Last fall, on a whim, I signed up to do a photography workshop in the Pocono Mountains. It was a five-day workshop focused on fall colors. The workshop, led by the infamous John Barclay, was well attended, mostly by his groupies, who were not afraid to introduce themselves to me as his groupies. (By the end of the workshop, it was very clear to me how and why they have become so, but I’ll save that for another post). Among these women was Louise Shoemaker. While Louise was rather reserved, she laughed at my jokes so I adored her from the start. Then I started to watch her work. There always seemed to be an atmosphere of Zen following her around. She giggled with delight every time we came to a stream or waterfall. Yummy noises escaped from her at every turn. It was like unleashing a child in a bouncy castle. It was important that I try and get some alone time with her to find out what made her tick.
Louise Shoemaker is New Mexico born and bred complete with a grandma who came on the wagon train. It doesn’t get more authentic than that! Her love of photography comes almost directly from her father who had a darkroom in their garage while she was growing up. It wasn’t until she was 13 that her dad and brother let the girl come in and give it a try. The world of images is thankful for that day.
Louise taught school for over 25 years in a rural New Mexico community. The K-12 school had about 180 students at a time. Although she was the English teacher she also became a yearbook sponsor and part-time photography teacher. Converting a janitor’s closet into a darkroom she was able to share her love of photography and printing with many of her students. Three or four of them went on to become professional photographers. That is a legacy to be proud of.
In 2001 Louise retired from teaching. She sadly cleaned out the janitor’s closet, moved all of the equipment into her own garage darkroom equipped with over 150 cameras that she has collected over the years. She now calls herself a hobby photographer refusing to do any type of photography for money. If there is an image that she has that you like, she will gladly send you the file so you, too, can enjoy it. “I don’t want to make it about money. It’s not a business. It’s pure pleasure.” (Wow!)
What is your first memory of photography?
My dad always had a camera in his hand and we were always on the other end of it. (In WWII he even met up with an LA Press photographer and the two of them set up a darkroom in the jungle.) And, like all photographers, I remember getting into the darkroom for the first time and seeing that image appear like magic on a blank piece of paper. I printed in a darkroom for 20 years and never stopped hanging over the developing pan.
Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
That’s a hard thing to put into words. Some people are journalistic and have a social agenda. I am more about the connection, peace and mental calm of being in the spot—stopping long enough to see and feel that place and then convey that feeling to someone. I do my best work, and I hesitate to call it “work”, when there is calm and connection. The experience of seeing with that different photographer’s eye is like a grace note. If I am not connected, the photos aren't great. I see things differently and I see things better when I walk around the world with a camera in my hand. It’s more of an internal thing for me.
Why photography as a medium?
I like making things in a variety of mediums. There is not a craft I don’t want to try. My mother was making something all the time—needlework, crafting, or cooking. I’m a needle artist: I cross stitch and make Hardanger embroidery. I have worked with stained glass, have done marquetry, and have built furniture with my father. I like to create things of beauty. While I go through phases with my craft projects—putting them down for a period of time and then picking them up again—photography is the standard that continues through. That has been a constant for 45 years.
Is there any one subject that you shoot that gets you into the zone more than others?
I grew up in New Mexico, so to see a body of water I would have to drive three hours and then it’s a desert lake without a single tree. When I went to the Smokies I got so excited to see any body of water. People would laugh that I would stop and giggle when I saw a small creek and they would say, “That’s just a bottle of iced tea!” The water fascinates me because it’s so scarce here. I don’t like to shoot people so much. I did it in Cuba because it was culturally so interesting, but I’m not a people person. I’ll shoot whatever is there in the natural world. If I am alone, the mere fact of having a camera in my hand will keep me going for hours. If I am with a group I have a hard time getting my head into that creative space. I’ll have to walk away and find the quiet inside and out.
Photographing is an act of meditation for me. All of the insecurities and other crap leaves my head. It’s just me and the place and my eye connecting and trying to make something that will encapsulate the moment and the feeling.
How do you keep it fresh?
Part of the process is discovery of different places—going and looking with fresh eyes. It’s exploration of place as much as an exploration of self. I want to be part of a varied world. I have been to Switzerland twenty different times over forty years—the same places time after time—and it’s fresh every time. But I’m not looking for anything in particular. I’m not searching for anything. I am being open to what is there. I go out waiting for something to reach out to me, some detail that draws my eye, a bit of beautiful light, some scene that I can see in a new and different way today, in a way that is totally unique to the moment and can never be reproduced. A friend of mine, Terry Schroeder, with great enthusiasm, proclaims at the beginning of every day's shooting session—“Let's go see what the universe produces!” If you pay attention and look at what's offered to you every time you go out, there will always be moments of grace, abundant gifts of beauty that just appear if you are in the right frame of mind to see and receive.
It's the mental quiet and LACK of expectation that allows the shy gifts to reach out and attract your attention, and you do the gifts honor by spending time seeing, composing, and recording them well enough to do them justice.
What do you do on those days where you just don’t have it?
I create a lot of really bad photos. [laughter] That’s what I do on those days. But I just keep on shooting. If I get frustrated enough I’ll put the camera away. But normally I just keep on looking and taking pictures, and if I do, the vision usually clears a bit, the internal noise dies down enough for me to function, and the day turns out OK!
What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer?
My head. My feelings that I got growing up that you’re never quite good enough. My father was always in search of whatever new gadget there was to make his photography perfect, and he was never satisfied. I think that influenced me. I get in my own way and I have to stop being my worst critic. I am trying to make the leap from craftsman to artist. I think I have sometimes gotten close, but it’s a moving target.
Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
I don’t really know. I love looking at photography. I spend a lot of time looking at what other people make as I try to figure out my own “style.” My constant challenge is finding a way to capture and preserve that moment of grace that is going to be gone soon—that will never be there again. Certainly, going on tours with John Barclay and Dan Sniffin has been a great influence on me. What keeps me going back, however, are not the technical things I learn, but the fact that they are incredible human beings. They unite the Hand, the Heart, and the Eye in their instruction. They are both superb technicians--and so much more.
If you could give the young you some advice what would it be?
I guess it’s not to spend as much time as I have spent worrying about the gear, but just savor the experience of being with the camera—whatever camera you can afford. I've spent a lot of time worrying about the equipment, but the ultimate struggle is refining the eye.
Are there any parting words you would like to add?
I guess to say that the primary objective of doing this thing is for the love of it. I know of people who spend their life trying to make a living at this and then they stop loving it. It becomes mechanical like other jobs can be. It’s the love that’s important. The other stuff isn’t as much. Let it feed your heart.
10. Color or Black and White? — Color
9. Film or Digital? — Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom?—Digital
7. Objects or People? — Objects
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? — Pretty Landscape
5. Weddings or Root Canal? — Root Canal
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Holga? — Kitted out (with a Sherpa)
3. Commercial or Fine Art? — Fine Art
2. Tell me about the one that got away. — There have been so many.
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. — The one that makes me feel like I’ve arrived at simplicity.
The Parting Shot
“It’s more than taking great pictures. It’s about finding that psychological space that gets you connected to the world."