Film Photographer Alex Friendly Stops Time

Photo by Brooke Schultz

Alex Friendly wants to create images that make you feel something. For the subjects of her photographs, she wants her work to be like a time machine, transporting them back to a moment in time. As a photographer and as a parent, Alex recognizes how fleeting (and how incredibly significant) a single moment can be.

Alex’s passion for film, for capturing people in their natural state while also putting them in their best light, and for celebrating moms and families is infectious. She shares her tips for capturing moments while still being present + photographing children in their element in today’s Q&A. 

Tell us your photography “why”!

I want to help people capture a moment in time so that they can relive it over and over again, even as the march of time continues its endless trudge. Whether that’s when you first recreated yourself as an entrepreneur, the moment you vowed to be with one person through it all, the moment you first laid eyes on the tiny human you’ll do anything to protect, or the laughter of the ten-year-old on the cusp of unimaginable changes.

My work is beautiful and raw; it’s emotional. I want to create images that take your breath away, that bring tears to your eyes. That tell not just the story of the easy, but also the triumph over the hard. I want to create works that act like mini time machines that bring you back to a single moment in time as if you were reliving it all over again.

What’s the best part of what you create?

The joy it brings to the people I work with. And knowing that they will cherish these images for the rest of their lives.

Do you have a favorite thing to photograph?

Mothers. Hands down. My mother is my own inspiration, and being a mother is the hardest, best, most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. Mothers are so often in the background. Mothers are the ones taking the photos, the ones making the meals and keeping the house clean. The ones helping with homework and chauffeuring to practices. They sacrifice and they protect and they comfort and they love unconditionally, and very rarely are they acknowledged for everything they do. I love being able to show mothers as the fierce, strong, empowered superheroes they are.

How do you stay inspired + avoid creative ruts?

It helps that every human is completely unique, and every family has its own dynamic, which I find endlessly fascinating. I get curious about what makes them different from all the other families and try to represent those elements visually in their images. But I’m also constantly learning and trying new things. I’ve recently started exploring filmmaking, and using a time-based medium is completely different. I’ve also been tinkering with developing my own film, something I learned at photo school but haven’t done in a decade! But really it all comes back to my insatiable thirst for learning! I get so much joy out of learning how to create something new.

How does creativity bring goodness to your life?

Creativity is a way for me to express myself, a way for me to stop time and savor moments. It’s a way for me to feel productive, and a way for me to find calm. It’s also just a way to channel my ADHD energy. I’ve lost count of the number of things I’ve knitted just to keep my hands busy!

What made you decide to start taking photos?

I actually didn’t come to photography until my mid-twenties. My then-boyfriend-now-husband was starting his catering company fresh out of culinary school, and I took photos of these gorgeous meals he’d prepare for us with a point-and-shoot camera. So, finally, I pulled out an old film SLR, popped a roll of drugstore film in, and shot a whole roll in about five minutes. But you know what? The photos actually looked pretty good! So I became the “in-house” photographer for the catering company, and pretty soon, the couples that hired Eat & Smile to cater their weddings started hiring me to shoot them. Then those couples started calling me to photograph their growing families, and it kind of snowballed. But once I became a mother myself, that was it.

There’s this song from the musical version of Big, the Tom Hanks movie. In the musical, Tom Hanks’ mom sings this beautiful song that perfectly sums up what it’s like to be a parent, called “Stop, Time”.  Singing that after Dashiell was born was a transcendent experience.  And I realized that with my camera, I have the ability to actually do it—to stop time—and hold on to each kid he becomes through the years. That’s one of many reasons why my focus is on families. 

How do you like to capture moments without interrupting them?

When I work with my clients, it’s really a collaboration. My goal is to capture my families’ personalities—their authentic selves. But most people are not exactly comfortable being photographed, in my experience, so I give them some place to start. I’ll put them in the best light and give them direction, so they know where to go and what to do. I draw a lot on my theater experience to give them intentions rather than specific movements, which gives them the space to really be themselves without having to figure out what the heck they should do.

And then I’ll just let them do their thing.  

Once they have a framework, they’ll usually come out of their shells pretty quickly, and that’s when I capture the genuine laughs of the tender moments. I also work really hard to foster a sense of trust so that they feel comfortable being vulnerable with me right next to them, and that’s usually when I get my favorite images from the session.

Do you think it’s possible to capture moments while staying present in them? How?

I think it’s absolutely possible! One of the reasons that I shoot almost exclusively with film is because it helps me really be in the moment. We can go through life on autopilot. Those times when you drive home from the store and don’t remember it at all? That happens all the time. But when I’m shooting film, I have 12 shots before I have to take a break and reload. 12 chances to get it right. That forces me to really come back to this moment right here and not think about the rest. Color film also has a lot of latitude too, which means I can get my settings right and then forget about them, so it’s just about connecting in that moment through the lens.

If you want to try it for yourself, get a cheap used film SLR and pop in a roll. Be specific about every single shot. Don’t press the shutter until it’s a moment you really want to remember. You can even throw in some mindfulness techniques, feel the texture of the shutter button under your fingertip, the weight of the camera in your hands, the sound of your kids playing. And once the shot is done, set the camera aside, and just BE with them. Every time you look back on those photos, you’ll be amazed how much more vivid the memory will be by combining this very mindful approach to taking a photo along with spending dedicated, distraction-free time with them.

Do you have any exercises/practices for capturing children in their element?

Start with watching them. Sit with them while they play and really look at what they’re doing. Don’t feel like you have to interact with them, and don’t multitask. You’ll be amazed how much we miss while we’re only half paying attention.

Once you feel like you know the mannerisms and activities you want to capture, start bringing your camera into it, and just be patient. Keep the viewfinder or the view screen and just watch your child like you’ve been doing—only now through the lens. After a bit, they’ll start ignoring you and do what they were doing, or they’ll keep interacting with you through the camera, which is almost better in my opinion!

How do you encourage children to take part in the creative process of photography?

I put my old DSLR in my first kid’s hands when he was two, and he loved having his own camera to capture how he sees the world. But in my sessions, I always get the kids involved with the film. I’ll get one of them to push the shutter, which makes the film start to load. I’ll show them how the shutter works through the inside of the camera and show them the different openings the aperture can make. And then I start telling them about the real-life magic of film; there’s this special paper and all you have to do is shine light on it, and then with some magic potions, a picture magically appears! It’s like a having a fairy come to your home!

Are there any mental shifts you invite aspiring photographers to consider for more natural photos?

Don’t rule out directing. It can be really easy to fall into the trap of needing to be completely hands off in order to capture natural images, but usually that just makes for photos of people feeling awkward and having no idea what to do with each other. If you give them a starting point of where to stand, and then give a bit of loose direction, they’ll have something to do, which makes them feel less awkward, and, ironically, makes for much more natural photos!

Is there a photo you hold the most dear? Story behind it?

I could never narrow it down to just one! But the things I’m looking for in an image are that they bring me back to a particular time and place, a particular age that my child was, and that they make me feel something—joy, nostalgia, longing, maybe a twinge of sorrow, feeling the love, feeling the connection, just being able to see a visual representation of my love for my family.

What is your favorite piece of advice for beginners?

Develop your eye. The fanciest camera in the world doesn’t do diddly unless you know what to point it towards. Go for long walks where you just look around you for beauty that you would usually overlook. Study the art you’re drawn to and figure out what it is about it that makes it so intriguing. When you know what to photograph, the rest is just icing.

Follow along with Alex on Instagram @alexandrafriendly!

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