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The Art and Business of Conceptual Portraiture

Lesson 3 of 36

Breaking Down Your Own Experiences

Jennifer Thoreson

The Art and Business of Conceptual Portraiture

Jennifer Thoreson

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Lesson Info

3. Breaking Down Your Own Experiences

Lesson Info

Breaking Down Your Own Experiences

So this is kind of the big umbrella idea the whole if you take nothing else away from this whole thing this is it no amount of technique can make up for the lack of ideas and it's I think especially important in photography it doesn't matter how good you are technically it will not make up for the lack of ideas I the best thing you can do for your work and the best thing you could do for your business is to set the hack down and think think you can take all the classes you want it's not going it's not gonna make you a better artist. When I went to graduate school I sat down with my my chair adrian salinger whose work you should look at and I said, okay, I'm ready for a big change I want to make a big change but I only shoot black and white I only work square I only work with people I only work with this and this and this but I want to change I really do and she just laughed and left and she's like you'll see you'll see after three years and it is like my little gray square that I was l...

iving in and I look at all my work up until then I finished medic right before going to graduate school and it fits in that box and it worked and it's nice work but that's what I wanted to continue doing because I'd had success with it. It had done well and people responded to it but it's not enough it's not enough it's like being potty trained so it's about the journey so I started out as a wedding photographer um the night started working in a conceptual way photographing women will get into this later to as some kind of what these things mean but using symbols using things that had to do with death and resurrection and things like that working with the human body a lot um the first body of work I made when I moved up to boston was called traveller and it was about a girl's journey through that transition from texas to new england and I made these kind of small sculptures and photograph them digitally. I photographed her on a seamless white background background excuse me and then photographed the scene's out at cape cod and put them all together digitally so they kind of have this flat painterly feeling to them this was the packing material from the ups pox just photographed at a bunch of times and it being a really cool it's sort of armor sort of thing so this work was pretty experimental it was the first thing ever made that was really kind of conceptually based and it helped kind of jump start thiss process of thinking and in the conceptual way the next body of work I made was called baptism, and this is a very literal like narrative body of work about the journey of being baptized about what that was like in this other baptist church having the experience of salvation and then literally going into the bag mystery and being dunked in the water and risen again that physical, visceral experience so baptism is about that and I used mechanical things like car parts, almost all car part photographed amount of background photographed the model in the background, everything is photographed separately and then put together digitally. This one was probably the most meaningful is called prayer machine because I felt like sometimes that church becomes this machine that we need to get to god when really, you know, that big contraption is not necessary that we build this thing up and building up and building up this idea of spirituality. So that's, what that's about I did booking myself? I said, I'm going to use all car parts to make this and so I photographed and narrow, you know a lot of things and force myself to use those to make the work. And when I say it's a narrative syria it's literally kind of like a step by step first it was this and then it was this and then this happened and then this happened, and finally the ending was this so this was my process file new in photo shop which is pretty terrifying sometimes right and then we have the background and my skied adding shadows and things like that and you can see every object every spring everything was added separately even the tree was photographed on its own the model and finally and then it's hours and hours and hours of work in front of the computer the next body of work I did was called flora anybody ever been upto alcatraz before san francisco well I expected that's being neat but I was absolutely moved by that experience while we were there I learned that the prisoners tended the flora on the island when they live there and it blew my mind like because of flowers and the find the flora are trapped there too really I can't go anywhere right so they're all prisoners together so I started photographing all the flora on the island I spent all day and missed the boat back four times so I could just photograph all the flora and so I came home with thousands of pictures of flowers and no clue what to do with him it just took me a while to let it kind of marinate in there and then I started pairing that with the idea of gender roles and things that were important to me in the church how women fit into the church and kind of I felt at the time kind of bound and kind of stuck like I didn't have enough of a roll on and now you know, years later I figured out my role, but at the time, this is what the work was about, so I was putting them together and making little kind of precious icons almost like little crucifixes of these women with the flora from alcatraz. So again, I'm doing that I was doing this digitally, and this was the most labor intensive work at that point I'd ever done because I was cutting out individual pedals and putting them together actually right it's interesting, because looking back on this there was so much discovery digitally, I never allowed myself to see something happen in real time with my model I had it so calculated every pose, every drawing in my sketchbook, I had that pose drawn, I put her in that pose, I took the picture, and that was it. There was no discovery in there, and it took me a long time to figure that out. In fact, until I finally did testament, the next body of work I made was called medic and this was about it came around came about because I was struggling with all these bizarre headaches and dizziness and loss of function in my limbs and things, and we thought at age thirty, this is, you know, five or six years ago that I had cancer, brain cancer and aids and I thought it was going to die then and having that realization at age thirty able definitely change life so in in the end it was it was migraines and here I am but for six months this this body of work kind of germinated and came out of that that fear in that experience so these machines to me are like healing machines or something a machine that can tell the future and tell you what's gonna happen to you or a machine that can help you record your memories for your loved ones and things like that so they're kind of miracle machines and I made so I I got a residency in santa fe, new mexico to do this work at the santa fe art institute and they gave me this beautiful space to work in this huge space. So I built a constructed set, put plaster and paint in such on the walls and made this room physically made this room and then I went out to lois alamos. Nobody knows where that is and that all of this a place called the black hole with just tons and tons and tons of atomic surplus and military surplus so I brought back three vanloads of randomness from the atomic place and photographed it all individually and then I also made some contraptions with these objects and put them together take them together really to make machines you can see I just have a little skylight in there with some college and lights overhead with the shower curtain very sophisticated but it worked and so then I photographed the human models inside the set with this many of them machines put together as I could and then I put the rest in digitally so it was a little bit of a marriage of two processes of having, you know, the digital process that I was familiar with but also photographing things in a really space in real time people with the object and that that changed my perspective quite a bit this one probably is the most special to me I someone told me a story once that her little boy was in a coma and thank goodness he was fine in the end but while he was in his coma she would write him letters and put them under his pillow and and believe that she could read them that he could hear her by those letters. So this is a woman typing to her little boy. So if I look at medic they're very literal interpretations of what that machine could do things I wanted things I needed at that time this one is to me recording all of his memories that he could go back and his family could go back and watch later this is letters that are coming out of his brain and so his family could been read them later things like that so medic was eventually turned into a monograph I'll even show you my book proposal and stuff in the segment later on but it made a great book it was pretty interesting experience so before I went to graduate school medic was the last thing I made before going to mexico I was terrified to leave boston I thought I thought I'll never live in in place I love as much as this and I knew I was going to just miss it terribly it was kind of like breaking up with someone so I recorded everything I recorded the view out of my bathroom window I recorded people's footsteps on the sidewalks with my phone just videos and videos my dog walking her route just everything that I thought I was so paralyzed I would forget these things and what they smelled like and tasted like and felt like so that fear and looking back at those videos when I first got to new mexico spurred on it's this kind of idea of this loss of memory the sphere of the loss of memory so this is a very first work I made when I got to new mexico was making these big objects that protected people's heads from forgetting anything so I only made a couple and then crash and burn but again, it's just taking a life experience, letting it marinate for a little bit capital, capitalizing on it, focusing on it, saying, this is what I'm going to make the work about and action after that. So I only made two for those were the two I experiment with some other stuff. I never finished these, but you kind of see where it was going again, though I was doing this digitally, so it's making the objects in my studio and the thing is, and I looked back, and I laughed at myself so much because I made them full scale. I made a big enough to photograph on the person, but I was so comfortable with my process, this is the way I do it. Photographing on the white background, I photograph the person on the white background, and then I photograph the scene and then make the picture. I never even occurred to me to put them together in real time, that's that there's a r my friend arthur rainville talks a lot about getting in your rut and that he was going in new england one time, and there was a sign on the side of the road that said, choose your rut carefully, you're going to be in it for a very long time and it's true, when you're making aren't you get yourself in this right this comfort zone this is the way I do things so there's a big difference between focusing and narrowing your focus and bookending yourself and putting yourself in a rut and I was in a rut I was in my little magic square box and I couldn't see that you can see how I did it here I've got the sculpture on the right which was big enough to just put on his head and then I photographed him separately in the studio didn't put him together the next thing I did was this kind of family portrait um very basically symbolic right? It looks like the last supper and that's kind of where I was going with the upper room last supper feeling and each person was to represent somebody in my family and the person on the floor under the table was to represent me because I felt at the time like I didn't fit in I was the one that didn't fit and so literal references to like the birth of jesus like mary on the left joseph and baby jesus on the table like a goat like there in the manger right and then even to stop the straw and stuff under the tables to represent the manger scene the man on the standing eating the bread is having communion so he's got wine and bread, milk and honey on the table everything there has some kind of very specific biblical symbolism, but when I found out I was making this work, wass it was happy felt more happily than I did on uni, so I was telling too much too quickly. And it was so literal that it wasn't resonating enough. And so I got really frustrated with this work and that's when I decided I didn't want to make photography for another year. This is a another sketch. I was kind of working on samson and delilah kind of parable thing she's cutting her hair so you can see a photograph. And again, I had the table, I had all this stuff I could have just put it together, but I didn't. I photographed it all individually, and I was so afraid that I would be able to move anything later, you know, and that's my that was my rut. So it's the apple onion thing ask our answer is your work asking questions? Or is it answering all the questions? That's the biggest thing I learned in graduate school are you asking people to actually work when they look at your work? Are you making them think and ask questions? Are you going here? Here's the answer to the riddle it's like telling people the punchline before you tell him the joke because it releases too fast and they move on

Class Description

Conceptual portraiture is where art and photography meet. In this class, Jennifer Thoreson will explore the intersection of fine art and photography and discuss the practice, process, and business of bringing conceptual portraits to life.

Jennifer is a visual artist, speaker, and lecturer whose photographic work has been widely published internationally in print and online journals. In this class she’ll reveal the process for developing commissioned and exhibition work. 

You’ll learn how to:

  • Create unique, imaginative props 
  • Secure the right type of model
  • Price your work
  • Approach galleries, museums, and publications

Jennifer will help you define your personal style and show you how to put together a conceptual series. You’ll get the inside scoop on what it takes to make a living through fine art photography and also get Jennifer’s tips on managing the business side.

If you want to expand into the expressive and exciting genre of conceptual photography, The Art and Business of Conceptual Portraiture with Jennifer Thoreson is the perfect place to begin your journey. 

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with RSVP


Bonus Materials with Purchase

Book Proposal Sample.pdf

Critical Mass - Digital Book.pdf

Curriculum Vitae Example.pdf

Keynote PDF Segment 1.pdf

Keynote PDF Segment 2.pdf

Keynote PDF Segment 3.pdf

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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a Creativelive Student

"Thinking about art is not making art." In this inspiring and informative workshop, Jennifer helps you put thought into action - through meaningful self-reflection, exploration and by taking her through her own processes. Through exercises and examples, she explains how to pull out a thread of an idea and develop it into a conceptual project that is informed and invigorated by personal experience, preference, interests, and so much more. Her workshop not only feeds the creative soul, but offers earnest information on taking first steps toward publishing and showing fine-art. Jen so beautifully shares her talent and her love of teaching - I first "met" her on Creative Live and have had the joy of being mentored by her in-person as well. This workshop is a very close second to spending time with her one-on-one. Thank you, CL, for bringing her back!

kalei harmon

I love Jennifer, she's one of my cL favorites! She is such a soulful photographer and her art just resonates with me in so many ways. While she was creating her conceptual piece with the mother and child, my eyes welled up because it was such a profound experience to witness. I appreciate that she has a graduate degree in art and is able to refer to others in the field who are leading the way. She is so genuine and I'm grateful for her willingness to bare her soul to us through her art and process. I've learned so much by watching how she interacts with models and communicates efficiently and gently to get AMAZING poses. Definitely worth the buy if you're looking for inspiration from an artist who creates images which evoke emotion and communicate a message, not just trying to make "great photos." I can't wait to learn about the business side of it all!


I am so grateful for this class; it is just what I have been looking for to help me go beyond my "photographic potty training". By leading us through her own creative process, Jennifer Thoreson invites us to think about why we do what we do and to make our work more meaningful and authentic, creating our unique visual vocabulary. Moreover, she provides detailed info on submitting work to galleries and publications, contests, printing editions, preparing an exhibition and pricing. In her calm, unpretentious manner, Jennifer demystified art without trivializing it and I finally saw light at the end of a rather long tunnel.