What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?
I started using my Dad's cameras when I was a little girl. The first one was a cheap Brownie. I was eight or nine. I dressed up our farm cats in my doll clothes and took their photos. Pictures of my family and cousins were part of my earliest work, too. In high school my Dad gave me his Rolleiflex twin lens. He had brought it home from WWII and he no longer used it. Mom took pictures of our family growing up, but I do not recall using her camera. I also used a Polaroid Swinger and a point and shoot in junior high and high school. My photos were always of people I knew. I really wanted to work on the yearbook but some of the teachers did not like my rebellious (very innocent) nature and voted me off of the yearbook staff.
Finishing high school I enrolled in a graphic arts program at a junior college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. How I got there is another story. It was indicative of the times... Mr. Wilson, our "guidance counselor" was aware of my desire to attend college for a degree in Art Education and said it was a "fantasy of mine". Matter of factly, he told me I would never make it in college because I did not like math and science. He convinced me to attend a junior college and enrol in Fashion Merchandising. I did not want to sell clothing and I promptly switched to Graphic Arts. This was 1971. My perception of my options in life was miniscule. Getting married, being a housewife or teacher, secretary, beautician or nurse...those were my options....as far as I knew. I was in the middle of nowhere on a rural farm in eastern Iowa.
I enjoyed the Graphic Arts program and learned a little about photography. My boyfriend gave me a Minolta SRT 101 for Christmas. It was the best gift anyone ever gave me. It was 1972. Following school I found a job working in the darkroom for a printing company in Dubuque, Iowa. By 1973 I was pregnant with my first daughter and I married my boyfriend, the one who had given me the camera. After Jenna was born, I began working as graphic artist in a printing shop in Maquoketa, Iowa. I did paste-up for brochures, business cards, etc. I made about $2.00 an hour.
I was married with a baby and needed badly to bring in more income because my husband's income was not enough and he was also young and irresponsible. In 1976 I was asked by a young woman in Bellevue, Iowa if I would like to buy her portrait studio business. My parents lent me a down payment for her business and I began photographing people for a living. I learned a great deal about people, lighting and business. It became a successful portrait business and lasted nearly twelve years. Being the portrait and wedding photographer in Bellevue eventually lost its appeal. I wanted something else and I knew it.
In 1987, my two daughters and I moved to Iowa City so I could attend undergraduate college at the University of Iowa. I had been divorced for seven years. In retrospect I can see I was making quite a leap and financially it was not such a good one. Going in debt with student loans, and being a single mom was difficult, oh and I was also learning how to be a student again. I loved school. After finishing a BFA in Intermedia (Performance Art and Video Art) I applied and was accepted into the Intermedia graduate program. During my long stint studying I was also immersed in fine art photography. The Lost Nation Photographs began in the later eighties and continued for nearly fifteen years. This work is a very personal and poetic exploration of the everyday world. Although Lost Nation is a small town in eastern Iowa, my Lost Nation does not occupy a physical place; it is a universal feeling and a metaphor for the human condition.
In answer to why I stayed in the field of photography, I would say, I love it and I think I am good at it. I enjoy the ability to go places with a camera I normally would not be permitted to go. Diane Arbus - an obvious influence of mine said once that she enjoyed the event of taking pictures. When I spend an hour or several hours with someone making their portrait, I am allowed into their personal space. Most of my work is on location. It feels very intimate. The title...The Two Way Lens speaks to this - there is always the photographer and there is always the person on the other side of the camera's lens.
Photography has taught me to pay attention to the little details in the everyday world. Teaching photography has done that too. I find myself talking to my students about getting in the zone, paying attention to the frame, slowing down and really seeing what is in front of you. Photography has taught me a great deal about life.
In 1999 I begun teaching photography part-time at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Teaching is something that is in my blood. I knew that when I was a girl. It is immensely satisfying and informs my own life as well as my art. Forming relationships with students keeps me connected. I can share my knowledge and passion with students who have similar feelings about art. Teaching is always about learning. I enjoy seeing their enthusiasm for photography.
I am at a crossroads once again. Maybe it is my age and maybe it is the economy but whatever it is, I have found it extremely difficult to obtain a full time tenured position in an art department. True, I have only begun searching three years ago. I continue to freelance and do commission work but what I would really like is a full time teaching position so as to be able to spend the rest of my time on photo projects. Who knows? It might be perfect the way it is now. I am ready for a new chapter though.
In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?
The internet is a wonderful way to network with other artists and photographers. Your work has a possibility of being seen if you have a website and/or blog or by using a photo network like Flickr. Entering competitions is another good idea for photographers. Jurors see your work. Sometimes your work is accepted and this gives you more presence in the photo world. Living in a community where you are part of an artist community is important. For me the quickest way to stop doing what I am doing is to isolate myself. I would like to live in a much larger art community but where and how are the questions. Making a living in the arts is very competitive. To live as an artist you have to be willing to live very frugally.
One thing I suggest to my students is to really study photography books. I am crazy about them and have a pretty large collection. They can teach
you so much about photography. I love reading interviews and essays about the photographers and why they make photographs. My books are a big source of inspiration.
How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?
I had lunch not long ago with two younger artist friends - one a photographer and one a writer. We were talking about how to make it in the arts.
I still do not believe I have made it - but they both said I had - that my status was as a successful artist working in photography. Funny.... Maybe it is that we never believe we are where we should be or where we want to be. Maybe there is always the constant search for more. I have accomplished some success by having my name out there, being recognized by some people and getting my work into solo and group exhibitions. But it feels like I am only just getting started and sometimes I wonder about it all. With the internet and digital photography the competition is real. Mark Brautigam, (he and I were both chosen for The 50 States Project) a photographer in Milwaukee, said to me recently in an email, he had been doing some thinking about the photo world and the vast industry of portfolio reviews, competitions, etc. It seems everyone is doing it. And as Mark pointed out it is pretty easy to just get lost in it.
My book "Down to the River; Portraits of Iowa Musicians" was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2007 and that is my biggest accomplishment. A series of steps were involved in making that happen. The photo project was a personal project I had been shooting for nearly twenty years in and around Iowa City. I had no preconceived idea of ever showing the work let alone publishing it. I was working on The Lost Nation Photographs at the same time and I saw that work as my more important fine art work. Justine Zimmer, a very close friend, suggested I show the work to Holly Carver at the University of Iowa Press. Holly was extremely supportive. From the idea of publishing to the actual hard-copy book, it took me over five years of work.
This past decade I have continued to make new work and to exhibit it in college galleries as well as a few museums in Iowa. I have also been in a number of group shows outside of Iowa. Two of my gelatin silver prints were in Onward '10, juried by Debbie Fleming Caffery. Over a year ago I was selected by Stuart Pilkington to be the Iowa photographer for his 50 States Project . If my work had not been present on the internet, I would not have had this wonderful opportunity.
A month ago I created a new video piece (EPK) for Pieta Brown's latest cd "One and All". My MFA was in video art but everything then was analog. The video I made for Bo Ramsey in 2000 was made using analog. This past December, I invested in a new Canon HD Vixia camera, another big external hard-drive and Final Cut Express to make this new piece for Pieta.
I work in film and digital photography as well as video. In order to reach any level of success in the arts, you must get used to rejection, be dedicated, hard-working and of course have some talent. I struggle financially to make ends meet. If you are young and a people person, I recommend wedding photography. You learn everything about being a photographer by doing it. I have shot about 600 weddings or close to it. It is emotionally and physically a very demanding job. Extremely stressful. I did love it and I always wanted to please my clients. It was a good fit but once again, I see myself moving into something else. Not really sure what... It is not easy to be an artist but it is my life so far and I do like my life. The financial struggle is real. I have considered other careers but everything so far has been linked to photography.