Terms of Art: James Strain

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“When you photograph a face . . . you photograph the soul behind it.”

-Jean-Luc Godard

ArtLong before photography became as ubiquitous as it is now, the uninitiated feared that the camera captured part of the subject’s soul. Maybe not so far from the truth, when one considers the works of Bloomington native and local attorney, James Strain. Whether his photographs depict a remote church, a craggy landscape, or a beloved grandchild, Strain features the character or soul of his subject in a way that makes the viewer feel a sense of connection.

Like countless artists before him, Strain’s photographs often reflect his state of mind at a given time. For instance, he recalls that on an unusually frustrating day at the office, he grabbed his camera and fled the office. Driving through rural Indiana, he happened across a small church and stopped to photograph it. The result is a striking image of a simple and serene white church advancing into the foreground with a menacing sky above. Strain explains that the sky had, in fact, been a brilliant blue that day; however, by using a red filter with his camera, he had enhanced the contrast between clouds in the sky and the stark-white walls of the church, and in so doing, injected the frustration that he was feeling into the image. Ansel Adams once said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Naturally, Strain’s own soul is revealed to an extent in his images, most often reflecting his love of mystery, piquing the viewer’s curiosity, and spurring him or her to ask questions.

Interestingly, Strain is as much a lover of the printing process as he is enamored of the final work of art. This ability is due, in part, to the early influence of Strain’s father, who was both a physicist and an architect. This unity of left-and right-brain thinking informs Strain’s unique approach to photography. As such, he is deeply knowledgeable about the science of photography. He prefers to make platinum prints, which are completely matte, virtually indestructible, and which best serve his preferred black-and-white aesthetic. (Platinum prints are characterized by intriguing gradations of black and white tones.) He explains that a photographer’s use of the black-and-white medium is “often a statement in-and-of-itself,” whereby the photographer attempts to evoke a sentiment distinct from the content of the image.

terms of art A rural church James Strain photographed while out on a drive. (Photo courtesy James Strain)

In his works, Strain has charted his children’s growth, made portraits of his grandchildren, and chronicled decades of marriage to his beloved wife. He fondly recalls traveling Europe with his children’s choir and finding endless sources of inspiration in majestic cathedrals across the continent. Naturally, photography is an integral part of Strain’s tourist experience; however, he acknowledges that his commitment to perfection has often led his weary family to ask, “Haven’t you gotten the shot yet?” But this is the way of artists, eternally ambitious and perpetually striving to reconcile the various forces at play.

Strain completed his undergraduate studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. He reflects fondly upon a law school professor, Val Nolan Jr., who became his friend and mentor while Strain was an undergraduate work-study student. Nolan, who held full professorships in both the law school and biology department of I.U.’s School of Arts and Sciences, made quite an impression, committed to serving two disciplines – zoology and the law. Strain recalls that his mentor taught him a valuable and enduring lesson when he managed to publish a zoology text during his tenure at the law school. Strain has since shared his mentor’s example with his three children – two of whom are now professional artists. Balance, however elusive, may indeed be struck between seemingly incongruous interests: “You can be a professional and honor your art,” he explains.

This “eureka” moment cemented Strain’s decision to enroll in law school.

And so it is now, all these years later, that Strain – formerly a law clerk to then-Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, William Rehnquist, and now a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister – is seldom without a camera. He has chronicled everything from remote locales and famous architectural wonders to the evolution of his family over several decades. Fittingly, several walls and conference rooms at his firm are adorned with his striking still-life photographs and landscapes in an apt metaphor, reflecting the undeniably successful marriage of his professional and artistic pursuits. He credits our profession with enabling him to pursue his admittedly expensive hobby. Far from a mere hobbyist, however, Strain has been represented and promoted by an art brokerage house, presented exhibitions, won competitions, and has sold numerous memorable photographs.

It is a well-settled truth in our profession that there is more to any scenario than meets the eye. Strain maintains that being a photographer has made him a better attorney, and vice versa. His artistic process requires a critical eye; the ability to deftly distill a complex subject into an accessible message; and creative problem-solving when conditions – both predictable and unforeseen – affect his work.

James Strain’s works may be viewed at•

Wandini Riggins is an associate in the Indianapolis firm of Lewis Wagner. She concentrates her practice in the areas of insurance bad faith disputes and insurance coverage. She can be reached at The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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  1. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

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