Emilia Heider’s first photography experience was shooting pictures of rose bushes with a “crappy digital camera” in junior high. Today, her work is frequently featured on the cover of The Forum, Hillsdale College’s literary magazine, and friends tell her she should work for National Geographic.
“My dad’s hobby was photography,” said Heider, who is a senior majoring in English and art. “I’ve always grown up around cameras, I’m used to them.”
With the money she got after graduating from high school, Heider said she invested in her first “real” camera, and then added credibility to her name by earning a photography position in the college’s marketing department before she arrived on campus her freshman year. Since then, Heider has expanded her scope to take photos for high school seniors, families, and a wedding.
While recovering from double jaw and chin surgery during Christmas break after sophomore year, Heider convinced her mother to let her go take photos of a beautiful frost, one of which would become the first print she ever sold.
“That was when I really started getting into it,” Heider said.
Heider described how her father took “countless” photos of their family on vacation, particularly in front of the trains by which they often traveled. But the thing he photographed the most, and the thing that stuck with Heider, were the rose bushes in her backyard at home.
“Roses are the things I photograph the most. I didn’t really make that connection until recently, but my father planted those rose bushes and also took photos of them. He kind of gave me both of those things,” she said.
Heider explained that she rarely plans a shoot, but more often finds herself simply photographing “what is given” to her.
“They’re gone so quickly, the moments that I see, or the light only is there for so long, no two things are the same,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I love photographing flowers so much: they are so unique and unrepeatable, that I can’t really ever get enough photos of them. In that sense, I always want to do more, to capture them in more ways, because they keep changing.”
Though Heider said she does not carry her camera most places, only bringing it when she knows she will need it, her friend junior Dietrich Balsbaugh said he often notices her taking pictures.
“Some evenings, I’ll be out taking a study break, and just see Emilia wandering by, like, ‘Oh, well, I saw the sun over there, so I’m going to go take a picture of it.’ Her and her camera are sort of drawn toward beauty,” Balsbaugh said.
After arriving on campus, Heider purchased a fixed lens from a student who was a senior at the time. Being in a new environment and forced to walk most places because she did not have a car really helped her hone her photography skills, Heider said, but she added that having a car now has made photography much easier.
“There was a time last year I had an art class that I was late for, because the cemetery was just beautiful that morning, and I drove to take photos of the fog,” Heider said, laughing. “We weren’t really doing that much in class that morning, so it was fine. I’ve also almost missed Art History because of frost, so in that sense having a car is great, because I’m less late to things. But also, I think I did a good job of finding the beauty of Hillsdale with only my feet to carry me around.”
With growth came recognition, and Heider said it was a photo of the reflection of Central Hall in a puddle that first caught the attention of more Hillsdale students. She said many of her favorite photos have been taken at Hillsdale. Some of the things that attract Heider’s eye, besides her roses, are weeds, fog, and reflections.
“I was struck by this today in Saga,” she said. “I was noticing that I love taking photos of dirty mirrors, or dirty windows, which you wouldn’t really think of that as being beautiful, but I really do find it beautiful. I like taking things that you wouldn’t normally think are beautiful, and making them so.”
Junior Madeleine Brylski described how she and Heider took a “photography walk” together through downtown Hillsdale last spring, in search of this subtler beauty.
“In the spring, when everything was kind of getting really gorgeous again, we went for a walk downtown, past Checker Records,” Brylski said. “We got some coffee, and then went into the neighborhoods and took pictures of peoples’ yards and all the blossoming trees. We took a bunch of pictures there, because Emilia really loves beautiful light. That was really fun.”
Brylski added that sometimes she and Heider will sit together and through each others’ photos on Facebook, as well as photos taken by other friends, simply for the sake of enjoying them.
“We’ll just kind of flip through and be like, ‘Wow, I love those colors,’ or ‘Wow, what a good frame,’” Brylski said.
Though Heider said she likes to shoot nature best, as a senior this year, she has been more intentional about also shooting portraits, to preserve moments with friends.
“I want to remember these times and these people, and so it helps that I’ve gotten to know my friends better, and am more comfortable taking their photos,” Heider said. “My marketing job was good in that way, because it forced me to be uncomfortable. And with photography, you kind of have to be okay with that: to get the angle or get the picture, you have to contort your body, or be okay with being out front, and being obtrusive, because you have to get the photos.”
Heider’s friend Abby Titus, also a senior, explained that Heider sees knowing a person as integral to the photography experience.
“She’s always had this philosophy that you can’t really take a really good photo of someone unless you know them in a particular way,” Titus said. “Her favorite photos of herself are ones her sister took of her.”
According to Brylski, Heider also dabbles in still-life photographing, particularly in photographing things she has baked.
“I haven’t been with her when she does it, but I’ll see her post a shot that you probably wouldn’t have noticed if you were in her house with her,” Brylski said. “She’ll post a picture, and you’ll see this really plain wall, with one or two subjects in the picture, and it’s really beautiful. She has a really beautiful eye for basic things like that.”
Heider said she tends to bring her camera any time she knows friends will be gathering.
“I brought my little crappy, disposable camera to Poetry Saturday one time, and it was really quiet, and I got my camera out and took a photo, and then they all looked up and laughed,” Heider said, grinning. “I should have taken a second photo of them laughing at me, but I didn’t, and that’s okay.”
Some of her favorite photos have been accidental. She described one such instance, earlier this year.
“I had my camera up on campus, just taking photos of the leaves I think, and I took a photo of my friends Dietrich and Henry, walking toward me. It’s one of my favorites, because I didn’t realize while I was taking the photo at the time, but Dietrich was kind of making a face at me, and then Henry is blessing me, he has his hand up in his usual blessing. It’s really funny because they kind of look similar, they both have the same foot forward, but the dichotomy is really funny. It shows their personalities well,” she said.
Balsbaugh laughed at the mention of the photo.
“Yep, she got us good,” he said.
Titus described Heider’s relationship with photography as “more of a lifestyle.”
“In the most loving way, you can’t go anywhere without her noticing something, and stopping to take a photo of it,” Titus said. “It’s something that she always is looking for.”
While other student photographers may struggle to find time to take photos, Heider said she sometimes has to force herself to stop shooting and step back from the camera.
“I don’t shirk my responsibilities, but I’ve definitely been late to class before, or other things,” she said, smiling. “Those don’t matter as much, because I want to capture this moment in time that is going to fade, and be gone soon. There have been so many times where I’m with people, or I’m stuck in a class, or stuck in a car even, where I can’t get out and take photos, and it kills me. But you also have to surrender to the inevitability that you can’t capture everything.”
Heider explained that this practice of photographic restraint is similar to a writer’s use of words, and that the camera, like a word, is just the vehicle for expressing an idea, not to be taken for the idea itself.
“You can’t capture beauty in a camera, I don’t think, because it’s infinite,” she said. “I think that’s the photographer’s conundrum, that you are given this vehicle for showing people the world in different ways, but the best moments and the best times, feelings, relationships, people, smiles, you aren’t able to capture.”
Her friends, however, expressed wonder at the beauty Heider has been able to capture.
“I don’t understand how she does that,” Balsbaugh said. “She has an eye for those things, that a lot of people don’t. You’ll see her wandering off because she sees the sun is a certain way, and knows where she can go to best capture that, in that moment.”
For Heider, photos are just a medium for sharing the beauty she sees.
“It’s mostly about sharing it with others,” she said. “If I keep it to myself, it doesn’t really mean anything.”