As full-time professional photographers, getting away from it all means leaving the camera bag behind. That caused some panic the first time they saw something worth photographing and realized they couldn’t. But the couple soon recognized that being without their photo gear could inspire a new way of looking at, documenting and then later re-creating their surroundings.
The Williams’ American Dream is a series of photographs in which they create highly detailed, elaborate narratives constructed with miniature sculptures made from mostly recycled and found materials, like cardboard, sticks and leaves. They paint the backgrounds on the wall of their studio and sculpt all of the objects in the scene by hand. The set then is lit with a variety of continuous light sources and photographed using a high-resolution, large-format Better Light Model 6K scanning-back camera, which is capable of producing large files full of rich detail.
They found that going on trips without the camera could allow them to experience their surroundings more directly and intensely, something they think gets lost nowadays because cameras have become so ubiquitous. At a birthday party, Jeff was without a camera for part of the time and couldn’t help but notice that the people with cameras were concentrating so hard on taking pictures that they couldn’t enjoy the party. So part of their motivation is to get beyond what a camera records and compose pictures that are derived from imagination.
At first glance, the images may look as though they were contrived through software, but that’s definitely not the case. Other than color balance and exposure, nothing is digitally altered or manipulated. Deeply influenced by 20th-century modernist and documentary photographers, the Williamses base each scene off of a real experience, memory or dream that becomes exaggerated as they think about how to tell the story visually. The subject of the first photograph they created was a trailer that caught their attention while on the road in Arkansas.
“Nothing was around it, and there was a big television on inside,” Sabrina recalls. “The door was hanging off. There were beer cans all around. So we drove by it again, grabbed the sketchbook and started drawing. Neither of us is great at drawing, so it’s a lot of stick figures and making notes about what we saw.”