A creative exercise
If you want to get funny looks from New Yorkers, place a small toy astronaut on the ground, kneel down and start taking photos of it. Bonus: you’ll also get disgusted glares from those forced to walk around you.
Early this winter I was feeling a little blue, always a cue for me to start a little creative side project— something I can do every day with minimal effort but which stretches my brain a bit. One afternoon I had Simon and Garfunkel’s Only Living Boy in New York traipsing around my head when I saw the twins’ toy rocket ship on their dresser, one of the little astronauts peering out a porthole like a stranger in a strange land.
That’s how I felt, like a stranger in a strange land. A change of perspective was required. Maybe I could see my city anew, through the astronaut’s eyes. I grabbed him and stuffed him into my work bag. I set a time frame: three weeks seemed reasonable. (I think all decent projects have at least one major constraint, and time is one of the best.)
So every day for the next three weeks—21 days—I’d look for a setting that seemed worth exploring, stick the astronaut in it, and take some photos. It might sound easy, but it was actually more difficult than I anticipated.
For one thing, the astronaut is actually fairly small, about two inches tall, so without a macro lens (I used my iPhone), it was challenging to frame him properly. Also, he weighs next to nothing and he’s unstable; he’s prone to falling over on any uneven surface or with the slightest breeze.
He’s also extremely simplistic: no moving parts, one expression. Therefore, the setting, position, angle and lighting had to do all the storytelling. He was like the most one-dimensional supermodel imaginable. At first, I shot him head on, looking at us as though we, the viewers, were back in Mission Control and he was seeking guidance. That approach wore out quickly, especially given his silly little half-grin, so I had to find more dynamic ways to photograph him.
A few days into my project I got a text from my wife: “Have you seen the toy astronaut? The one that goes with the rocket? He’s missing.”
I wanted to add some drama, and I found that when I faced him away from the camera, his situation seemed more lonely and dire. Turn a happy astronaut away from you and he looks lost in an inhospitable land. Cropping was everything.
After three weeks, I’d about exhausted the limits of my imagination and my photographic skills. Still, it was fun to challenge myself creatively on something not related to work; it was also nice to see my city (with one quick stop in Florida) with fresh eyes, even if those eyes were just painted black dots on plastic. The point of any creative side project isn’t to make great art; it’s to limber up your brain and help you see things in a new way. In this sense, I think my Astronaut Project was a success.