Strange World

The American Dream looks different through the eyes of Jeff and Sabrina Williams. When they go off on a trip and come across a scene that grabs their attention, they start drawing pictures rather than photographing them as they have intentionally replaced their cameras with a pencil and sketch pad. Odd, given that the Williamses are photographers, but completely logical after discovering how their American Dream comes together.

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.”

When they returned home, they started making the beer cans and building the structure of the trailer. Six months later, they had a finished print. There’s no formula for how the images come together, and that’s a refreshing change, since their commercial work—photographing weddings and portraits—requires a more traditional, structured workflow. When they began collaborating on this particular series in 2008, the two didn’t even fully discuss how the work would come together, instead choosing to let it unfold naturally.

In addition to all of the hard work that goes into painting the backgrounds and sculpting the freestanding objects, an equal amount of effort goes into lighting it all up. They use a variety of light sources, from Lowel video lights to bulbs found at a hardware store. A visitor to their studio would see plenty of wires dangling from the ceiling and electrical switches sticking out from every which direction.

“The lighting is my favorite part,” says Jeff. “I really like lighting. The trailer, for example, has something like 14 or 16 lights on it. They’re all continuous lights. You can’t use any strobes with the scanning-back camera because it’s actually scanning the scene.”

Exposures take anywhere from four to 15 minutes, and while he’d like to use strobes, Jeff says he has tried shooting with other cameras, particularly Hasselblad and Nikon models, but the quality he gets from the Better Light camera is unparalleled right now. The camera uses a trilinear CCD sensor that captures true RGB color and outputs a native resolution of 6000×8000 pixels for a maximum file size of 137 MB in 24-bit RGB (274 MB in 48-bit).

Since each image is so labor-intensive, picking a favorite is tough for them. What distinguishes one from another isn’t so much about the behind-the-scenes technical aspects of how the images come together, but about the inspiration that triggered making them in the first place. One of the images is of a man with a shovel and a flock of chickens standing next to him. Look a little closer, and you’ll notice one of those chickens is buried head-first with its feet sticking up.

“We were doing a family portrait out in the woods on a farm about an hour from where we live, and we were walking around seeing all of these different animals,” Sabrina explains. “The owner of the house pointed to two little chicken feet sticking up. The rooster was waking him up every day at 5 a.m., so he said he knocked him over the head with a shovel to teach the other chickens a lesson. It was so bizarre to me that he thought he could teach these chickens a lesson. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Camera Gear

Better Light Model 6K scanning-back camera
Sinar X 4×5 view camera
Six or seven lenses, from 150mm to 300mm
Manfrotto tripod
Lowel video lights

Like the trailer, that image was created from a real experience. Some of the others are more figurative, like a depiction of a man wearing black-rimmed glasses and red top hat that comes from a childhood memory or dream. The collection consists of 10 images so far, and their goal is to increase that to 20 by the end of the year.

“Every piece means something to us individually,” says Jeff. “It’s hard to have a favorite. It’s like asking someone about their favorite child.”

To see more of the Williams’ work, go to

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