Candid Conversations: Nancy LeVine

Nancy LeVine

Nancy LeVine

Nancy LeVine
Professional Photographer
Seattle, WA


Senior Dogs Across America (Available at Amazon)

When I started doing interviews with Photographers I wasn’t exactly sure what I was after, but it only took a few to understand that what I wanted to get out of these conversations is not the “how” but the “why.” I am not interested in how these photographers achieve their success on a technical level. I don’t care about “what’s in their bag.” What I want to find out is the “why” of it all. What is it about taking a picture? And what is the difference in the “why” of me going out and shooting some landscapes as opposed to my friend “Jane” who loves to take photos of herself and post them on Facebook. They are all images, but they clearly have different meanings and, to some degree, different values. (I promise this is not a jab at “Jane.”) 

I have had many conversations, but I think this latest one has me turning a corner. I still don’t have the answers, but for some reason I feel I am closer. To say I am very excited about this interview is an understatement! This conversation was also a little personal for me. For those that know me, you know about our dear departed Winnie. Our dog of 15 ½ years, that was our faithful companion, and is now gone. Through her golden years I began to really appreciate Senior dogs and what they mean to us. Nancy LeVine is known for her work shooting Senior Dogs. Being able to talk to her about that project was worth every moment. (I'm excited to say that her latest book has just been released by Schiffer Publishing!)

When I called her, thinking our conversation would mostly revolve around her photographs of dogs, I was surprised at the depth of her work. (I shouldn’t have been, as I knew Nancy when she was an adviser on my Thesis Project at the Photographic Center Northwest a few years back.) Nancy has an amazing background and body of work. And what is most compelling is that she exudes a confidence I rarely see in women. She is not arrogant by any stretch of the imagination, but she knows who she is and what she brings to the table as a professional photographer.  What I wouldn’t give to have some of that. 

Red 12 years oldNew Haven, Connecticut [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography?
I had a camera in my hand from a very early age. My dad was a serious hobbyist so I grew up with cameras and photography.  He gave me my first camera when I was about 5 or 6 years old. 

Did you study photography in school?
My major was Film Studies and Photography. But I decided that I was better suited for photography because in film, back then, there was a hierarchy of so many people that it seemed difficult to navigate. With photography you are just yourself. That was a comfortable place for me. 

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
There is a term I have used and it’s “Recognition of the Other.” Whatever you are photographing, whether it be another person or a dog or a tree or a still life of a building, the people who are brilliant about it have a deep resonance with whatever it is they are photographing. They are not just seeing their subject in that two-dimensional sense. They are seeing it, feeling it, and they are imbuing it. It’s hard to put a finger on it in language, but something happens and it’s trans-formative. What I want to do is to find the voice of whatever it is I am photographing so it feels palpable and not just a thing that you are looking at on a piece of paper.

How did that translate to your Fashion Photography?
When I was doing catalogs, they were catalogs where you make lovely pretty pictures and make sure the clothes look good. When I was doing editorial work in Paris, I shot it almost journalistically. I would look at the clothes and get the right face, the right location, and make it seem almost real or documentary-like so there was some authenticity there. Yes, I was creating, but it felt real. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, she’s wearing a pretty dress and she’s standing on the corner and she’s looking ‘whatever’.” It was more like there’s that woman on the corner and I just happened to capture her. Everything I have done has been done in the same way. I shoot dogs in the same way I shot fashion. It’s just the way I see.

And what was the catalyst that brought you into the Fashion Industry?
Something just clicked after I got out of college. My mother had a strong fashion influence in my life. She had a store in St. Thomas. I grew up in the Virgin Islands. She always had great taste and an excitement about fashion that she shared with her kids. My dad had the photography thing. I guess I made the decision one day that this is what I could be doing. I moved to New York City, went out on my own and did it.

You did Fashion for 18 years. Did you ever experience burn out?
There was never burnout in the fun and the interest of doing it. The burnout occurred when the times started to change. There was a time when I worked in New York that it felt like a small village. I could see everybody and everybody would meet you. Not only would they meet you, but they would say, “Oh, you should go and see so and so!” And you would pick up the phone and call that person and they would actually answer the phone and you would go see them. There was all of this networking that was possible to do.

As the years went on there were a lot of consolidations and changes in the industry, and there was not as much accessibility as there had been in the early part of my career. The work itself I love. I have not burnt out at all as a photographer, but the marketing components to it have become increasingly difficult. I love the people and the face-to-face contact. That was a large part of it when I was starting out.  And sadly it’s such a small part of what we do today.

L'Officiel de la Couture fashion [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing professional photographers today?
There are not a lot of small jobs out there for people to get started with because potential clients with their own camera do it themselves. it's just good enough and they don’t really care for it to be better than that. They will spend multitudes of money to create a good website and typically not spend very much on the content.

But that’s not really my issue. I have always worked and I think that the hindrance for me simply is that I have a profoundly difficult time getting in to see people and to have people answer their phone. To even have a conversation. The advantages in the past were that it was perfectly okay for someone to say to me on the phone, “Oh, I can’t see you now. Call me in a couple of weeks.” The advantage to this, was by the time I did see them we had already built a small relationship formed through the phone calls and when I showed up it became even that much richer.

And now you can’t really get anyone on the phone. And then with email, it’s just hit or miss and it’s so impersonal. There is just no vibrancy in marketing for me. I really cherished and loved meeting everyone and enjoyed that part as much as I loved the photography part. It was social. It was very social. And with the system we are in now I can’t get that.

I really believe people hire you not just because you’re good (and of course you have to be good) but secondarily, as important, they have to like you. They have to want to spend time with you. I have found that to get face to face time with anyone, you have to pay money to do photo reviews. And that’s a whole other story altogether and that’s very pricey for people who are getting started.

At this point, Nancy turned the tables on me and asked me what I thought. I told her what other people were saying in interviews and also that in my industry clients no longer do their own video and photo shoots but turn to stock photography. It was a conversation with many twists and turns and we certainly did not solve the challenges in the world of the photographic professional, but this is my takeaway.  Because of social media and the world wide web, access to photography is, well, world wide. We no longer have to contend with the local competition but competition that seems like it comes from a bottomless well. And that competition includes professional and non professional as well as the good, the bad, and the ugly. We are inundated with it all and have no easy way to filter out the bad, and the ugly to get immediate access to the great. It’s a tough nut to crack.

When you are out on assignment what do you do if you get stuck?
It doesn’t happen. (much laughter from me.) It just doesn’t happen. I always get it. (that heavy sigh was from me) I make it look very easy because I have a lot of experience. I can walk in just about anywhere, no matter what the light looks like (of course it helps to be digital) and I can figure things out and make it happen.

Not everything is called out to be brilliant. Some things call out to be descriptive or whatever they may be. There is always going to be a good photograph from the situation.

Compositional form comes naturally to me. The best training in the world is being a fashion photographer. You’ve got casting, lighting, location, weather issues, and expectations of how much you have to get done in a day; there are so many pressures. So many things you need to learn about that go into a photograph. If you can do fashion you can probably do most anything, in my opinion. It taught me so much that I am able to walk into an examination room in a hospital and figure it all out.  I see the people and know how to extrude all of the business from the situation. I learned how to do all of that from fashion. And back then with film there was very little latitude and you had to get your exposures just right. You had to do everything just right. And you could never screw up because the expenses of models, makeup and hair, location vans, and catering was so high that you could not NOT bring it back. And you had to do it all the time.

L'Officiel de la Couture fashion [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

What do you do to prepare?
I just show up. (God love her!) I have my cameras, my back up equipment. I learned this in my fashion days. You make sure you have double of everything you need and you make sure everything is working.  God forbid you have a technical glitch.

You have to imagine that I have over 30 years of experience. That’s what I am bringing to the table. I’m walking in and using everything that I have learned. Classically trained and tons of experience. I can walk in and most people might not see anything because sometimes it doesn’t seem that there is much. But when you are really well trained you can see deeper. You start observing certain things like how people are interacting and you just wait for those moments to arise because they always do. Then you simply try to create good compositional form that works with busy situations and backgrounds. Or you bring someone into a situation where there is better lighting. If you can, but sometimes you can’t and you just do it. I hate to say it, but this is where experience comes into play.  Digital allows for so much more latitude.

 You have a broad range of work from Fashion to Senior Dogs (my favorite). Can you talk a bit about your project “Art: The Moving Thread”? 
I picked the first person on the Thread, a nationally recognized woman in the arts. She would then recommend me to the next nationally recognized woman in the arts whom they have worked with and who was a friend or cohort or someone they really admired. That would then lead to the next person and the next and so on. I would get this virtual salon with all of these women. There are 18 to 20 women on each Thread. And it was amazing to meet all of these artists and learn about the extraordinary work they were doing.

In all of your work is there any particular subject or thing that you do that really gets you in the zone? 
First and foremost I think if what is in front of your eye is compelling to you then that moves you into the zone immediately. But sometimes it requires work. Sometimes you don’t see it right away. You just keep trying things and you do what I call “coverage.” So, for example, I photographed this woman in New York City in the freezing cold. We were up on a roof and there was snow coming down. We were trying different things with this material that she works with and it’s sort of okay but it felt a little forced.  After some time trying new things all of a sudden something happened and we got it. Being in the zone has a magical quality to it. I just think if you are in front of something that moves you in some way then it’s a lot easier to find it.  I think getting into the zone is making a deep connection to your subject, whatever it may be, you just feel it and it’s so exciting to get that photograph.

Do your subjects ever get exacerbated while you are trying different things?
No. It’s always collaborative. It’s amazing the enthusiasm. Especially with all of these amazing artists that I photograph.  New Yorker's mostly. Not only were they available and cooperative, but they were willing to do what we needed to do to get a great photograph. It was astonishing. I was surprised at how effortless it was to work with everybody. They were really invested. I was impressed.

Most of the dog work I have done recently are seniors and they aren’t super active so it’s easier to document them when they aren’t frisky puppies. Sometimes you see a situation where the dog wants to walk all over the place and you have to follow the dog. You just have to let the dog go into a flow and see what happens.

Champ 9 years oldButte County, South Dakota [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

So, let’s talk about the dogs. Again, this is after my own heart. How did you get started with your project, Senior Dogs Across America?
That came about through my own dogs. Watching how my own dogs were growing older. It was so poignant and interesting how they lived each day, unlike us thinking about the past and the future and what it all means to age, they are just plodding through each day. It was sort stunning to see.

I helped my dog, Babe, years before who was a paraplegic and used a K9 cart. And it was one of the most purely extraordinary periods of my life that was completely about love. It was so special.

At some point I decided that I had not visited America since I had been a teenager and I had an inkling to see our country. And I thought, well, this is the time to do it. I’ll shoot Senior Dogs Across America. I’ll get to see the country, I’ll get to meet the people, and I’ll get to do something interesting. I embarked on the project based on that.

What are the logistics of doing something like that?
I produced it ahead of time based on the region of the country. I would plan to go out for about a week at a time. I would contact veterinarian offices, different people in the dog world, a friend of a friend that knows someone who lives in this town and they would know someone who was there. It was very word of mouth. People networking within the dog world. That’s how it spread and then I met people in rescues and sanctuaries. It was a real range of people that introduced me to extraordinary dogs.

There were definitely some moments that I didn’t expect. Like a time I was flying to New York. I don’t know how long it took me to look up, but I was sitting in the bulkhead seat and I look across the aisle and there was a dog. The most beautiful Whippet.  It was some type of service dog and I asked, “How old is this dog?” And it was ten or eleven.  Here I was able to photograph “Senior Dogs Across America” on an airplane!”

Riley 10 years old  Somewhere over New Jersey [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

What inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
Over the years I have had a couple of muses. One by the name of Lisa. She was a model I worked with a lot when I did editorial work. She could be really transformative depending on what she was wearing.

And then LuLu was my muse for my first book, ‘A Dog’s Book of Truths’. In my mind, she was the Meryl Streep of the dog world. She could imbue every location with a different mood. And that’s where the recognition comes in. Some people would just see a dog and I would see something else.

As a teacher what do you say to your students who want to become professional photographers?
I don’t really teach business. What I do when I teach is to try and help people find their own visual voice. And have them be able to articulate it more and explore it more and become who they want to become as photographers. That’s what I do.

Gussy Sue 15 years old Laurel, Montana [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

And how do you go about that?
It’s a lot of conversation and looking at their work and talking about why they did what they did. I call all of their photographs sketches so I ask them why they sketched this and why they sketched that. And why this works and why this doesn’t. What did they really want to say.

I like to do a lot of one on ones with students. The class I’m teaching now I get a chance to do that. “Storytelling with Photographs.” We meet as a group for the first and last class and then each student gets two classes with me one on one for an hour. Each person is on a different journey.  

I think photography can attract very impatient people because it feels like it should be so easy because all you do is click a button and the camera does all the work for you. You have to remind students that people in the arts are putting in their 10,000 hours. Look at a dancer! How many years has a dancer been dancing? Everything takes a huge amount of effort and focus. At the end of the day, photography is no different to be really masterful at it. Some people forget that. Unlike a paintbrush or a violin, you can pick it [the camera] up and start using it. But to be a professional you need technical knowledge. You have to know what an F-stop is. You have to know what a shutter speed does. You have to know these things.

If you could give people starting out advice, what would it be?
A complex question because it is all so different today. Back when I started, I could walk into anyone’s fashion show and sit next to the stage and take pictures. The access was phenomenal. Now it’s all changed. But back then there were fewer stumbling blocks. There were challenges and I had to be very tenacious. Actually, somebody I met at Gray Advertising said that. “You are very talented, but the people who are going to make it are the tenacious people.” And I’m naturally very tenacious. I got braver about contacting people and meeting people for appointments. The more you do something the more comfortable you get. I was very shy and that part of me had to grow up when I had to market myself.

There is nothing like a personal relationship built over time with a client. If you are really good at what you do and you have a great relationship with your client, then you have a great time doing the work. 

Rosie 13 years old, Princess 14 years oldHileal, Florida [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

When I look at your website and at your body of work it seems rather diversified. Did this happen by chance or was your career carefully crafted that way?
There are a few questions that you have posed that are related to planning. [Note: I make a living as a project manager]  I was doing fashion and I was ready to explore other subjects and that’s when I started doing the dog work. Sometimes I would bring that work in when I was showing my fashion portfolio and people loved looking at the dogs. That was something they don’t usually get a chance to see. And then over time I decided I would see if I could develop this body of work into a book. You have to be a self-starter. You have to feel that you care enough about something that you can push it through.

Maybe not so much push it through but allow it to form and allow it to become something that it needs to be and then be patient when you are looking for publishers. Nothing happens overnight and it shouldn’t. It’s okay that it doesn’t. Because when you are with it longer you can make more photographs and you can deepen your feelings about it. Lots of things can occur so you don’t want to rush anything.

Whatever you have a visceral response to, pay attention.  And spend the time.

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White? – Black & White
9. Film or Digital? – Both are great
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom?
– Digital
7. Objects or People?
– People
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Urban Jungle

5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Weddings
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Point & Shoot? – Point and Shoot

3. Assignment or Fine Art? – Both
2. Tell me about the one that got away. – I can’t really think of any.

1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – I want to photograph people who have lived awhile. I’m interested in middle aged and older people. That inspires me. How they do it, how they live, how they create.
The motivation beyond the photograph is being able to meet people who have lived very interesting lives. That’s the pearl for me.

The Parting Shot

A lot of it is just being present. I think that’s the best part of photography. It’s observational, it’s emotional, but you are completely present to it.


Bottom to top - Phyllis 12 years old, Englebert 9 years old, Loretta 12 years old, Eeyore 14 years old; Behind - Enoch 5 years oldDenver, Colorado [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

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)


Candid Conversations: Dan Sniffin


Dan Sniffin
Photo Hobbyist / Teacher
Fresno, California



They, whoever “they” are, say, “still waters run deep.” While I was talking with Dan Sniffin for this post there has never been a saying more true to a man than that. Dan is that guy who stands back and observes the comings and goings. Always with a sly smile and a glint in his eye as if he holds THE secret. I experienced this first hand standing on a sand dune in Death Valley when I heard this little whisper, “Jo. Jo! Over here.” And there was Dan tilting his head in the opposite direction of the rest of the group to share a little gem he had discovered. 

And then there is his comic side. While the tour group is on a roll, tossing zinger after zinger, Dan quietly waits for that right moment when the room is quiet for one second. He has waited what seems a lifetime for this one. He lobs it over and lands a perfect ten each and every time. It’s timing that would make Jack Benny applaud.

Dan and I have much in common. (I’m still working on the amazing photographer part . . . and the comic timing … thing). When it comes to photography he is not a gear-head, chooses to be behind the camera and not in front of the camera, and in most aspects of life is a true introvert. He prefers conversations that are one on one or at a round table rather than speaking to a group of people. Case in point. In 1995, at his wife’s urging, he entered images into a contest with National Geographic Traveler Magazine. Of the 23,500 images submitted worldwide one of Dan’s submissions won a top 5-merit award. (Let me repeat: 23,500 images submitted!) As it turns out 2 of the four images he submitted ended up in the 1997 calendar. (Bravo!!!) The photos were taken in County Kerry, Ireland. The town was so grateful for the publicity that the Killarney Urban District Council invited him to a reception. When asked to say a few words the only words that came out were to his wife, “Honey, why don’t you say a few words.” And his wife took it from there. (I think it’s safe to say that Dan also married well.)

When I asked Dan to talk to me I knew him as a generous teacher, a guy with a quick wit, and a wonderful photographer. I never expected to hear of the jam packed journey that he has been on for the past 73 years. From dog trainer, to saxophonist, clarinet player by the skin of his teeth (you’ll have to ask him), salesman, and finally an amazing photographer, mentor, and wonderful man. Sadly there is no room in this blog to fully recognize the highlights of the roads less traveled by most of us, but I urge you to visit his website to see where he has been and what he has done. You will not be disappointed.

Black Valley Ruin (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography? 
I’m 73, and I remember when my parents, like all the others from the WWII generation, had one of these old time cube-shaped box cameras – the ones that looked like it had a coke bottle lens. I remember that it had a shutter release button that took a picture either way you pushed it.  So if you pulled the shutter release button up it would take a picture. If you pushed it back down it would take another one. So there were a lot of double exposures created as a result. And then there were my mothers’ family photo albums. She was always taking pictures of the kids. A high percentage of these photos were black and white. Color was something people didn’t have the money to do. 

Was there any catalyst that started you on your way?
The catalyst was looking at the pictures.  When I figured out what the camera did and I saw the pictures in the album I think that piqued my curiosity. In high school I trained dogs for others. I was going to be a professional dog handler at one time. The owner of Henley’s Photo Shop in Bakersfield happened to be one of the biggest German Shepherd breeders in the state. Because I had a relationship with him he offered me a job. During that time I learned the basics of photography. There were so many experienced people there. I got a really good education. 

Ice Beach (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying
to communicate and to whom? 

I would go back to one of my mother’s quotes, “Throughout my lifetime I have prayed for peace in the world. One day I became aware that I have no control over world peace. But I can bring peace into me, and in turn a little more peace will be given to the world.” This applies to my visual communication, because I see photography as a means to present the positive aspects of life and the extraordinary beauty that nature lends us. So in my mind too much negative imagery is produced and sometimes, many times, for shock effect or “for art’s sake.” Personally I see enough of that on a daily basis and it doesn’t interest me what-so-ever. Art or not. 

Is it beauty in everything or just natural settings?
I don’t know. Maybe it was my parents taking me to Yosemite when I was a young boy that influenced me. I have a black and white photo that was taken of my older brother and I standing in a meadow in Yosemite. I remember camping. It was just fascinating to hear the sounds and the smells of nature.  That is probably why I love nature so much. I spend so much time indoors with my business that I use photography as a respite from the business world and stresses of life. 

Dogwoods (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Why photography as a medium?
There aren’t many creative endeavors that can rival photography.  There is music, and dance, and throwing clay and all sorts of things, but I don’t think there are many things that compete with photography. My degree is in the creative arts.  My degree in music is in the performing arts.  I directed and sang in barbershop quartets for 12 years. And I used to judge competitions and I directed two barbershop choruses. But it’s not so much a creative thing as it is a part of something else. As a singer, you are depending on others. Photography you can do solo and learn at your own pace. 

Is there any one subject that you shoot that gets you into the zone more than others? 
I’m glad you asked! My love is abstracts. Mostly nature abstracts. A reflection in the water, ice abstracts – those kinds of things.  They really speak to me.  I’m not sure why, but I do know that if I am taking a picture of a reflection or an ice abstract, that image can never be duplicated. Water moves; ice melts.  And from that perspective, just knowing that I have created a one of a kind piece invigorates me. I can say that I have something here that no one else has. Even I am unable to recreate it. 

Fall Reflection (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

How did you come upon abstracts?
In my early membership in PSA (Photographic Society of America) I found that rules had to be followed to be successful in salon judging. Rules like, “You can’t have the hand of man in it if you are shooting a nature subject. You can’t have a fence post or a garbage can or some kind of telephone pole in the picture because it wouldn’t be natural.” There are not many places you can go that there aren’t some evidence of the “hand of man.”  So I kept using telephoto lenses trying to isolate the subject to get rid of the things that judges didn’t want in the picture. Remember, these were the film days!  As a result my pictures became closer and closer and the field of view became narrower and narrower. When I saw subjects up close my vision changed dramatically. Visually speaking it made my heart race. So the process started with rules and ended up a revelation. 

How did you know it was a good photo if it didn’t follow the rules you were meant to follow?
I took a lot of different pictures of the same subject and I would compare them, knowing that there may be one that worked better than others. I learned to have a feel for what looked right for me – not what is right for everyone else. Interestingly, many of my most successful images were ones taken before I knew there were rules. So it was my own intuition of balance and rhythm that helped me. 

Tree in Morning Mist  (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Tree in Morning Mist (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

How do you prepare yourself for an assignment? 
I don’t like assignments. I got a “C” in photography in Junior College.  My interest was in nature. But a typical assignment would go like this: “Ok, class, I want you to go out and take 36 exposures of fire hydrants.”  I just hated it.  I prefer not to give myself assignments. Instead, I shoot what pleases me. I don’t shoot people, weddings, still life, fashion, or sports. I follow what I love.

How do you keep it fresh? 
By not being a professional photographer! [Laughter] I’m not a professional photographer. I am an advanced amateur hobbyist. If I were a professional photographer it would become a job, which is precisely why I prefer not doing photography for a living. I’m very serious about my craft, but I want to keep my hobby in perspective. 

Palouse Hills (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

What do you do when you just don’t have it as a photographer?
I put my camera down and relax. What’s the hurry? I also reduce my expectations and let the images come to me rather than forcing them. My tour partner, John Barclay, calls unrealistic expectations “FUDs.” You get fears, uncertainties, and doubts much like writers’ block is for a writer. When you push too hard the creativity disappears. In order to overcome that I just say, “What’s the hurry?” That has helped me consistently produce better images than at any time in the past.  Last year on two of our tours I said to John, “If I look like I’m not interested or not taking pictures don’t worry about me, I just want to relax and let the pictures come to me.” I came back with my best two shoots ever. 

And then there are times I don’t have it. I don’t have to get an “A” every time I go out. If I did, it wouldn’t be a challenge, would it?

Dune Abstract (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

What about teaching?
In a teaching situation I do more observing and I try to find subjects that might help others. Not that it’s great, but a subject that may have potential.  Typically what I will do is look through their viewfinder and see what they are seeing, then ask them to take that picture, because I want them to compare it with another one. They may love the picture they took when they get home, or they may love something else. They need to take the picture they see, and then compare them. “How do you feel about the tree limb that’s sticking into the frame from the upper left?  Does your eye get stuck there?” And I go through a series of questions with them so they can get the idea that they need to move their eye visually through the frame. Sometimes they don’t see it, so I offer them another choice and let them decide by having both pictures to see what works best for them, and that way they can learn from it. 

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer? 
Finding the time to do photography in between the complexities of life.  

What do you find is the biggest challenge facing professional photographers today?
I couldn’t say, because I don’t consider myself a professional photographer. That’s the honest answer.  I don’t think like a professional photographer in that I don’t feel I have to have a web presence.  I don’t have to have a marketing plan.  I don’t have to be sure I get the “Likes” on my Facebook page. I don’t think that way.  There is a lot of competition out there, and the competition is really intense at the higher level. There are hundreds of photographers who do phenomenal  work.  I’m just trying to sit up tall and take nourishment.  

Moeraki Boulder (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse? 
I think that I am inspired by many professional photographers and some talented advanced amateurs. If I were to give credit to one person it would be Freeman Patterson. He’s lives in New Brunswick, and has received the Order of Canada.  He’s authored little flip books called, Photography for the Joy of It and Photography and the Art of Seeing.  I consider him an intellectual who is a great communicator about how to see things. He got me away from thinking “Look, there’s a pine tree out there. Oh, that’s pretty. Oh, right next to it is a cabin.” He teaches how to see all things as shapes.  So, a pine tree becomes a triangle.   A house is now a square or a rectangle.   That’s the premise. You look at things as shapes rather than what they are in reality. From that perspective the subject doesn’t matter. He became the catalyst to bring me from the “guidelines/rules” of composition to being able to see, and how to create a pleasing balance within the frame using shapes, line, textures, and color.   He is a true craftsman; and he teaches in such a way that even I can understand, which is giving him a lot of credit.  It was an “Ah Ha” moment for me.  What I have learned from Freeman has changed my old habits and helped me create a more defined personal Vision.  That’s what I learned from him, and that’s what I try to teach when we are on location.
I’ve taken about 35 workshops and tours from professional photographers throughout the country. And of course I’ve done my own tours for the past 9 years with my friend, John Barclay. Folks in our photo tours dubbed us, "The BS Brothers!"

My wife is my muse. She sees things that I don’t see. She doesn’t do photography, but she sees things that I don’t. She is someone that really pushes me to see things differently. 

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be? 
Be patient and authentic in your work. To be honest and thoughtful of others. And most of all, follow your own vision. That is so important. Personal vision is the big buzz word now. Of course you’ll find people like Cole Thompson and Chuck Kimmerle, who are masters of our craft.  They have a personal vision that is unique. I don’t think I have found mine.  [Editors note: I completely disagree with this statement. That is all.] I have some good images, and have had some success in doing certain things, but having a vision that people can identify as mine is something I don’t have.

Any parting wisdom to share? 
Photography is a passion that provided me a respite from the business world and the difficulties that life brings. It gives me an opportunity to commune with nature and share ideas with like-minded people. Travel to destinations I had never dreamed of growing up. It’s also furthered my education in the creative arts. 

Illumination - Antelope Canyon (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

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? – Objects
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Pretty Landscapes
5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Root Canal
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or point or shoot? – Long Lens
3. Commercial or Fine Art? – Neither. [Editor’s note: See “the parting shot.”] 
2. Tell me about the one that got away. – You have to have it before it can get away.
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – My best picture will be my next picture. [Editors note: you may have read this answer on another candid conversation post. Please know that that person, who shall not be named, actually stole this quote from Dan. It was Dans’ quote first. Scouts honor.]

The Parting Shot

"I have sold my work to corporate entities and private collector’s worldwide. I still prefer to call myself a photographer and leave the “A” word out. It is for others to decide if my photography is worthy of being called art. If you have to tell somebody it’s art it probably isn’t."

Alpenglow Reflection and Ice (Photo Credit: Dan Sniffin)

Candid Conversations: Louise Shoemaker

Louise Shoemaker

Louise Shoemaker

Louise Shoemaker
Retired Schoolteacher/Hobbyist
Portales, New Mexico




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!)

Swift River, New Hampshire, with the blaze of fall color (Photo Credit: Louise Shoemaker)

The Conversation

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 spotstopping 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. 

Light on the land—the Palouse (Photo Credit: Louise Shoemaker)

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 timeneedlework, 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. 

Soft sea and sky from the top of a glacier at 11 pm in Iceland on the wildest photographic night of my life! 
(Photo Credit: Louise  Shoemaker)

How do you keep it fresh? 
Part of the process is discovery of different placesgoing 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!

Deep woods—Birch forest in the mountains behind Jasper in the Canadian Rockies (Photo Credit: Louise Shoemaker)

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 soonthat 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. 

Serendipity—leaves in a New Zealand garden (Photo Credit: Louise Shoemaker)

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. 

Adam’s Crossing, a rural mountain road near Hogback Mountain, Vermont (Photo Credit: Louise Shoemaker)

The Questionnaire

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."

Looking into the heart of the iceberg, Jokulsarlon Lagoon, Iceland (Photo Credit: Louise Shoemaker)

Candid Conversations: Howard Grill

howard grill.jpg

Howard Grill
Hobby Photographer
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania


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I met Howard Grill a few months ago on a photo tour of Death Valley. A quiet and unassuming guy he blew the roof off the room when he showed off his prints of flowers. Ay caramba, they were stunning. Toward the end of the tour I was in a conversation with Howard about his work and website when he told me the story about shooting the old Carrie Furnace in Pittsburgh and finding a guy who had worked there who agreed to an interview.  I was so excited about the historical aspects of this that I told him about my little website and history blog. He encouraged me to pick it up again. Once I got home and looked at his site and listened to the interview it gave me the boost of energy I needed to pick it up again. So, I would like to give him a shout out for getting me back on track to happy land.

While we may have a little mutual admiration society going on here, we couldn’t be more different. Howard grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Like many, his love of photography came when he was in the darkroom of a family friend and watched that first image come to life. For his 8th grade graduation he insisted on getting a camera and enlarger so he could make the magic on his own. But when the time came, instead of choosing photography as a profession Howard headed to medical school and parked his camera for a long hiatus.

We are very happy, however that Howard finally picked it up again because the world is a much better place for having his vision as part of it. 

Flaming Tulip (Photo Credit Howard Grill)


What is your first memory of photography?
I don’t really know. I remember reading popular photography. I can’t really remember what it is that grabbed me. It’s funny, as we’re talking about this I remember in medical school there was one week where I said, “maybe I have some time to do some of this after all.” And I remember walking around Boston and taking pictures. There was actually a little darkroom in the dormitory that nobody used because nobody had the time. So I printed a few pictures here and there and within a week I realized why nobody used it because nobody had the time and I didn’t have the time either! 

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?  
I don’t think I’m trying to tell something in terms of a particular message. Some people try, for example, to use nature photography for an ecological type message. I’m not really doing that although I do consider myself an environmentalist. But that’s not why I am doing it.  I do it more to convey the feeling of being there. What it was like to be there. What it was like to see the sun rising through the fog. It is more about trying to recreate a feeling than it is a specific message. I guess you could say it’s more of a sentence than it is a paragraph or a chapter.   

Lake Arthur Sunrise (Photo Credit Howard Grill)

Why photography as a medium?
I have no talent for anything else! [Laughter] I can’t play an instrument. I can’t sing. You have to be passionate about something in order to do it well. Even when I was young I would I get into things very deeply. I want to explore it for all its worth and immerse myself into it. When I get out there, shooting is very meditative for me. Once I get involved in a scene I become very oblivious to what is going on around me. 
Are there any subjects that you shoot that get you into the zone more than others? 
I think one of the reasons I enjoy nature photography, besides the fact that I enjoy the beauty of nature, is that I like doing things very slow and exacting. So when you are out there you can sit and take your time. You don’t have to worry, for example if you are taking pictures of people, that they are getting fidgety. You don’t have to worry about anybody else. You can just self introspect and be there. The trees don’t care if you take the shot fast. I am able to do things in the way I want to do them.  And I have an attachment to the subjects as well. I don’t like feeling rushed.

Do you think there is an intersection or correlation between your profession and photography?
Yes and no. There is an intersection in that I am an interventional cardiologist, which means that I do heart catheterization and stent placement and those sorts of things. So when we are doing that we are taking angiograms, making movies, moving pictures of the arteries in the heart. There is a certain fascination and beauty to see the heart beating in real time and to see blood flowing down arteries in the human body in real time, but that is not what I am thinking of when I am working. 

Did you ever entertain photography as your profession?
Every day.  (I say every day, but my wife probably says every hour!) Doing the photography I enjoy is frankly very difficult to make a living at it. I can see in the future wanting to go potentially part time at my work to do more things I like to do. The kind of photography I do is pretty amenable to be displayed in health care facilities. The hospital system I work for has bought a lot of my prints for their outpatient facilities and offices because it does have a calming effect. It is the kind of imagery that matches well with those locations. 

Succulent (Photo Credit Howard Grill)

When you are out in the field and having one of “those days” is there anything you do to kick it into gear? 
There are two answers to that. The first is, everybody has those days where you aren’t feeling creative. You aren’t seeing. I don’t view it as a failure. There are times I’ve gone out and haven’t taken any pictures. But it’s still good. Just being out there and looking it’s still good. And I still enjoy it immensely. The second answer is, I asked my teacher Nancy Rotenberg that same question. She agreed that we all have days like that, but told me that the thing is if you just get out of the car and take pictures, just start exercising by taking pictures, you will start to work through that.  And then there are those great days when you just can't stop seeing things.

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer? (The taking pictures part… not the making money part.) 
The toughest part is I tend to be a perfectionist. When I am home and looking at what I have done, a) I tend to be very critical and there is a small percentage that I process; and, b) when I am processing and trying to print I tend to be very exacting.  It takes me a long time. I find it frustrating because there are other images I can be working on. My output isn’t as high as I like it to be.

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse? 
I do enjoy looking at other peoples’ work. I collect photography books, not the how to books, but monographs, images. One of the people who has affected me, not only in terms of picture taking but who also offers insight in a bigger way in terms of what to do with images, how to put them together, and the idea of how to be innovative about how you get your work out is Brooks Jensen.  [Editor of Lens Work] He really has been exploring not just the artwork but how in this age different ways social media and the Internet can let you expand and find your audience. 

Another person is Nancy Rotenberg who was one of the first people I did workshops with, and I did a lot with her. She certainly influenced my work greatly in the sense that the things she taught were what she called going beyond the handshake. To establish some type of relationship with the subject.  Get beyond the surface and show what is special about it. 

Spring (Photo Credit Howard Grill)

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be? 
I think the 20 year old me did the right thing. Maybe it’s more appropriate to ask what the 20 year old me should advise to me today. 

The Questionnaire

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 Landscapes
5. Weddings or Root Canal? - Root canal
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Holga? -  Kitted out
3. Commercial or Fine Art? - Fine art
2. Tell me about the one that got away. -  Every day riding to work.  
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. -  The next one.  

The Parting Shot

“I guess there must be something about freezing that moment in time and holding onto that moment forever. That moment can never be reproduced.”

Sunrise (Photo Credit Howard Grill)