This time out I'm focusing on someone whose work I've been following for almost as long as I've been a POE member. Jessica Rogers is the force behind Jessica Rogers Photography and the Etsy shop jessicarogers. Not only does she have a great "eye", but a very interesting approach to her art as well. I recently had an opportunity to share some time with Jessica, and I'd like to share our conversation with you.
Steve: In order to know more about who a person is, I believe it's useful to learn about what came before; so, Jessica, what can you tell us about your early years? You know, where are you from? What was it like growing up? What's your family situation? What are some of the pivotal points along life's winding path that brought you to where you are today?
Jessica: I was born in
, where my dad - a doctor - was in his residency. My family lived there until I was five. We lived down this quiet country lane and my earliest memories are of the woods next to our property. (To this day, when I hear the John Denver song "Country Roads" it makes me think of that place!) I remember things like playing with our Cocker Spaniel puppy in the leaves, my dad cutting firewood, the smell of a flower I can't remember the name of and playing with the neighbor lady's cats. West Virginia
My dad’s work took us to
for the next year and a half which left me with many memories of hot summer days and mountains of snow in the winter, along with my first year in school for Kindergarten. Andover, MA
My dad's next job took us out west to central
. I spent the rest of my growing up years in California . It's a smallish (but growing) town, about 1.5 hours south of Turlock, CA and almost smack dab in the middle of the state. When I tell people where I grew up they usually scrunch up their face and say "Eww, what an ugly part of the state!", but I disagree. Many only see the giant Central Valley of California from the vantage point of one of two main freeways (the Hwy 99 or I-5), which by and large don't provide the best view of the area. Sacramento
The beauty I love about the
Central Valley is centered on the farmlands, and you have to get away from the towns, cities, and freeways to really see that. So much of that part of is taken up with fields or orchards. In California in the summer it was common to see tall fields of corn and orchards and groves full of stone fruit and nuts. I love a freshly plowed field baking in the sun or row upon row of trees being hugged by a blanket of winter fog. Even fields full of dried grasses make me think that Turlock is the called golden state for more reasons than the precious metal people rushed here to find. To this day, even though I don't live there any more, I feel a deep connection to the inherent beauty of farmlands. I've even started to think of a series I could do to really show people this beauty. California
I now live with my husband, two big dogs, and a cat in
California’s , only 2-1/2 hours from where I grew up. It's a beautiful place, but it doesn't feel like home. I know eventually we'll end up somewhere else and I look forward to exploring those new surroundings. Napa Valley
It's interesting to stop and think about what brought me to where I'm at today. There are some pivotal moments, but nothing I would have recognized as such at the time. They are more like a collection of small decisions I made that, had I made another choice of any kind, I would be leading a completely different life.
I believe that everything happens for a reason, even when it's not clear right away what that reason is. Even unpleasant events can produce valuable and otherwise unobtainable skills and knowledge.
Rock Formation 1
I went to a 4-year liberal arts college in the Napa Valley (PUC), but had no idea what I wanted to. I considered majoring in both math and psychology before deciding in favor of pre-med to follow in my dad’s footsteps. The pre-profession required a major to go along with it, and flipping through the course catalog I saw the Photography. I knew I'd be busy studying my sciences and thought Photography would have the advantage of being fun while not taking up too much time. Boy was I wrong; about the time, not the fun; once I started my photo classes I was hooked! I loved the combination of the technical with the art. It wasn't long until I started wishing I could just drop the pre-med part and focus on Photography as my major. It occurred to me I could change my mind - it was my career to choose after all - and so I did!
As soon as I had enough classes under my belt, I became a lab assistant. Along with learning how to run a full traditional b&w and color lab/darkroom, I also got a key to the lab - one of the best perks! The photo lab soon became my home away from the dorm and I spent a number of all-night printing marathons there.
The summer after graduation, my younger sister (I'm the middle of my two sisters) was getting ready to move to
to go to the UC there and asked if I wanted to live with her. I agreed, feeling I didn't have any ties to the immediate area job-wise, and by the fall of 2001 I was living in Davis . Davis
Eventually, I found a job in
working at a custom photo lab. I worked there for two years until they were forced to close for lack of business. While I was there my skills in the lab and darkroom grew, and again I had the added perk of having a key. I was able to use the lab after-hours for the cost of the materials. I loved it! It was sad to see such a great place close down after 25 years of business, but I suppose all things must come to an end. I tried to pick up work at other labs in town, but they only lasted a few months. It seemed all the "big box" stores were taking too much business from them and they just couldn't compete with the prices. Sacramento
Thinking I might need a career change I came back to the Napa Valley to study at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for baking and pastry (I'm a lifelong chocoholic, so that's where this idea stemmed from). I completed the 7 month intensive course and got my certificate in December of 2005. I searched for a job in the industry for months, either making chocolates or cake decorating, but nothing was available. I was at the bottom of my list of preferences looking at baking jobs (which have horrible hours) and realized how much I missed my photography. (I should have known, with all the dozens of photos I took of the things I made in the program!) With considerable guilt, I turned away from the search for a baking/pastry related career, but still didn't know how exactly I would make a career of my photography. I continued my part-time job at a winery tasting room (where I met and started dating my future husband!) that I had while in school, but a year later I was unsatisfied with that. I got a job as a barista at a local coffee shop and ended up working there for 2 years. I think in a way I was afraid to take a chance on myself and really figure out how to make being an artist a viable career.
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Regardless, it was becoming clear to me that I couldn't just be an employee to someone forever and needed to be my own boss, to be able to call all the shots. A friend of mine told me about Etsy and I checked it out. The more I looked, the more I realized this would be the easiest and quickest way to get started with my own business selling my art, without having to fork over a massive percentage to someone else.
So that pretty much brings us to now. I opened up my Etsy shop about a year and a half ago. Taking that step was a quiet leap into the unknown. I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my business, but it got me started. Now I have lots of ideas of how to expand my Etsy shop and my business offline. I'm at the point where I feel the need for a solid business plan to give me the focus I need for the next step.
S: While it sounds like you "backed into" photography, you certainly grabbed onto it, and it to you. What was it about photography that latched on to you? Clearly it still has its hooks into you; what is it about photography that won't let you go?
J: I think the first thing about photography that captured me is the magic of the process. When I first started shooting I understood so little of the technical aspects; it was an exciting thing to see what I was going to get on that roll of film when I processed it. Even making a print was magical; and, I know this is something many people say about photography, but there really is something special about watching that black and white image slowly reveal itself in the chemistry. As I learned and understood the foundational techniques I also fell in love with the process itself. I loved to learn the rules and the reasons why things worked the way they do. And then, because I can't seem to leave well enough alone, I loved to learn to stretch and even break the rules.
Photography continues to have its hold on me because there is still so much I want to learn, so many techniques. But even if there were nothing technical left to learn or if I settled on just one technique to master and work with, the artistry and ability to communicate through imagery would remain always.
My senior project for my degree was self-chosen. I decided to challenge myself both artistically as well as technically, and I think I succeeded for the most part. I chose a concept that, to me, was very difficult to transform from words and vague ideas into concrete imagery. The final pieces, all in black and white, were single 16"x20" prints with multiple exposures. For each print, I used anywhere from 2 to 5 enlargers each set up with their own negative. I also made large guides to help me get each exposure in the position I wanted. It was a wonderfully rewarding stretching of my creativity and technique, even though it was a tremendous amount of work. I think as long as there is some way I can push myself with new challenges, photography will never get old for me.
S: A large part of your work is done using instant photography, Polaroid’s and such. With your background in, and affinity for traditional film photography, I find that a bit surprising. What's the attraction of the Polaroid medium and how did you get started in it?
J: Actually, all of my Polaroid work began as 35mm slide film and then I used a Daylab (basically a miniature enlarger) to project the slide onto Polaroid film. From there I was able to either make dye transfers or emulsion lifts from any of my slides, over and over again. Even though the end results don't look all that traditional, I'm still rooted to my beginnings.
The thing I love most about Polaroid manipulation is that each time the results are different and you can't predict or even really control what will happen beyond a certain point. I work hard to get just what I need in the camera - there's very little cropping and adjustment that the Daylab allows.
Beyond that and choosing the type of paper to put the transfer on, I let the Polaroid film do the rest. Usually there is a definite color shift (more so with the dye transfers than the emulsion lifts) and always a wonderfully random texture is added. I also love the hands-on approach this process must take. None of the effects in my transfers have been added digitally; it's all a result of the film characteristics and the process. After a piece is completed, I scan it into the computer but the only adjustments I make are minor ones in an effort to duplicate the original as closely as possible.
I was first introduced to the process in college. We had one assignment where we had to shoot a roll of slide film and choose one to turn into a transfer. I was immediately enthralled! It was almost as magical as watching my first black and white image appear in the developer. As I carefully peeled back the Polaroid from the paper, my ordinary picture of a rose was transformed. It looked like a cross between a painting and a photograph, with a soft dreamy quality to it; I loved it! When it came time to do an independent study, I chose to work with Polaroid emulsion lifts. I've been hooked ever since and have worked with the process off and on over the past 10 years. Even though Polaroid film is no longer available I still have my final small stash of film waiting in my refrigerator for just the right project. Now I'm beginning to experiment with the new generation of instant film (thanks to the Impossible Project!) and it's looking like there are many possibilities for manipulation, though nothing will be quite like the old Polaroid film. Until I figure out what I'll do with the new instant film, I've been teaching myself new alternative techniques (such as TtV) to play with. I also had to finally break down a couple years ago and "go digital". Without direct access to a lab I, 1. Can't afford full lab prices for good work, and 2. Can't really give up printing control to someone else! So I've been teaching myself the ins and outs of digital photography and digital photo editing.
S: What subjects are you drawn to photograph? What subjects do you find yourself avoiding?
J: It's all about the details for me. I love getting in close to my subject where form and composition become the key elements. Texture! I can't get enough of things full of texture: rusted metal, aged/weathered wood, peeling paint. The subjects I find my self shooting tend to be found objects or details in nature. If there is a dilapidated or abandoned building, I want to explore it with my camera. One of these days I'm going to do a photo exploration of a junkyard. I like old fences and farm equipment, old cars and trucks. I love flowers, plants in the garden, and grasses. I love to photograph our cat and dogs, too. Lately I've been feeling the need to photograph horses - I just need to go and find a good place to do that around here (somewhat difficult when I feel completely surrounded by nothing by grape vines!). I haven't done much of it lately, but I also really enjoy shooing architecture; it's all about form, lines, and structure. It's the part of me that loves symmetry and patterns that makes architecture so interesting.
I've tried my hand at a few landscapes, but usually feel I'm not doing them justice and I greatly admire those that can. For some reason, I can see an amazing landscape in front of me, but as soon as I bring the camera up to my eye the picture is just not there. It's like there's too much and not enough in the frame all at once. I also don't like to do portraits; or, rather don't feel comfortable doing them. I get this immediate feeling that I'm trespassing on their personal space or that I am expected to give them all sorts of direction. I would really rather just wait and look for that "just right" shot / pose / expression / moment instead of contriving a scene. I also don't much like to work with flash or extra lights. Even when I was taking the portraiture and studio classes in college, I never felt comfortable using the equipment. Oh, I understood the basic mechanics of it, but I wasn't able to get to the point where I felt like I could use them like my camera. In other words, the lighting didn't work for me as an extension of myself, where they became a necessary tool instead of a hindrance in my creative ability.
S: I've spent quite a bit of time, both living and working in
California's Central valley, and I've got a good number of miles under my belt traveling some of the lesser roads from the coast to the mountains, so I know what you say about the beauty of the region is true. I've also spent a little time in both the Napa and valleys, and know the beauty of those places as well. With this knowledge, I can't help but wonder, what is it that draws your lens away from wine country and valley life in favor of recording desert images? Sonoma
J: Well, the simple answer to what draws my lens away from wine country is that I'm just surrounded by it ALL – THE – TIME! I've seen the bagillion (yes, that's a technical term) different ways grapes/wine/vines have been depicted for a myriad of souvenirs and it's so hard to come up with a new way to portray the subject with any amount of "freshness". More simply put: it just doesn't inspire me much. That being said, I have been poked and prodded by many friends and family members to photograph the wine country stuff because that's what people want to buy; so much prodding in fact, that I've recently begun to play with a method of creating images from this area that I could potentially be happy with. I feel like I'm just beginning to learn how to see my photography as more than an outlet for personal expression that I need to also be able to see it as my way to make a living. Sometimes that might mean I have to create images that aren't purely for myself.
But what draws me to the desert, then? That is a more elusive answer. There is something striking about the stark beauty of the desert - the harshness of life and the surprising delicate beauty to be discovered in the middle of it all. I would love to someday travel through
, Bryce, the Canyonlands and down through White Sands, NM; I also want to do an entire series on sand dunes. Zion
Sand Dune Mt. 1
There is a strength and power about the very earth in those places I just can't resist. There is an old and quiet story those places hold and I want to see if I can discover it. For a similar reason, I love to photograph abandoned or run-down buildings - especially on old farm land. Maybe it's because they are places where the earth has reclaimed ownership after being "tamed" by man. I like to think there is a great sleeping power in the earth - one you should respect - that has the strength to rehabilitate itself. I think that's why I also have a love for farmlands; though not particularly wild and natural, they are places where man has learned to strike a deal with the earth to live together.
S: Most of us have a favorite photographer, or photographers, that we strive to emulate or are inspired by. Do you have one, or more such photographers you look to? Who are they, and what lessons and/or inspiration have you taken from them?
J: Wow, so many names to choose from...my favorites off the top of my head are Edward Weston, Margret Bourke-White, Dorethea Lang, and Annie Leibovitz...is it strange that I have named photographers that are well known for photographing people when that's not my thing? I greatly admire their work, though. I suppose I'd call them sources of inspiration more than those I strive to emulate directly. Weston's work is a beautiful and masterful exploration of form. Bourke-White and Lang both were amazing for their ability to document the working classes of their time and the fact they were women doing "a man's work" in "a man's world". Leibovitz's work is just a stunning visual inspiration; I love her ability to build a scene and tell a story so richly while simultaneously capturing the core of a person. If I pick up or buy a copy of Vogue, it's because I want to savor her work; I could care less about the rest of the magazine. All of these photographers inspire me for more than just the beautiful images they have created. Each also had the strength and courage to see their vision through to the end, even (and perhaps especially) when it dealt with uncomfortable or taboo subjects.
S: Let's talk about your tools for a moment; what do you keep in your bag of tricks and what would you like to add or replace, if you didn't have to worry about price that is?
J: Oh cameras! I love to collect them and have a number of vintage cameras as well as some lovely new equipment. For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to what I shoot with the most. I'm a Canon girl - for film I use my Canon EOS-1n and for digital I use my Canon Rebel XT. Go-to lens for film is usually my 28-70mm and for digital it's my 17-55mm. I also have a 70-200mm when I'm feeling the need to shoot something from a greater distance, though, honestly, that one rarely comes out of my bag. I love to get up on top of my subject whenever possible! I have a Sigma macro lens that I got when I was shooting only film and was greatly disappointed to find out that it wasn't compatible with my digital back.
I would like to find an adapter so I can shoot macro with my digital - either that or just get a nice new macro lens! I would also like to (need to) replace my tripod - a few years ago it died a terrible and hilarious death in Joshua Tree NP. Outside of my camera bag, I would love to get a nice negative/slide scanner to start archiving my film. Oh - and while I'm dreaming, I'd love a large format Epson printer! Those few things would be a good start to knock down my wish-list.
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Oh, I forgot to add a frequently used camera to my list! I use my Kodak Duaflex for all my TtV photography - purchased from a lovely Etsyian ( http://www.etsy.com/people/JuJuToo ).
S: So, Jessica, looking forward, what does the future hold? Where is photography taking you, or where are you taking it?
J: Hmmm...the future...sometimes I wish there were a crystal ball to tell me, but then the fun of surprises would be taken away! I hope to always find a new challenge to tackle - weather it be a technical one, or a personal perception. Business-wise, I'd like to expand the number of "functional art" items in my Etsy shop, start doing wholesale locally, and a bit of freelance magazine work as well.
S: Hey Jessica, this was fun! I really enjoyed learning a bit more about one of favorites! Was there anything you wanted to add; perhaps a question you would've liked to answer that I didn't ask?
J: Thank you, Steve! I can't think of anything else to add. This has been lots of fun for me too - and surprisingly enlightening for me as well!
After working my way through this interview with you I feel I may be on the verge of a new awakening with my creative process. Many of the questions you asked me, I never took the time to think the answers though fully until now. I've been in the process of trying to determine the central purpose to what I do and I think this interview has given me some ideas as to what that might be. So, thank you again Steve - it's been a pleasure!