Jeff Amberg listens to the voices in his head. Well, one voice, more accurately. The photographer-turned-fine artist has spent more than 30 years shooting photojournalism and commercial images. One day in the midst of editing photos, a demanding little voice ordered Amberg to drop everything, step away from the computer, and change his life’s course. Sound crazy? If you’ve seen the captivating, gorgeous abstract works Amberg has been creating, you might start hoping your own little voice will pipe up sometime soon.
How did you get your start with photography?
I got my first camera when I was 12. My father was a photographer back in the 1930s as a teenager, and I got my sister’s hand-me-down camera. It wasn’t until I got to the University of South Carolina that I met another photographer whose work was inspiring to me. I bought a camera from him and fooled around with it, got an apprenticeship with a local photography studio, went back to college and got my degree as a journalist, and went to work as a newspaper photographer. I worked as a newspaper photographer from 1980 to 1990, and in 1990 I struck out on my own.
What inspired that shift from working for a newspaper to striking out on your own?
When my daughter was born, my wife was going to stay out of work for a year. When we first got married, our plan was to live on one paycheck for three years and put the other one in the bank. That was one of the best ideas I’ve had in my life. We managed to save a significant amount of money, and when Anna was born we were able to put enough money down on a house that it was like paying rent. All the time, I suspect my wife – who is brilliant – was thinking, he’s eventually going to go out on his own. Sometimes the bride knows more than the groom! So I started freelancing and by 1989, when I looked at what I was earning freelancing, what represented 4 hours a week freelancing was the equivalent of half of what I was making annually at the paper. It was easy math. At that point I had been doing it for 10 years, and felt that I had done about everything there was to be done. I had seen a lot. It was a great experience. Because my name had been out for so long as a photojournalist, the transition to freelance was probably not as difficult as it would have been to graduate from college and go out there cold.
So what drew you to making abstract images?
It may sound strange to you, or it may not. When I’m working on post-production in Light Room, it’s work, work, work, work, take a break, walk around. I take a break about 30 minutes or every 45. I was leaning back in the chair and I was stretching, and my little voice… Well, I’ve had a little voice in my head as far back as I can remember. My mom always called it my guardian angel. The voice said to me in a very soft tone – it always speaks softly and it always tells the truth – the little voice said, “Go and do this, and do it like this!” And I thought, “Well, YEAH! That sounds like fun.” I stopped what I was doing, grabbed a camera, went out, and followed the instructions the voice had given me. I just started doing it.
How long have you been doing this then?
Since March of 2010, so two years. The website has only been up for about a year, but that represents about the first year’s worth of work. As I’ve been practicing it, I’ve discovered more about the visual process. I’ve learned to assess what I’m looking at, and take it from there. When I first started, I just let the spirit guide me to a physical location and just started doing it. Now I have found some consistency in how the images are being created. I can’t predict and see what the images are going to look like yet, I just haven’t gotten there yet.
It seems like this is a pretty instinctual process.
Yes, that’s exactly it. I just release myself from myself, if you will.
Is that a difficult thing to do, after shooting as a photojournalist for so long?
It’s just a different kind of fun. After I started looking at these new images, I found myself thinking, “Why is there something familiar about this?” I started to reflect and try to understand why I was gravitating to these places. I found myself thinking about memories from when I was 9 years old. In elementary school in the Northeast, we had regular school and then rotations where we would do art or wood shop or whatever. One of the art things that we did was work with these copper plates and enamel pieces, and we’d fire them. All the sudden I saw one of the pieces I did when I was nine. That’s where this is coming from! It brought me back to place where I didn’t know where I was going.
Your work has a strong painterly quality, how do you describe or categorize your work?
It’s a kind of a simple expression. It’s an expression of lens and light. There’s no preconception, they’re just expressions.
What makes one expression more successful to you than another?
It comes from staring at clouds. I’m that person that says, “It looks like a hippopotamus and a daisy.” I see things in other things. I think that may have contributed my success with photographing people. When I go through these expressions, certain ones will really pop out to me, and I’ll see things. I think, “If this happened for me, maybe it will happen for other people,” which is why I don’t title the pieces. People see things in them, and that’s the beauty of the pieces. They’re getting something out of the work.
From a technical perspective, I’d love to hear a little bit about your process.
Because they’re expressions of lens and light, they’re taken away from the traditional aspects of photography. What I do is the opposite of that in some ways, I’m looking at what’s happening and I don’t pay attention to any of the conventional approaches to what photography is. The easiest way to explain it would be that I use the camera like a paint brush. Does that make sense?
Where do you see yourself going next? Where do you think the voice will take you?
You know, the voice lives in its own time frame. The channel is always open, but I don’t know.