Deborah has been on a photographic journey for over 30 years – she speaks frankly about her experiences and offers some wise words. Check her out below.
Say hello to Deborah:
Where are you from? Where have you been?
I grew up in a very small town in rural north Alabama. It was named after a bootlegger who sold a “scant” fifth of whiskey, meaning it wasn’t quite full. Think about the movie Lawless, and you’re very close to the actual experience.
I’ve traveled extensively all over America, as well as to Japan, Thailand, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
I don’t have a single favorite place. I enjoy lots of quiet time and green space, so any place with mountains and lots of trees is going to be a “favorite.” I also love the energy of flowing water, so waterfalls are way up there on my list of places I like to be.
What’s on your “bucket list” of ideas to create?
I don’t have a bucket list of anything. If I think of it, and I want to create it badly enough, I make it happen.
Some current ideas:
Depicting older, mature human beings as fully embodied, sexual and sensual.
Depicting children as the dirty, mad and selfish barbarians they truly are. I’m weary of the sanitizing of all aspects of American life, as well as the glorification of the child.
How would you describe your visual style?
Bold. Simple. Graphic. Lurid color. Well lit.
Do you get photographer’s block? If so, how do you overcome that?
Learning the difference between “motivated” action and “inspired” action helps.
Bored, listless and lacking in focus.
Throwing things at the wall just to see what sticks.
Based in fear – I’ll never create anything good ever again, my muse has abandoned me.
BEST PLAN OF ACTION:
Let go. Walk away. Do something physical. Run, walk, dance, swim, hit the heavy bag.
Lather, rinse and repeat until Inspired Action hits.
That which naturally flows through us. That astonishing idea that comes to us as we are busy running, walking, dancing, swimming or hitting the heavy bag. Or washing dishes.
Tell us about your career. How did you get into it?
Back in the pre-digital day, I was gifted a Nikon SLR with a kit lens. I quickly developed a $500 a month film and processing habit.
I could tell the whole long and boring story, but ultimately, it was a need to pay for my obsession.
What types of photography do you do? What’s your favorite?
Have you ever heard that expression about the three things that matter most when you’re buying or selling real estate? Location, location, and location.
It’s the same thing for me with photography. Lighting, lighting, and lighting.
I grew up on fashion images from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Hiro, Francesco Scavullo are some of my earliest influences. The thing they had in common – compelling studio lighting, combined with interesting visual ideas.
That photograph by Hiro of a bright red toenail with an ant atop – it has never left my consciousness. I think it was created in the 1970s and it stands the test of time:
I like to look at, and craft, well lit and compelling images. My interests are diverse.
What was the moment you decided to become a photographer?
That moment my bowels threatened to liquefy because my then-husband said, “You are spending $500 a month on this little hobby and you’re going to have to cut back.”
What is the strangest situation you’ve ever faced as a photographer?
A 5:00 AM call from a professional Atlanta CEO client who was an avid wild turkey hunter and conservationist. He was rolling my way with a freshly killed, field-dressed, wild turkey and wanted me to meet him at the studio so I could photograph him and the bird together. Up close and personal? Beautiful birds.
What has been your biggest setback as a photographer?
Coming out of the closet and feeling so much shame that I self-sabotaged my business and my life. It took a very long, painful 10 years for me to work through all of those fear issues. Internalized homophobia is self-hatred on steroids.
Other than that, the advent of digital sucker-punched a LOT of us, and rearranged the DNA of the industry. But in general, I don’t like to focus on what goes wrong. Fall down 7 times, get up 8.
What are your three favorite photos you’ve taken?
How about if I just pick my favorites this red hot minute?
Shot in my first professional studio. The poured concrete wall had a niche in it that I found very exciting. I love the way the model inhabits that space, the subtle lighting (two light sources) and the soft processing. It was shot on Ilford chromogenic film stock, which is one of my all time favorite film stocks. Creamy whites, velvety blacks.
It’s a black and white shot of me sitting on the toilet in the bathroom of the R. Thomas Grill on Peachtree Street, in Midtown, Atlanta.
That bathroom was marvelous. The entire wall directly in front of the throne was a mirror, and the ceiling was mirrored.
It was a very tricky image to print in the old school darkroom. I cut a hole in the middle of a large piece of cardboard, reduced the light output on the enlarger head and exposed that light fixture for several minutes to get detail to burn in, otherwise it would just appear to be a large white spot in the center of the image.
I’m willing to drop my pants for my art.
It’s a color shot of my grandson that I grabbed with my iPhone a couple of years ago. It makes me think of some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work and his ideas about “the decisive moment.”
In making these selections, I didn’t want to overthink it and put too much importance on either of the three images. Are they the very best I’ve ever done? Maybe, maybe not. But I like them, right here, right now.
Photography is competitive. How do you stand out?
I have NO idea.
The marketplace is crowded, global, highly competitive and everybody has a “brand.”
Sometimes, I take media breaks. I stop looking at other people’s work, or reading their ideas. Otherwise, I can’t even hear myself thinking. I try not to be too influenced by what other people are doing. Also, not putting all of my eggs in one basket and having multiple streams of income is less stressful.
I have managed to make a living for most of the past 30 years using one or the other of my artistic and creative skill sets.
Read this blog post about Francis Ford Coppola and de-coupling money from art:
What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?
Don’t quit your day job just yet.
Say yes a lot.
Study the work of others.
Recreate images you like.
Challenge your skills.
Find what you do really well, and do it better than anyone else.
What is the best thing a model can do to make the most of a photoshoot?
Show up mentally and emotionally ready to work WITH the photographer.
Don’t arrive hungry.
Be flexible about trying things outside your comfort zone, but NEVER let anyone push you past your own personal boundaries.
If you think you’ve got a good idea, speak.
What was your most memorable photoshoot?
The very first editorial shoot I did for a well established Atlanta publication. The editor of the magazine called me personally and said she and her assistants had been looking at all the different ads that came across their desks, and my work stood out…and would I be interested in working with them?
She became a personal mentor to me, and I worked with them for many years.
What’s the funniest story you have from being a photographer?
When I was first starting out, I did an entire shoot for a paying client with NO film in the camera.
If you could photograph anyone in the world, who would it be?
My father. A brilliant brain, son of a tenant farmer who went on to build his own manufacturing business and work with the finest engineering and physicist minds of his time. Work produced in his shop went into space with NASA.
He died two years ago. He was a towering giant of a personality and five hundred people attended his wake.
He had warm, soulful eyes and I never did a studio session with him. For the life of me, I can’t think why not.
Who was the most unforgettable model you’ve ever met?
An ethereally beautiful little girl of about 7, who was the model for an upscale Atlanta children’s clothing boutique. She was truly, astonishingly beautiful, kind, and showed incredible grace under pressure. I found out several years later that she contracted spinal meningitis and died suddenly at age 12. The brightest stars often burn out too quickly.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to being a great photographer?
Define what excellence means to you, and don’t stop until you’ve hit the mark.
What’s a deal breaker for you when deciding to do a shoot?
When I sense that we’re not on the same page, or that we’re at cross purposes and we can’t seem to reach consensus.
How do you bring out your model’s personality in a shoot?
Observe. Ask questions to find out what they are interested in, then get them to talk more about those things. Allow them to forget you’re there.
What do you think is the biggest thing holding you back in your photography?
Getting up in my head and over-thinking things. Analysis paralysis.
How do you express yourself through your photography?
Joy. I create ALL of my art from a place of happiness and joy. There is joy in finding a beautiful thing, or a random and rare thing, or putting the perfect post processing touch on something. Then, there is the joy of seeing that beautiful thing you’ve created.
What’s the most inspiring photo you’ve ever seen?
The thing that springs immediately to mind is a photograph of a black man crying at a presidential funeral. I just looked it up. It’s a photo by Ed Clark of Chief Petty Officer (USN) Graham W. Jackson at FDR’s funeral procession.
Here is a link to the Time article:
What photography advice do you wish you had when you were first starting out?
Get out of your head! Never once take your eyes off the prize.
What are 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?
Study: Devour imagery.
See: Pay attention to what draws you in. Dissect it.
Practice: Reverse engineer the lighting setups you like, or try to duplicate something as closely as possible. Shoot a LOT.
What are 3 tips you have for aspiring models?
Other than behaving like a professional with a job to do, I’m not a model, so I do not feel qualified to speak on this issue.
What kind of gear do you have?
I have had a lot of photography and lighting equipment pass through my life. I’ve been a Nikon shooter consistently from the beginning. I can pick up any Nikon camera and instantly know my way around it.
That said, I place more importance on high quality lenses. Fast, fixed focal length lenses. I love my 50mm f 1.2 lens and I drool for beautiful bokeh.
When I was shooting medium format, I went with Bronica.
The camera I use the most is in my iPhone 6.
What’s one lighting tip you’d like to share with other photographers?
A hair light can make or break you. I have a lot to say about lighting on my teaching blog:
What’s one post-processing tip you’d like to share with other photographers?
Bump the contrast up a bit.
Do you have any projects you’d like to show off?
After having stepped away from portrait work for a few years, I am totally grooving to natural light, on-location shooting…more of a “lifestyle” approach. I particularly like these two storyboards:
What is your most life-changing event?
Making the decision to come out of the closet, leave a 20 plus year marriage, and move out of the ‘burbs.
What’s something no one knows about you that you’d like to share?
If I haven’t shared it with someone by now, it doesn’t really matter.
Who’s your biggest hero in your life?
I do not have any heroes. We’re all out here doing our best. Some of us know one thing, and some of us know another thing. Or two. Putting people up on a pedestal is a great recipe for learning how to knock them off of it.
What’s one of your biggest fears?
Other than the thought of living an inauthentic life, I don’t fear much of anything.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert
What will you be doing five years from now?
Five years from now, I’ll be living on a beautiful piece of land surrounded by my life partners, lovers and friends. In between gathering eggs, chasing goats, growing living things, and still having lots of phenomenal sex, I’ll be creating in my studio, teaching workshops, running with scissors, wiping my nose on the back of my sleeve and still not knowing how to play the banjo. I’ll be 63 glorious years old and killing it. Or I could be living in a tree house.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
My entire life has been one crazy thing after another. If I want to do something, I do it.
What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t?
Take a professional driving course on a race track and learn how to put a car into a controlled spin.
Make out with Scarlett Johansson.
Have a drunken, all night Uber ride with Johnny Depp, city of his choice, while we bar hop.
Do ANYTHING with Tom Hardy, preferably something that makes him laugh uncontrollably.
For anyone that wants to get in touch with Deborah, here’s some contact information:
Deborah, thanks for the candid interview!
If any artists out there want to collaborate with FStop, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.