We Are Happy to Serve You
There I was, minding my own business, perusing our blog here, when I came upon a sidebar advertisement for a shop I had never heard of. Being the inquisitive type, I did a little investigating and found that the shop has been around for nearly three years!
Three years and I had never heard of it!
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound; I thought, “What the heck!”, if I wasn’t familiar with this shop, perhaps you weren’t either, so I'd like to introduce you to Wanda McCrae, the woman behind wlotus. I recently had an extended conversation with Wanda and would like to share that with you now:
Steve: Wanda, what can you tell us about yourself? Where are you from? What are your interests? What is your family like? What was it in your life that put you on the road to photography?
Wanda: I was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in NJ, but I always considered myself a New Yorker. I like to say, "My family dragged me kicking and screaming to NJ at the tender age of six." :-)
Believe it or not, I had to think pretty hard to think of something other than "photography" to list as an interest; I've loved photography since I was very, very young! But I like to read, listen to my eclectic music collection, knit, crochet, ride my bicycle, and ride my partner's cruiser motorcycle. I also enjoy live music very much. We have tickets to see Sade at the Nassau Coliseum next June, and I can hardly wait!
My family is pretty individualistic; we all have pretty much gone our separate ways and are living separate lives. My brother and I seem to be the artistic ones. We both have jobs that pay the bills, but our passions lie in the arts: music for him and photography for me.
I can't think of any particular thing that put me on the road to photography. I've liked it for as long as I can remember; my first camera was a plastic point-and-shoot model that used Kodak 126 film cartridges; I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I can remember being in elementary school and pouring over the stack of National Geographic magazines in our apartment. I'd love to stare at the photos for hours at a time and always liked the idea of capturing what I saw and allowing others to see it, too.
My late Great-Aunt Mozella was rarely seen without a camera when she was living. Whether visiting family or traveling overseas, she had her camera to her eye. When she died she left behind hundreds, if not thousands of photos and negatives. Sometimes my family calls me "young Aunt Mo", because I'm the same way with my camera. She was a special woman in a lot of ways, so I consider that a high compliment.
S: What is your photography about? What is your inspiration; what themes or subjects do you pursue?
W: For a long time I didn't think I had a theme or style; my photos were "just photos". But a couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a couple of fellow photographers that helped me begin to find the words to describe my work.
My photography is about what I see, what is in front of me, and what I would like the rest of the world to see, appreciate, and be moved by. That is why I don't normally create dream-like images; my photos are realistic and crisp, so others can clearly see what I see. I prefer vibrant colors; even my black and white photos are rich in contrasts. And I always approach my subjects from an attitude of respect. I want to see my subjects, not impose my view on them, let alone ridicule them. And I want others to see them, too.
The other day a little girl saw me coming in from a photo walk with my camera around my neck, and she asked if I take pictures of famous people. I replied, "I usually make photos of whatever I think is pretty." What captures my eye is the beauty in what we would consider the everyday. I like finding an otherwise ordinary thing and seeing if I can capture it in a way that makes someone say, "I never noticed that, before."
My style is still changing. I'm still working on understanding what inspires me to pick up my camera and what does not. I've been thinking about eventually pursuing a BFA in photography to help me with that process.
S: Coming to understand what inspires you, and presenting the seemingly ordinary in ways that haven't been perceived before; that's a big part of what being an artist is, don't you think?
Living in New York, as you do, I would imagine you live in a fairly "target rich" environment; when you go on these photo walks of yours, what sort of things usually find their way into your lens?
W: Not every artist presents the ordinary in ways that haven't been perceived, before. For example, Chrissie White took the grand prize in the Fine Art category of the 2010 American Photo GoPro Contest with her rendition of Wendy taking flight in the Peter Pan story. Photos like that are more surreal, or staged than ordinary. I sometimes wish I had the imagination to come up with the ideas that lead to such amazing photos! My focus is on the everyday, and quite frankly, it took some time for me to accept that. That is a big part of becoming an artist, as you said: understanding and respecting what inspires YOU, rather than trying to copy someone else's style or putting yourself down for not being them.
There is a lot and nothing to photograph in NYC, all at once. As vibrant as the city is, it doesn't change all that much on a daily basis. There are only so many wide-angle photos I can make of Bryant Park or the Empire State Building before they all begin to look alike. So lately I have looked for a different angle from the ones I've already explored. If I go on a photo walk with a group, I'll photograph the photographers rather than photographing the statue everyone in the group is photographing. If the group is walking west, I'll turn east to photograph where we came from.
When I am alone, I like to get close to my subjects and focus on details that are otherwise easy to miss. The other day I walked through the local cemetery, and I saw some roses on a grave. I could have made photos of the roses as a whole, but I chose to use my extension tubes to get close-ups of the raindrops on the rose petals. One day I wanted to do a unique self-portrait, so I used my extension tubes and flash to get an extremely close-up view of my iris. I never knew my iris had that much texture to it! That's a photo I can look at over and over without becoming bored. That's the kind of detail I like to capture.
I love photographing people in their natural habitats. (I can do portraits, but I prefer not to do them.) Children are especially fun to photograph, because they are so spontaneous and are not self-conscious. I don't photograph people as often as I'd like, because some people are not comfortable with a stranger photographing them, let alone their children. I'm fortunate that my friends are happy to allow me to photograph them and their kids. One of my friends has two of the most adorable little boys, and I've appointed myself their personal photographer. :-)
S: So, Wanda, when you're not shooting photographs, what are you doing? What do you do for a living and what, besides photography, do you do for fun?
W: I follow and comment on a lot of blogs, most of which are not photography related; there are a lot of interesting people out there. A couple of months ago I started doing a few minutes of yoga nearly every day, to help with stress management and to gently strengthen my body. My mind tends to be very busy, and doing yoga helps me slow down and be fully present in the moment. Also, I am journaling all the time! I have kept a detailed journal since October of 1984; I still have all but one volume, and am two pages away from starting my newest volume.
Now that autumn is here, the ice skating rink at Bryant Park is open. I like skating there a few times a week in the mornings, before work. In 2008 I finally learned how to skate backwards; I was really proud of myself for finally figuring out how to do that. During the winter months I tend to do a lot of yarn work. I intend to knit myself a turtleneck and crochet several caps for myself and my partner this winter.
Sometimes I sketch. Wait, let me rephrase that: sometimes I make valiant attempts to sketch what I see. Let's all be grateful I have a camera at my disposal, rather than being limited to pencils. :-)
All of these things are done within the framework of many nurturing friendships (both local and long-distance) and a long-term partnership. Interacting with those people is what really makes my life not only fun but worthwhile as well. They took my photography seriously before I realized I had a talent I could nurture, and they keep me sane when I doubt myself. None of what I do would be possible without them in my life to keep me grounded.
I do data entry for a living. The work itself isn't exciting, but the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to a team that appreciates what I do and doesn't give me drama in return is priceless and exactly what I need at this time in my life.
S: I certainly sounds like you stay busy!
Let's talk about your equipment for a moment; you mentioned earlier that your first camera was a "plastic point-and-shoot that used Kodak 126 film cartridges". I'm sure you've progressed from that point; what's in your bag these days and do you have a favorite setup? If cost wasn't a consideration, what would you add?
W: I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D (not the Mark II). Most of the time I use my Canon 24-105mm F4L IS USM. The focus on that lens is as sharp as a tack. I used to wonder if people were exaggerating the difference between using consumer and pro lenses, but I saw the light after I bought that lens. That is my everyday lens, though sometimes I will switch to my Canon 50mm F1.8 in low-light situations, as I rarely use a flash.
On rare occasions I will pull out my Sigma 70-300mm lens, extension tubes for macro shots, or Kenko 2x teleconverter for shooting the moon with my 70-300mm lens. But I don't carry those with me unless I specifically plan to use them on a shoot.
I have a fully automatic Quantaray flash. I prefer not to use it, because it does not allow me to manually set the flash power. (I tell people I prefer to use available light, but that is mainly because I don't like my flash!)
If money was no object, my flash is the first thing I would replace, and I would replace it with two Canon Speedlite 430EX II flashes. That would allow me to experiment with a simple studio setup. (I already have two bounce/shoot-through umbrellas and a pair of wireless flash triggers.) The studio and lighting course I took last year introduced me to the flexibility photographers have when using strobes. I would love to become proficient at using lighting to set the mood and focus for a shot.
A Light To The World
The PDN Photo Expo just ended in NYC, and browsing the expo floor expanded my photography wish list! I was gifted with a PhotoClam tripod head, so I want a carbon fiber tripod to go with it. A friend shoots with a Canon 24-70mm F2.8L, which is wonderful for low light; I'd make that either my everyday lens or a backup to my 24-105. I'd make my 5D body my backup and purchase a 5D Mark II for my primary camera body. I would purchase two seven-foot light stands to use with the Speedlites I'd buy. And even though it isn't in my camera bag, I would replace my seven-year-old Powerbook G4 with a fully loaded MacBook Pro. Lightroom slows my poor Powerbook down to a crawl!
S: Do you have any favorite photographers, and if so, how have they inspired you? Who, or what, would you say has had the largest influence on your photography?
W: This question makes me a bit uneasy because I can’t rattle off a bunch of inspirational names like some artists I know. Remember what I said earlier about not putting yourself down for not being someone else? I'm still working on that part. :-)
One name immediately came to mind, though: Richard Avedon; I learned about him in a photography course I took a couple of years ago. I love his portraits for their simplicity, especially the fact that he shot some of them outside using available light and a plain white background.
Another favorite is Tina Modotti. I haven't found a lot of information about her, but I like her images of everyday life. She captured what she saw, just like I do.
National Geographic has had the largest influence on me, so far. Pouring over those photographs as a youngster "put a stain in my brain", as my partner would say. The vivid colors really grabbed me; I wanted to make vivid photos like those. Most of those photos captured everyday life, not something scripted or imaginary. I am amused that as a child I would say I wanted to make photos for National Geographic. I may not be shooting for them (yet), but shoot in a similar style.
S: No reason to be uneasy. I myself am unable to "rattle off a bunch" of names at the drop of a hat. I greatly appreciate the work of many photographers, but carry around only a small handful of names that I draw inspiration from.
Doing this feature, I regularly learn about photographers I haven't heard of before, such as Tina Modotti. The name "Richard Avedon" was vaguely familiar, but it wasn't until I did a Google search for some of his images that I made the connection.
Where is photography taking you, or where are you taking it? What does the future hold; what are your goals?
W: Thanks for the reassurance. :-)
I would love to amass a body of work that could be good for a solo show. As I continue to make connections, I want to primarily photograph people in a documentary capacity. I recently borrowed "Who Shot Rock and Roll" from my local library, and the documentary photographs took my breath away. I could see myself working behind the scenes as a documentary photographer and gaining the trust and respect of the artists. I hadn't realized I had such a strong interest in documentary photography until I read that book. I guess I should have known, based on my childhood interest in National Geographic, but I didn't make the connection until recently.
Does Anybody Want to Play?
My dream is to have artwork hanging in private collections, but I expect that to be a long way down the road.
S: Well, you never know just how long...or short that road may be.
Wanda, thank you so much for taking this time with me! I've enjoyed our conversation very much and I wish you nothing but success on your photographic journey!