inspiration | leah zawadzki

most of you probably already know that leah is one of my dearest friends, but she is also such a huge inspiration to me -- not only in photography, but also in life. leah inspires me creatively.  she inspires me to be a stronger photographer.  she inspires me to be a better wife, mother and friend.  i can honestly say that i wouldn't be the photographer or person that i am today, without leah in my life.  i will forever be grateful for her friendship...and her inspiration.  i have no doubt that she and her work will inspire you too. If I remember right, you’ve been (seriously) pursuing photography since 2005. Obviously your photography has evolved over the years but has your style changed? And if so, in what ways?  It is always so hard for me to answer questions regarding my style.  I have never thought very hard about it—in terms of creating it or making it something.  I have always been asked how I found my style, but I believe style is something that finds you, evolves with you as you grow as a person and as a photographer.  Maybe it’s because I have been a student of Cheryl Jacobs since the very beginning and I’m comforted by her words and her ideals.  I have never been one to force something to happen, to stylize moments or invent myself.  I can only be myself.  To sit back and see, to observe and record, to let go and shoot freely—that’s when I do my very best work, that’s when my style grows and comes into it’s own.   So I can’t say that I think my style has changed much, no.  I think my heart has always been deeply rooted in my work and that is what defines my style. I must admit that over the years I go through periods of hiding it and other times letting it show.  Why would I hide it—because I’m scared to show it to the world, and more importantly to myself.  I think that at the heart of my life’s journey is becoming comfortable with who I am as a person and what I have to give, and crazy enough it’s photography that helps me work through that.

You recently started a ‘fifty-two portraits each’ project.  Can you share a bit about your inspiration behind the project?  I needed to do something—anything to get me shooting my family again.  It’s not that I didn’t shoot them before, but it was so hard.  It was so hard because I always put so much weight on it.  It became so important to get just the right shot because I did it so infrequently.  I also love projects where you can see growth—I can’t wait to see all the photos together at the end of the year.  I haven’t informed them yet, but this might not end.  I might just have to get a portrait a week of them until they are not mine anymore.

A great side effect of this project is what I am getting from it as a photographer.  Not only was I not taking (what I thought was) enough photos of my family, I was shooting less and less in general.  When I first went truly crazy over photography I wouldn’t put the camera down.  Last year it became increasingly harder to pick the camera up.  I have learned that the longer I go without shooting the harder it becomes.  The more I shoot, the more I grow and the more comfortable I am with it.

You also recently began to shoot weddings.  What inspired this and is this a new direction for your photography?  Honestly, I am not certain exactly where my photography will take me—I am still looking for the right fit with my work.  I felt compelled to give it a try.  As I mentioned before, I am not one to fabricate a moment—I enjoy observing and capturing moments as they unfold.  Weddings are perfect for that.  There is something so special about a wedding day, the love, the hope, the dreams—all right there in front of me, just waiting to be captured.

What artists inspire or influence you and why / how?  Oh gosh.  There are so many artists that inspire me or have at one point or another… Le Corbusier, Rothko, Mondrian, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe, Calder, Georgia OKeeffe, David Hockney, Barbara Cole, Cig Harvey, Sally Mann, Mona Kuhn, Mark Tucker, Max Wegner, Hugh Forte….

I think what draws me to these artists is that they are so grounded, so strong.  They all have a great sense of who they are and what they want to express in their art.  They don’t compromise themselves or what they believe in for anything.  And even though I have listed artists across three mediums, there is a common thread that draws me to them—line, composition, color, depth and strength.  As for some of the photographers on my list, I always find it interesting that they are so different then me—the content they shoot, the way they shoot.  Most of them have a vision and then go execute that vision, and as I mentioned I shoot very different then that.  But still, there are qualities to their work that speak to me, that move me and inspire me to create my own work in my own way.

What has been the best part of your photography journey thus far and why?  Connecting with people.  Seeing and getting know people, and not just my clients but my kids too.  As an introvert, I sometimes have a hard time connecting with people.  But when I photograph I make connections I never thought possible.  I am always amazed at how in love I am with my subjects after the process is over—not just in taking the photos, but in selecting and editing the photos from our time together.  In the end I feel so connected—I appreciate them, I feel like I understand them better.  It’s very hard to describe, but it’s like I see a little bit of their heart, and a little bit more of my own heart too.

What is the most important advice would you share with aspiring photographers?  Slow down and get it right.  Bit by bit.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  Be patient and true to yourself.  Shoot what you love.  And most importantly—read the Cheryl Jacob's interview.  Nobody says it better then her.

And last but not least, how do you envision the overall future of your photography?  I am still exploring and finding my way.  I am not sure if I can say I have a big vision of what that will look like exactly.  But I know what it will include—creating work that is honest and meaningful, and hopefully a little bit beautiful.

inspiration | lori vrba

i came across lori vrba's work pretty early on, in my photography journey.  at the time, lori was a commissioned portrait photographer and -- i  absolutely fell in love with her work.  i connected with lori's photographs on a deeper level.  they were so much more than just beautiful portraits; they were raw, intimate, emotional.  then i read on her blog that she was closing her commissioned portrait business, to solely pursue a career in fine art photography.  and that's exactly what she's been wholeheartedly doing since making that decision in 2009.  it's been awesome and so inspiring to watch lori's journey of passion, hard work, dedication, letting go and trust lead to so much success in her photography career.

i knew i loved this woman's work, but after reading her most recent artist statement -- goodness, it just makes me love her (and her work) that much more...

 I was raised in a small, back-woods Southeast Texas town.  I did not grow up with an exposure to art.  I did not have an uncle with a darkroom.  I did not hold a camera until I was a grown woman.  I am a self-taught artist committed to film and traditional wet darkroom printing.  I work intuitively in every creative element of my medium with an acute awareness of what and who has come before me.  My life experiences have brought me to this place where I find myself overwhelmed with the drive to make photographs about who I am...what moves me, what I feel inside, what I believe to be sacred and enduring.  I make pictures to challenge, calm, excite and satisfy my mind and heart.  I share my work in hopes of leaving some permanent, telling mark on the world...that I Was Here.

i asked lori a bit about her photography journey and this is what she had to share...

I've watched and greatly admired your journey from commissioned portrait photographer to fine art photographer.   Can you tell us a a bit how this transition took place?

It was never really my intention to be a commissioned portrait photographer.  I was making my own pictures and other moms began to ask me to photograph their children.  It became a successful business but after several years I finally realized that for me, photography was meant to be something different.  In the beginning, I was determined to understand the camera because I was compelled to make photographs of what I felt inside.  When I closed the business and once again, opened myself up to making my personal work...all I can say is...Joy.  All Around.

What would you say took your work to the next level?   The willingness to be vulnerable.  Technical skill and good execution is important in any medium.  But I believe the photographs that are made from an honest, vulnerable place are the ones that ultimately resonate with people.  Those are the images you can't forget.

How did you come to find representation for your work?  Or did they find you?

Once I had a strong portfolio, I spent a year or two attending portfolio reviews and submitting to juried group shows.  I'm represented in Atlanta, Houston and Santa Barbara and all three found my work through the reviews or juried shows.

There's been some discussion and shall I say, controversy, regarding some of the photographs of children in your projects.  What are your thoughts on this? The short answer is...You can't please everyone all the time.  The real answer is...My three children are a huge part of my work.  My most important "job" is to protect my children and I'm very good at it.  As an artist it is not my job to predict how anyone will experience or interpret my imagery...that is not true art.  Art is self's not filtered down to satisfy anyone or everyone's psyche.  I am a good mother and an honest artist.  I sleep well at night.

What advice and / or cautions would you give to photographers wanting to take a similar leap from commissioned work to fine art work? Ha...Put on your big-girl-panties because art is not for sissies!  Know that rejection and self-doubt will always be matter how good you are.  There will not be money coming in for prepared financially.  If you continue to do both, separate the commercial work from the fine art work for websites, portfolios, etc...two entirely different audiences.

Balance seems to be a topic for so many photographers.  How do you manage to balance it all (wife, mother, photographer)? Balance is over rated.  I am never doing it all well at the same time.  Ebb and Flow.

What artists greatly inspire or influence you?  And how / why? Keith Carter has been my dear friend and mentor for several years now.  We grew up in the same part of Texas so we have similar sensibilities.  His support has been invaluable.  Sally Mann, Robert Parke Harrison, Ralph Eugene Meatyard...there are too many photographers to name.  I am also inspired by music...just about any genre.  I often get project ideas from music.  I love mixed media/assemblage work as well...Joseph Cornell,  Aldwyth.  And honestly, my peers.  Some are wildly successful, some are completely unknown or "emerging"...but to carve out time to be with like-minded people...the ultimate inspiration.

What thoughts or advice do you have for emerging photographers, launching their business within a sea of other photographers? Fine tune your own clear photographic voice.  Your work can reflect your influences but should still be uniquely your own.  It takes time.

How do you envision the future of your photography?  It has been a wild, marvelous ride over the last few years.  I'm breathing it in.  I've never been so challenged or so fulfilled.


inspiration | molly flanagan

i can't remember how i met molly (via the internet), but i do remember that from the moment i came across her blog, i not only fell in love with molly's work, but also her spirit.  not long ago, molly decided to put her photography business on hold, a decision i so deeply respected and applauded (and was sure to let her know). molly's ability to capture the beauty of life and the everyday, along with the way she sees and captures light, is absolutely breathtaking.

i asked molly a few questions and here's what she had to say.  enjoy!

How would you describe your photography style?  I always find it difficult to answer this question.  I just see stuff and take pictures of it.  I kind of feel like I am styleless-- and I don't mean that in a "classic" or "timeless" way.  I wear the same jeans pretty much every day (as long as they are not covered goldfish cracker goo). My hair is usually in a messy knot on top of my head.  And I rarely wear makeup.  I just like to feel like myself-- and I get a little freaked out if I am ever out of my wardrobe comfort zone!  I guess if I had to describe my personal style, it would be "comfortable, unassuming, and functional".  Maybe my photography could be described the same way?  I don't like to manipulate.  I want things to be real.  I don't like fake.

You have such an amazing eye for light and composition.  How did you learn to see both?  Well, for composition, it isn't really something I think much about.  But I do get bored easily and once I have shot something a certain way, I want to look for new ways to see it.  I think being comfortable moving your body around and seeing things from different perspectives is really important to finding interesting compositions.  As far as light goes, this is something I feel like I grow in every year.  It amazes me how each year I see the intricacies of the light in my home differently.  I think that is such a wonderful example of how you can never plumb the depths of creativity.  This journey is never ending-- what a beautifully exciting thing!

Balance in photography is tough and so often a struggle.  You recently decided to put your photography business on hold.  What fueled that decision?  For the last few years photography has been such a HUGE part of what I do with my time and my brain. Even when my business wasn't super busy, my mind was still reeling with ideas for packaging, pricing and products.  Figuring out taxes and budgets and html.  A chunk of my kids naptime, many of my evenings, and much of my thought life was going towards this little business.  And I feel like the things that are truly important... caring for my family, loving my husband, being physically and mentally available to them, as well as using the gifts God has given me to express myself creatively and care for others, were becoming harder and harder to put first. However, I know this talent is a gift from God, and in my heart I so want to use it to bring Him glory. Truly, that is all I want. Whether behind the camera or behind the sink, I want to be available to His call.  Finding that "balance" really IS difficult.  One thing I do know is the good things that come out of my pursuits in photography pale in comparison to the good things that come out of loving God and my family.  So, I felt like it was important for me to actively "let go" of my business.  Oddly, during this process my love for the ART of photography has increasing dramatically.  I have a passion to really have something to SAY with the pictures I take.  I have no idea what is going to happen next, and I can't say that I will never take another paying client, but I feel like I have been... "repotted"... my goals refined.  It has been good.

What artists inspire or influence you and why / how?  Jessica Todd Harper's use of light paired with seemingly boring aspects of family life inspired me to see the beauty in the mundane aspects of my own life.  She also inspired me to pursue my own work in a more fine art style.  Julie Blackmon's Domestic Vacation series gave me a great appreciation for the role details can play in photography and how important they can be to adding depth to a story.  And the composition and storytelling of her Mind Games series-- they are just amazing.  And I love Todd Selby.  His holistic approach to photo shoots influenced my approach to photographing people in a huge way! And finally, Jeremy and Ashley Parsons.  They totally shoot what they see.  When I look at their blog posts, I feel like they are able to hit all of my 5 senses through their photographs.

What has been the best part of your photography journey thus far and why?  I can't believe how much fun I have had!  I've had the chance to meet lots of interesting people and travel to new places.  And photography has been such a great way to process through all of the ups and downs of life with small children.  Really, it has ALL been the best (well, not the paying taxes part and red tape.  That part sort of stinks).

How do you envision the future of your photography?  I just want to shoot things that move me.  I doubt I will ever be a news journalist in a war torn country, but I would really like to focus deeply on some storytelling projects.

What would be your dream photo shoot?  The cast of Growing Pains circa 1987.    

What is one thing that most do not know about you, but might find interesting?  I have one blue eye and one green eye.

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?  Take lots and lots of pictures.  Shoot what inspires you.  Don't spend too much time living inside your computer.



inspiration | cheryl jacobs

i'm excited to share a few special blog posts while i'm away in africa -- blog posts that will be featuring photographers, who have greatly inspired me over the years. first up is cheryl jacobs (CJ). i met CJ eight months after picking up my camera, when i attended one of her workshops. she encouraged me. she inspired me. she taught me that it was okay to be was okay to be me. and i could never thank her enough for this gift she gave me so early on in my photography journey.

when i asked CJ if she would like to participate in my blog series, she said sure.  so i gave her some questions that she could answer, but also told her to feel free to write about whatever she wanted, if she would rather do that.  and so she did.

i'm thrilled to share these inspirational thoughts and photos from cheryl jacobs...

I got a great compliment from Freddy the sax player last night. I was hanging out at a great old jazz club here in Denver called El Chapultepec. The guys who play there are the real deal, most of them earning their living with their instruments for longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve gradually gotten to know some of them, and they’re the kind of characters who send you running for your camera. In recent months when I’ve dropped by, they’ve asked me to sit in for a song or two. Scary as hell, but not an opportunity you turn down.

Last night, Freddy invited me up to sing a great old jazz standard called Body and Soul. I love that song. I love to close my eyes and get lost in it. When it’s right, it’s magic. You can’t sing that song and not mean it. “My life’s a hell you’re making / you know I’m yours for the taking” – seriously, they don’t write them like that anymore.

And then came the compliment. He looked at me funny and said, “You just don’t sound like anyone else, do you? You got a real unusual voice.”

And now a little background information. When you grow up as I did in the world of church music, with virtually no exposure to any other genre, and with no one to teach you technique, or to give you any real feedback, you end up developing your sound according to what works to your ear. You can’t mimic anyone if there’s no one there to mimic. You can’t copy someone’s phrasing, or their delivery, or their intonation if you’ve never heard it. You learn to sing a song the way you feel it, with no idea whether it’s “right”. Regardless of whether people enjoy listening to it or not, it is honest. (Notice that Freddy didn’t say my voice was “good” or “nice”; he said it was “unusual.”)

(This has something to do with photography, right?)

The scariest thing you will ever do as an artist is to be your honest, flawed self. The one you don’t think people will understand, the one you lock away because judgment would be too painful.

It is so easy to look around us and see what others are doing. Pictures are everywhere we look, bombarding us, even in our own homes. We have the Internet, TV, billboards, packaging, magazines, advertisements, all flashing the latest cool imagery at us. And when they aren’t assaulting our eyes in the course of daily life, we photographers are seeking them out online. (We call it “inspiration.”) We involuntarily compare ourselves with other photographers, and we can’t help but notice which images are getting big public responses, what the “rockstars” are doing, what the trends are. We soak all that information up – and then we’re frustrated that our work looks like everyone else’s. And then we stop loving the process, because it feels meaningless. Because it is meaningless.

The truth is, the only thing you have that no one else has is yourself. Your collection of experiences and values, and your sense of beauty are the only things that can set you apart as an artist. Everything else can be bought, borrowed, downloaded, or stolen.

The magic, the true you or at least hints of it, can be found in the images you love that you don’t share. You know they’re special, and that’s why you guard them. If your work is truly an honest reflection of you, then criticism of your work is actually a criticism of you as a person, right? But if you’re modeling your work after what other photographers are doing, then the criticism isn’t so personal. (If I mold my voice to sound like Ella Fitzgerald’s, I don’t have to take it personally if someone doesn’t like “Ella’s” sound.) Unfortunately, insulating yourself from possible rejection also prevents you from being fulfilled as an artist. I see this all the time during critiques with other photographers; I can always tell when an artist is holding back their best and most personal work. Always.

Here is my challenge to you:

Stop looking at what others are doing. Start looking at the world around you, and the world inside you. Stop shooting with an eye on what you believe others will like, and stop judging the strength of an image by the number of comments and Facebook thumbs you receive. Start creating photographs that are vulnerable enough that they scare you, and learn to be brave enough to share them. And to stand proudly behind them. Start the long and painful process of learning to answer your own questions, and embrace the trials, errors, and frustrations you’ll experience along the way.

And learn that when someone tells you that you don’t sound like anyone else, it is a high compliment.