We start a series of photography posts on eCharta Blog. It is a great honor for us to start with this great photographer Wendy Monahan.
Born into a 1960ʼs rural existence, Wendy was raised in a continuously moving matriarchal household of a riding-instructor mother and piano-teacher grandmother. As a child she raised domestic animals, caught wild ones, collected stuff and made bug houses. While living in a rural solitary existence she dreamed of being a scientist and spent days reading science fiction novels. At some point she began to worry about the passage of time and became fascinated with the process of photography. Armed with a Kodak Brownie and a Polaroid Instamatic, she documented all of the family pets, livestock, and anything or anyone else that would sit still for her. Somehow she survived teen angst and went to college, forgetting photography and choosing to study anthropology at UNLV. After completing the degree, her intention was to continue an academic education. She began to work on a Masterʼs Degree in Public History while at the same time taking a beginning photography course at the community college. She knew about halfway through a semester of medieval history, that she was on the wrong path. She had a great interest in history and art, but also needed some sort of scientific grounding. She studied commercial photography instead and has spent the last ten years as a photographer in Las Vegas. While she enjoys the work, digital capture and computer editing do not satisfy her need to make tangible things. So, she is happily back in the darkroom. She has an obsession with photographic contraptions and employs all formats of vintage camera and darkroom equipment. Her goal for 2013 is to learn to make photographic emulsions and coat her own papers.
So we took some time with Wendy to talk about her passion for photography.
Q: Hello Wendy! You didn’t become a riding-instructor as your mom or a piano- teacher as your grandmother. You got involved with photography. How did you get introduced to photography and to your first Kodak Brownie?
A: Oh, that was so long ago now. I must have been 7 or 8 years old when I started using the Brownie and I do not know where it came from. What I remember most about the camera was the sound of the shutter going off. Something about looking into that box and the sound it made hooked me. I was a shy child and found my rural existence incredibly boring. I read a lot of different things, but sci-fi was the most prevalent genre. As a kid, I would see moments that seemed to have some kind of interest or promise of something less than mundane. I was desperate to capture that.
Q: Did your early photographic goals include earning a living from photography, or did it start as a way to express yourself creatively? I’m talking of course after the College years.
A: When I started taking photography classes, I just wanted to be able to understand photography, learn how to operate the camera, and print in a darkroom. It was all very mysterious to me. I was considering grad school and what my major should be and was unhappy with how things were progressing. I began to realize the potential of photography as a way to earn a living and as a way to realize my artistic nature. Everything just started to come together.
Q: When did you know you finally “made it” as a professional and when did you make your first photography sale? Do you remember it?
A: Photography is such a huge field of study. I am constantly studying new techniques. There was a point in my career that I was doing a lot of portraiture. I was setting up my studio one day and I didn’t look at any lighting diagrams or wonder what would happen if I set the light this way or that. I just knew. When I was editing after the session my exposures and light ratios were right on, my model looked at ease, and we made some great images. I thought, ah, this is what being a professional photographer feels like. It is funny, but I do not remember my first sale as a commercial photographer, but I distinctly remember my first sale at an art show. I had just joined a local art guild and was participating in my first show. My patient and wonderful husband had spent weeks with me matting, framing, making signs and such. A young woman came by, browsed through my photos, left, and came back later to buy one. It seems silly but that small sale was very exciting to me.
Q: What do you like MOST and LEAST about running your professional photography life?
A: What I like most about being a professional photographer is connecting with a portrait client. There is something intimate about photographing someone. They show themselves to you. When you make a great portrait together it is very rewarding. What I like least about being a professional photographer is the amount of time I spend running the business and not taking photographs.
Q: I’m sure that you have at least one turning point in your career. What was it?
A: Absolutely the decision to go back to traditional photographic methods for my art work has been the turning point in my career. It was a costly and time consuming decision. When I first decided to do it I did not quite realize what I was getting myself into. I forgot how difficult and time consuming traditional photography is. I have learned much more than I expected to, both from a technical standpoint and also from a personal growth standpoint. When I get a good image that I exposed, processed, and printed myself, it is so rewarding.On a side note, I also really love the smell of the emulsion on the paper.I had never really done much landscape work previous to my re-emergence in traditional methods. I started going out alone to different locations carrying all of my equipment and a tripod with me. I found myself searching for the unusual and surreal in whatever landscape I had put myself in. I was particularly drawn to places with strange sounds. One day I was driving over some mountainous terrain between two valleys and I came across some burned out yucca trees lit by the late afternoon sun. The wind was blowing hard and there were some telephone lines strung up through the area. The sounds were so loud and creepy. I forced myself to get out of the car and immerse myself in that environment. I ended up with images I was not completely satisfied with technically, but I will never forget that experience. It was so exhilarating. It is the search for something, that drives me to keep doing it.
Q: Best piece of advice you ever received about photography?
A: My firsts photography instructor was an artist. His advice was to be patient. Do not take photos, make photos. I did not completely comprehend his advice at the time, but it has proven to be true.
Q: Many people ask about profound features and explicit details about your job. I want to hear from you some quick advice for someone who simply wants to improve their photography skills.
A: Photograph everything at different focal lengths and use manual settings. Study your exposures and learn from them. Study exposure and exposure value. Learn to edit your work. The technical stuff may seem boring, but do it anyway.
Q: You say that you prefer the “dark room” instead of digital photography. Actually I do too. Why? Do you think there is room for the “traditional” film shooting in our days?
A: I absolutely believe there is room for “traditional” film shooting! Let’s keep doing it and keep this great tradition alive! Right now, I use digital for commercial work and only traditional photography for my fine art work. I made this rule for myself almost two years ago. I was finding digital photography uninspiring and unchallenging. The amount of digital imagery, good and bad, being made was lowering the value and expectation of digital imaging in general. It was (and is), getting more difficult to get good prints made from a lab. I do not like the look of inkjet prints for my photographs, nor do I enjoy the digital printing process. I believe there is much more value in a handmade photograph on traditional paper made by an artist. I want to remain a viable photographer and artist, and I see traditional photography as the truest way for me to do it.
Q: Many pro photographers aren’t sharing their secrets. Are you currently serving in some sort of mentor capacity to younger aspiring photographers?
A: I have done so a few times without success. My mentees have not wanted to learn the technical aspects of photography or make the financial commitment to equipment. I start them off with the classic notion of compromise between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. I have yet to get a mentee off of program mode with a digital camera. There are a lot of variables that need to be tended to and it is easy to overlook or forget something important. Eventually it all becomes second nature, but at first it can seem overwhelming. Most recently I was approached by a young woman who wanted to learn from me, but she did not want to actually buy a camera until she knew how to use it. I tried to explain to her that photography does not work like that. Digital technology has changed photography to a much greater extent than I had anticipated, and it is not stopping. If I choose to have a mentee again, it will be to show them traditional processes and not digital imaging. I do hope for that at some future date.
Q: What’s not fun about your job? We know that even great jobs have aspects that aren’t wonderful.
A: Sometimes the schedule can be grueling and there is a lot of equipment to lug around. If a client is not organized or does not know what they want, there tends to be a lot of “hurry up and wait”.
Q: Could you describe your most challenging and your favorite shoots you’ve been on?
A: The most challenging project for me was photographing nudes. I was a fairly reserved person. I was very uncomfortable with nudity. I am not necessarily uncomfortable with nudity in print or film, but that is a different matter than being alone with a naked stranger or mild acquaintance. I wanted to do a series of images that involved shape and form, with my female subjects wearing masks. I still distinctly remember my first session. My subject was a model and makeup artist whom I had worked with on a few occasions. I think it scared both of us, but we had a mutual trust. We got through that first session together; grinning and baring it. Pardon the pun. After that, each session became a little easier. I ended up working with five different women. I finished my photographic work and was unhappy with the initial results. I started working with the images and discovered that the masks completely conflicted with my initial idea. Once I changed my perspective and got rid of the conflicting elements, it started to work. I am really proud of this series, which evolved into “Torso, The Human Landscape”. It was a great learning experiment for me, both as a human, and an artist.
Q: What is your process for gaining people’s trust? How do you get to the core of what you’re going after?
A: When I photograph people, I check my ego at the door. I try to spend some time talking with them before I start to photograph them. Most people do not know what to do in front of a camera and do not feel comfortable. It is my job to gain their trust and make them feel at ease. I do not force them into uncomfortable positions. I just wait until they show me. It is really amazing to look at the evolution of a photo session with someone who is shy or reluctant to be photographed. You can see their confidence come forward. I love that.
Q: You say that you want to learn to make photographic emulsions and coat your own papers. But what’s really next for you?
A: Yes, I really do want to start making emulsions. I have given myself a deadline of December 31, 2013 to successfully coat paper and film. Part of the enjoyment of traditional photography for me is its hands on nature. It really is a great meshing of science and art. What’s next for me? I plan on expanding my creative body of work and continuing my search for unusual experiences that I can create images from.
Q: What do you think of eCharta as a design, as user interface functionality, and as an online auction/exchanging PAPER ONLY platform?
A: I really love paper and different printing processes. I make photographs, but I also collect old photographs and all kinds of vintage prints. I was really excited when I discovered eCharta. I had been wanting to connect with other paper collectors, but did not see a viable platform to do it. I like hunting for things at antique stores, but not on the internet. Large auction sites can be difficult to navigate and I do not have the time to do that. eCharta is simple to navigate and use for both the buyer and seller, and it exists for the niche market of paper lovers, collectors, and makers. Many uses for paper have become obsolete and as paper is used less and less I believe that its intrinsic value will increase. I am really thrilled to be involved with eCharta and I think it can grow into a really great place to connect and collect all things paper!
Wendy already has listed some of her beautiful photos on eCharta for sale.
We also hope that we’re going to convince her to write for our blog photography tips and tricks quite often.