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Chris Gunn - A Disciplined Creativity
11.09.12
 
While Chris Gunn was always interested in photography, he wanted to be a lawyer because he had never met a photographer successful enough to make a living. Through a twist of fate, he took a photography class in college taught by one of his elementary school teachers from years before. “I thought ‘Wow, I was obviously supposed to be there and become a photographer after all,’” says Gunn.

After graduation, Gunn discovered the work of renowned twentieth century photographer Ansel Adams. Gunn admires him because “his photos are alive; they just jump off the page.” Gunn learned Ansel Adams’ zone system under the tutelage of Washington, D.C. photographer Andre Richardson, whom he credits for pushing him to the next level.

Gunn feels that he creates his best work when he connects with his subjects through a shared passion. “I really enjoy photographing the NASA scientists and engineers partly because of my love for science,” says Gunn. “They have the same passion for their work as I do for mine. Once you connect on that level, then you make great photography together.”

Gunn also wants to elevate NASA scientists and engineers to the level of role models. “Many role models today are sports figures. I photograph our scientists and engineers as sports figures so that they can be role models too,” explains Gunn. He specializes in portraits and prefers simple compositions with clean, uncluttered backgrounds and only one or two figures. To him a good photo is not merely cute; it is the one that “makes you go wow!”

A sample of Chris Gunn's work› Larger image
A sample of Chris Gunn's work. The first two mirrors that will fly aboard NASA's James Webb Space Telescope arrived at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. on Sept. 17, 2012. In this photo, one of the two mirrors was being "uncanned" as the shipping canister it was shipped in was opened in NASA's giant clean room. Credit: NASA/C. Gunn
Gunn admits to being something of a perfectionist. He knows that he sometimes sets his expectations too high. “It can be burdensome. It’s exhausting,” says Gunn. Interestingly, his mother and ten year old daughter are also both perfectionists. Before taking a single picture, he plans extensively while “pre-visualizing” the photograph. He spends time with his subjects and in the location where he will be working. “I don’t take pictures, I make photos. You create an environment so that a good photo can happen. You set the stage for the magic to come out,” he says.

After spending hours setting the stage and capturing the image, Gunn takes his work into the digital darkroom working with Ansel Adams’ zone system of light tonality. “It’s a system for making photographs not for taking pictures,” says Gunn. His view is that the picture the camera takes is only the beginning. Using processing techniques turns a picture into a finished photograph. Prior to digital photography, he used to spend hours mixing and agitating various combinations of chemicals to develop negatives. Today he uses sophisticated computer software instead of chemicals. First, he recaptures the depth of the look of film since he views digital photography as flat by comparison. Then, he manipulates the tonality to achieve the image he has in his mind.

But don’t call him an artist. To avoid certain negative connotations sometimes associated with being an artist, he refers to himself as a technician. “I think everyone has a creative spark in them, but you have to go beyond creativity. You still need discipline; you need to work hard. Photography is more science than art.” He adds, “Some highly creative people have a different way of seeing things. Being a photographer allows me to appreciate how other people see things.”

Gunn gives back to the city where he was raised and which he loves. He taught at-risk kids through D.C. Artworks for several summers and says that they all turned out to be talented kids who just needed a bit of direction. One of his pupils is now an ESPN photographer. “I’m his mentor,” says Gunn, “but now I study his work.” He entertains speaking engagements on occasion, generally offering his historical perspective. “I witnessed the transition from film to digital," says Gunn. "In a generation or two, there won’t be many of us." Gunn has plans for the future. “My dream self-assignment is to make a coffee table book with my photography,” he says. Also, he would love to be the first photographer on Mars. “It would be awesome! Many astronauts are photographers," says Gunn. "I don’t see why a photographer couldn’t also be an astronaut.”

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
Robert M. Garner
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.