Candid Conversations: Felice Willat

Felice Willat

Felice Willat
Fine Artist


Gallery Los Olivos
Topanga Canyon Gallery


The world of photography, and photographers, is connected. Go out on a single photo tour and your connections grow two fold. Not only is it a well-connected community it’s a supportive and nurturing community, too. That is why it didn’t surprise me that after my interview with Dan Sniffin, Felice reached out to Dan to give him kudos on the interview and point out to Dan that she believed he wasn’t giving himself enough credit when he said he felt it was arrogant to call himself an Artist. 

Dan feels strongly that the only person who could call him an artist is someone looking at his work and believing it to be art. Felice, however, feels quite differently. She doesn’t consider herself a photographer first. She considers herself an artist first. (Which I believe is interesting since, if I remember my photo history correctly, when photography first came on the scene fine artists, most specifically painters, poo poo’d the medium as an art form.)

In my opinion, and I believe it’s a point of view that Felice shares, artists are people who break barriers and molds, turning things upside down, while seeking other vantage points and other points of view. Some photographers are more like technicians and see themselves as such: trying to find the perfect and classic point of view; and, making sure their images are technically perfect. 

Toward the end of my conversation with Felice we approached the topic again. Is a photographer an artist or a technician? When do they become an artist? It is a fascinating and philosophical topic and one that I hope to continue to explore with Felice and other photographers. 

I first met Felice (pronounced FEL-EEE-CHAY) on a photo tour when we shared the back seat of a car while driving around looking for some interesting colors in the desert. Felice has one of those wonderful rags to riches stories. Even she claims her life is a bit of a Cinderella story. Born in Brooklyn, but raised in Hollywood, Felice married not one, but two high school sweethearts (not at the same time). It was during her second marriage that she and her entrepreneur husband started a little company called “Day Runner.” (Anyone in corporate America during the 90’s will recognize that little business. Especially those of us who live our lives by the calendar). 

Due in great part to the success of the business, Felice was able to travel. This is where her photographic journey began. I am very much drawn to her story and her success as a photographer because I, too, am a late bloomer and am so very curious how others manage a leap like this mid-stream. For Felice, I can say with great assuredness, it has been done successfully and with great abandon. 

Rocks, Pines, Cloud (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography? 
A brownie camera and those little shiny white paper prints that had a deckled edge. They were black and white and very faded looking. Honestly it didn’t mean much to me at the time. Photography didn’t mean much to me until I had a camera in my hand. It’s like someone put a paintbrush or pencil in my hand – suddenly, it became a part of me.

When was the first time you had a camera in your hand?
Well the clear memory of it was when I was well into my forties and in India.  I had a point and shoot camera with me and in India – an assault to your senses - you really can’t take a bad picture. When I returned from India with some wonderful photos I hung them on the wall in my office at Day Runner.  One of our product designers said, “You have an eye!” Intrigued, I found a local coach and we worked together for about ten to fifteen years. When the photo world turned digital, I found a digital coach and I have been with him ever since. I never “formally studied” photography.  (Editor note: I think having coaches could be considered formal study.) 

When you were working with the first coach did you ever work in a dark room?
No. I never did that. I started with slide film and had everything done in labs. 

Photography is a means of communication. What is it you are trying to communicate and to whom? 
I almost feel like a voyeur. I’m trying to capture something so fleeting that if you don’t capture that very moment it’s going to be gone. It’s stopping action – stopping time itself and being in a place where you can observe that moment. At first I wasn’t really trying to communicate with anyone. I was just trying to look at life behind the scenes.  

After my trip to Burma in December of 2007 I thought, “Maybe I can help these people in Burma.”  I was very affected by the Burmese experience.  I decided to self-publish a book of my photographs and thoughts of the country, and from there I began to take it on as a serious project.   If I were to have an exhibit and sell books and prints, I would give the proceeds back to the people. 

Did anything change for them because of your work? 
I did donate all proceeds of print and book sales to more than one orphanage. I was able to see the changes that came forth through the donations through follow-up emails from my in-country photo coach and his private organization.   I was happy about my endeavor.  As it turned out I was satisfying a part of me that needed to be expressed.  

Molokai Maidens (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)

Have you seen that your photography affects change in other people?
That’s an interesting question.  I was able to donate some of the Burma photos to a refugee center in the US so they could portray some of the scenes. My photographs were made into posters for the walls of the center. Not that many people were going into Burma and shooting at that time (so the images would be a bit novel).  But my purpose had more to do with an inspirational or emotional connection that people have when they see my work. It wasn’t so much about finding another charitable endeavor as it was discovering a symbiotic relationship with the world through the lens of the camera.  It was more of a personal thing for me. 

Where else have you done similar work? 
I traveled to Morocco and I realized how difficult it was for women to be seen. Not so much to be seen in front of a camera because that is forbidden, but to be seen in general. They were covered up, most of them, and they weren’t comfortable being seen by anybody in their culture. That was pretty startling.

I considered doing some work toward global woman’s causes but soon realized that
I am very a-political.  I prefer to portray the beauty and poetry of a situation rather than the politics.  There are different types of photographers.  Those who really want to make a difference through their work – a journalistic approach, if you will.  I have tremendous respect and admiration for street narrative photography, and I’m clear that my approach is a more aesthetic one.  

My focus is a kind of ethnographic - somewhere in-between a landscape and a people-scape. It’s what I call “LifeScapes.”  I have my first solo show, currently showing, in Santa Barbara and it’s  focused more on how people and place are inseparable.

Cardinals Climbing (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)

The image that I adore is the main photo on your website with the monks crawling on the white wall. Tell me about that.  
It actually has an interesting story.  The image that I originally printed and sold, was shot after the novices got up on the perches and were standing or sitting. I wouldn’t call it a pose, but they were still.  It was a successful picture and it was featured in my book. Years later I looked back at my photos and discovered the one that is posted now. It was a much more dynamic photograph because it showed movement, a moment in-between. I printed it only a year ago and it became my best seller. 

Cardinals  (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)

Another one of my pictures called “Molokai Maidens” shows three young hula dancers who stopped dancing and walked into the shallow water at sundown.  It reminds me of a stage production. It is another image where the people and the environment are equally important. Both of those pictures have sold out. It’s interesting to note that and to feel I  found a special photographic point of view.  

Why photography as a medium?
Probably because I held a camera in my hands before a paintbrush. And before a pen. I love writing but I haven’t developed it. I feel immature with regards to writing, but it feels like the next plateau for me.  To be able to write like I shoot. I have done a good deal of journal writing. In fact I had a journal writing company right after Day Runner. I do enjoy the written word and would like to explore that as I do photography but you know how it is. It’s practice and it’s where you are and what you have and you do the best with what you have and for some reason the camera became a part of me. And it became an easier medium for me than painting or crafting word stories.  

It’s a matter of practice and being able to express what’s inside. My sister has a paralyzing fear of doing that. With me, I feel the fear but I do it anyway. Again, for me and for others, it’s just a matter of practice and engagement with the medium. And I learned photography first. I’m not going to say I’ll never be a painter or a writer.  I would like to be if I live long enough. 

Is there any particular subject that you shoot that gets you in the zone? 
It’s that place where I am discovering people being in their place.  And it’s often where the person or the people are in a contemplative state or at one with their work, craft or other person.

In Vietnam, I came upon a woman who was chanting and reading from her prayer book. She was sitting on the bank of a famous lake, and in the distance, in the fog, was the temple. It was a beautiful shot. And I knew when I shot it that I was in her zone - that moment of stillness where something wonderful was happening. 

Another occasion was when I was in Burma. It was early morning and there was a man filling his Oxen cart with water.  There are two oxen and a very ancient cart. It was on the banks of another beautiful lake with temples in the distance and again fog. The two oxen were kissing each other. Again, it was a moment of stillness and peacefulness. I got to “peek through the keyhole” and catch that fleeting moment. It was the same with “Molokai Maidens.” I felt like “Ooooh! Look at these girls!  They are contemplative and looking at the creatures in the water and don’t know anyone is looking at them.” 

This can happen with a simple landscape too.  One of my most powerful photo journeys was to the Huangshan Mountains during a workshop called Contemplative Landscape Photography with George deWolf and Lydia Goetz.  Many elements make a layered landscape that resembles ancient Chinese scroll paintings.

Hanoi Prayers (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)

When you shot these images, are you on a tripod and standing still? Are you moving around? What’s your activity?
It’s varied. With Climbing Cardinals, and Molokai Maidens, I was not on a tripod. For “The Water Bearer” I was. It just depends. You can’t always be prepared. 

In a recent workshop, a National Geographic photographer said “Sharpness is over rated.” (Editor’s note: The quote seems to be originally attributed to Keith Carter.)  I prefer blurred lines in general. It could be existing fog, mist or intentionally softening the scene for a more dream-like image.

When you are editing your images after a day in the field are you looking at them and assessing the technical aspect of the image or are you saying “I get a feeling from this image?” 
I do try to hone in on the settings for the best image while shooting, but I’m far from the technicians around me! I pay most attention to the composition. The framing is exquisitely important to me. If I don’t get the foot I’m not going to print that photo. I am very cautious when I am in a wonderful environment. 

I sometimes wait and wait in a “photo trap” where you have your background and middle ground and you are waiting for someone to step into the foreground. I have done that but I’m not the kind of photographer who will wait three days for a shot. Or even three hours. But I will wait twenty minutes. I realize I am not a National Geographic shooter but I can capture some nice pictures every once in a while.  

What do you do to prepare yourself when you go out for a day or for one of your own projects? 
I keep it simple. One camera and 2-3 lenses.  One or two cards and an extra battery. To be emotionally or mentally prepared I try to put myself in a place where I will be surprised or where I have never been before so it’s unpredictable.  I need to be surprised so I’ll get that "AaHa" moment that I can extend and later share. 

Water Bearer (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)

How do you keep things fresh? 
I don’t think I have explored one percent of the possibilities of shooting people within their landscapes. I have just started that and I can’t wait to get out and do more of it. I haven’t explored it enough to have it be stale. 

For me, some freshness lies in alternative photo finishing processes. I’ve been studying with Joyce Wilson in Santa Barbara who taught Alternative Photography at Brooks. That’s where I feel challenged and excited about doing something new. 

What have you done in the Alternative Process world that has been exciting?
One of my favorite techniques is inkjet printing over paint and gold leaf.  For instance, you might take a layer of red paint and paint over an art paper and then let that dry and then you put a layer of gold paint over and let that dry and then you put that through the printer and you get something more like a silhouette over this gold with a little red peeking through. This is one of Joyce Wilson’s techniques, which I love. 

U-Bein Bridge Altered (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)

What do you do on those days where you just don’t have it?
That only happens when I am on a photo expedition and we go as a group on a particular shoot and we’ll stop at a location and I just don’t see it.  That happens.  What I do is just stop and say, “Ok. I don’t have to shoot.” Then I’ll walk further away and that’s when I usually see something. It does happen, and if I don’t shoot I’m ok with that.  In fact when I go out to shoot sometimes I won’t shoot at all. Or I’ll shoot one or two shots in an hour. 

I shoot very few images. In fact someone said to me, “You aren’t a digital hoarder are you?” And I said, “No way!” because I edit out immediately - directly from the camera. I won’t even download anything that I don’t think is good. My expectation for myself, since I don’t manipulate much in Photoshop, is if I didn’t capture it right I’m not even going to bother. And now I’m at a point that I can look at a scene and if all of the elements aren’t there I’ll just move on. 

What do you see as your biggest challenge as a photographer?
My biggest challenge is learning some of the Photoshop tools that I didn’t learn from the beginning like layers and masking. I’m usually the only person in a workshop that doesn’t do that. I feel a little bit intimidated but I’ve learned to use some of the post-processing software like Nik’s and Topaz  to get around it. There are alternative techniques that I am interested in that I find challenging. To me it’s what happens after you take the shot. There are a lot of options and that’s what is challenging to me. 

Why don’t you become a professional photographer?
Because I’m an artist. And I only shoot for art gallery presentation of my own work. I don’t shoot on assignment. But if someone asked me to go on assignment to do what I love to do of course I would do it.  But I wouldn’t want to take on a project like a wedding that I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing 

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
One person I can mention is Jack Spencer. [Editor’s note: Check out his website. Wow!]  He is a photographer but he has ways of working with his photographs so the end product is magical. Again, for me, it’s being able to see what the possibility is for the end product and know how to shoot for it and then know how to produce it. I’m more of an artist than I am a photographer.  I’m not focused on the technology or even the best camera. I am more focused on the image and to try and figure out how to make it more magical or more compelling. 

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be?
I would say shoot when you feel that spark inside. Don’t expect the camera to make the pictures. A lot of people say, “What camera did you use?” or “Wow, how many pictures did you take?” as if the camera was going to do the work. You have to take the picture in your mind’s eye. You have to feel, “Oh, look at that!” and then you have a story to tell about the image you made.  

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White?  Color
9. Film or Digital?  Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom?  Digital Darkroom
7. Objects or People?  People
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes?  Pretty Landscapes
5. Weddings or Root Canal?  Weddings
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Point & shoot / Holga?  Point and shoot
3. Commercial or Fine Art?  Fine Art
2. Tell me about the one that got away The ones that I see when I am in a bus or with a car-full of people. All of the ones that were out the window of a bus or car. 
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. The next winning photo. I have two that I consider have taken me to the next level and I’m chasing the 3rd.  I won’t know until I’m in that moment. The magic moment when you don’t know what’s important the subject or the background. 

The Parting Shot

"All you can do is to be successful in the moment. That is where I enjoy myself the most. And when I have a camera in my hand I lose track of time and that’s really where I feel the most engaged with life."

Golden Weir (Photo Credit: Felice Willat)