Is your daughter leaving for college? Has your twenty-something son saved enough money to move out? Perhaps you have made big plans for their soon-to-be vacated rooms. Maybe you want to turn it into a little home office or yoga studio but you feel too tired and guilty to pitch all of their stuff? I am going to show you how to have fun, purge their room, bring good energy into your home and make a work of art known as a “clutter portrait.”
Clutter portraits are a horrible and trite name for photographs that are rich and colorful and lovely. They memorialize the life and work of the subject. These photographs shift between being portrait, still life and landscape images. In order to make these beautiful pictures you need a lot of stuff. Which is funny because the process goes hand in hand in a perverse way with the current purging trend.
Books and companies are being created to help you to de-clutter your home. If you get rid of your junk you’ll change your life. I actually believe this to be true. When I do a thorough purge one week, I get a lot of stuff done the next. I believe in feng shui, the notion that if your house is tidy and your furniture is artfully arranged, good energy will flow through your home and life. Marie Kondo, the authoress of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has gotten a lot of press lately. Her book is so popular that her name is now a verb. “I kondoed my underwear drawer!”
I have found myself on this home cleanse bandwagon because my kids are leaving for college and my house is looking a little worn and junked up. It could use some fresh paint and new carpets. In order to make that happen, I need to clear out eight years of accumulated stuff of which a majority is from my four children’s rooms. I didn’t know how I was going to get myself to do it. I didn’t see myself picking up each piece and asking if it sparks joy as Ms. Kondo suggests. I needed a more artsy and fun way to do this dirty job. I found my solution in the work of Vladimir Antaki, which I discovered while perusing BuzzFeed under the heading, Clutter Portraits.
Mr. Antaki is a French photographer based in Montreal, Canada. He has traveled around the world documenting the “guardians of urban temples (kiosks and tiny, packed “junk” shops),” which he has noticed are disappearing under the heavy footsteps of big box stores. In a time where people are rushing about with their noses to their screens they no longer notice their environments, especially these gems. He is creating what may be the only visual record that these places ever existed.
The light bulb went on above my head! I was going to do the same thing with my kids’ rooms; create a visual record of their childhood and burgeoning adulthood. I would literally purge their clutter and keep it too! After I memorialized everything in the photo with the kid in question, I could then get rid of their stuff.
I began with my daughter who could quite possibly qualify as a hoarder. I cleared out my living room and set up a makeshift studio. I hauled all of her junk down and set it up against a black velvet background. I took some nice portraits, I think. I use a full-frame Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, which allows me to be pretty close and fit a lot of the room into the shot. You don’t need a fancy camera to make these photos, just good lighting, a lot of junk and a willing kid. The only problem with me creating a “studio’ setting is that I didn’t get the feel of her room.
I went back and looked at Mr. Antaki’s photos and realized I might want to do the photos in my kids’ rooms. I also began looking at other artists who’ve explored the subject of kids in their rooms. James Mollison has created some beautiful work in his book Where Children Sleep. Mr. Mollison traveled the world photographing children and where they sleep, which could be a room or a mattress in a field. He intended the book to be a teaching tool for nine to thirteen year olds so they could see how other children live. It simply and poignantly illustrates how children exist from extreme poverty to extreme wealth and everything in between. By not putting the children in the rooms, Mr. Mollison allows each person who looks at the photos to image himself sleeping there.
Recently The New York Times did a piece on Nidwaa Bidwan and her photographic series, 100 Days of Solitude. She’s a young woman who had been living in a room in the Gaza Strip for a year and making self-portraits. These are simple, colorful and beautifully composed. You might find inspiration looking at her work.
On a sadder note, I came across Miranda Hutton’s Room Project, which is a collection of photos of bedrooms of children who have died. Each photo is taken from the entrance to the room, so both she and her viewer are kept at a respectful distance, which also makes you feel like a voyeur. Some of the rooms are pristine time capsules, meticulously kept up, while others have started to decline under a layer of dust. All are missing the spirit and energy of the child who once lived there.
Both Morrison and Miranda’s photos are beautiful and heartbreaking and made me once again realize that childhood is fleeting. After looking at these images I was more determined to have a visual record of the space my children lived in. You think you’re going to remember this and that about your kids but you don’t. You tend to photograph big events with groups of people. But how often do you photograph your kid eating breakfast or doing homework in his room? I felt it would be good to have these pictures as a reminder of what once was.
You need three things to make one of these portraits: Camera, Child, and Crap (hopefully a room full of it). Put them together and voila, you have a fun photo! After the click of the camera you can pitch all of the junk with no guilt! Here’s how you do it:
1. Moved everything your child owns to one side of his or her room.
2. Take down all posters, etc and put them back up on the chosen wall.
3. Bring their bike and other sports/activity stuff from other parts of your house and place them on the “set.”
4. Hang up old art projects and family photos.
4. Add pets.
5. Add your kid
6. Take the photo.
5. I found some of the photos to be a little static so I had my kids jump and move about.
6. Have fun with it!
7. Pitch the stuff afterward. Paint and carpet room.
If you need some inspiration check out my Pinterest page, Portraits Of Your Kids, Their Stuff, And Their Lives and please post your own photos! If you need help, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a lunchtime elementary school art program and summer camp. Check it out on Facebook! She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs: Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com