a beta tester for Photoshop and has even been referred to as a Photoshop guru, writing books and leading seminars and classes on the latest versions and upgrades to the program as soon as it’s released. But Orwig cringes at the thought of letting that define him. “That’s where it bumps up against being a Photoshop guru,” Orwig admits. “That’s great, but I’m also like, ‘No, no, I don’t want to be that!’ If I could pick my guru status, it would be someone who is passionate about life and creativity and photography and likes learning from others.”
In the vein of learning from others, Orwig’s winding path led him to be a photography instructor at the renowned Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. He is quick to admit that he learns a great deal from his students and that being in that environment keeps him energized to explore and expand his own photography. He loves the freshness that students bring to the table when they are photographing something that they love, and he readily embraces the need to continue pursuing his own passions to keep his photography meaningful.
Though he’s gifted and experienced with all the tools of his trade, the final result is not about the application of the tools, but about the imagery he makes. “In terms of the tools that I use, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Nik Software play a big part,” he explains, “but if anyone ever looks at a photograph of mine and says ‘Wow, Chris is good at Photoshop’ I feel like I’ve failed. The whole point with all of these tools is to use them in a way that no one knows. They are more caught up in the moment or the picture. I think that’s always the challenge. That’s why I want to get good at Photoshop. That’s why I use all these different tools. I think it’s the same thing a chef does with seasonings or spices. They use them to flavor the food, but not overpower them. When you’re into the meal, you don’t think ‘Wow, they used saffron!’ Because once that thought happens, you’ve deconstructed the experience.”
For the viewer, that experience happens when they interact with an image of his, but for Orwig, the entire creative process is one of exploration and mystery. “The way I use Nik Software is that I feel the post-production process is exploratory. There are great photographers who think that photography is just problem solving. I totally disagree! I relate to the quote; ‘Some people say life is a problem to be solved, others say it is a mystery to be explored.’ I’m more on the mystery side. I think photography is more of an adventure.” Orwig doesn’t follow a set series of protocols or actions to create an image, but rather refines his photographs until they speak to him and, in his words, he discovers how to work with an image.
Orwig’s path may seem meandering, but in reality it is more serendipitous. Each stage of his evolution has been met with an eager curiosity and willingness to continually learn not only technical skills and tools, but life lessons and healthy attitudes. Though he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by the Photoshop Guru title, it does seem somehow fitting. He has evolved in a wandering way that seems guided as much by luck as by genuine openness. As he continues to grow as a photographer he will forever consider himself a student, and he will undoubtedly continue to be a positive influence to the students around him.
When asked what advice he would give to aspiring photographers, he unabashedly replies, “The world doesn’t need another Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz. The world needs people who are unique. The world needs you.”