A Photographer's Journey: Bits and Pieces Along the Way

 bits and pieces along my ever changing, journey...

I am a Washington native and have had an interest in Photography and Art for as long as I can remember. I feel like it comes, mainly, from the culture of my amazing family.

In the early 1900's my grandparents had a darkroom in their home, and my "rebel" great aunt traveled the West coast to photograph landscapes & wildlife, learning from the great photographers of the original Group f/64 club. The stories and slides she shared at holiday gatherings kept me spellbound.  Quite rare for a rambunctious, youngest child of 4, used to running free over 30 acres of orchard, and beyond, surrounding our home in the upper Yakima Valley. 

To temper that energy, my mom, a master weaver and seamstress herself, encouraged our creative side, each of us took piano lessons, and mom taught us all to  sew, bake, and create in whatever way we could. Mud pies and macrame' were my specialty!  Mom's photographic memory for color and mantra  of “always include light, dark, and bright” infused our daily life, from the clothes we wore, to food we ate, and the home we thrived in. I never thought it unusual or special but looking back I know that became an integral part of my photographic eye.  At the same time my dad taught all 4 of his daughters how to ski, play ball, shoot arrows and guns, to drive a tractor, mix cement, change a tire, trap a gopher and build, build, build. We had a kid size workbench and tools that sat next to his.  His philosophy was ‘if something needed to be done on the ranch then we needed to know how to do it’.  It was a childhood filled with great exploration, creativity,  life lessons, and family fun.

One summer, before I left for camp, my grandmother loaned me her Kodak Vigilant Six-20 (circa 1939-49)  bellows camera to use.  It took 8 pictures per roll of 620 film. I was 10 and thought it was the best thing ever. Grandma never asked for it back and, in retrospect, that was the beginning of my photographer's journey.  That beloved camera still sits, with Pride of Place on a shelf in my studio, (pic #1) alongside a few other treasures - and it still works!  I used this camera for a year,  but on July 11th, 1967, I bought myself a Kodak 104 Instamatic, an event I chronicled on a notecard  and put in my childhood scrapebook! I just recently uncovered that scrapebook and found that 'important' documentation! (pic #2)wink

    #1                             #2     

Those cameras were in use for 5 or 6 years before I bought my first 35mm rangefinder camera (used) in high school. Heading out with my camera and returning to create black & white images in the high school darkroom (a place I could lose myself for hours) was my happy place.  I even took summer school classes, between my junior and senior year, so I could get some requirements out of the way and spend my senior year taking advanced Photography and be a TA for the beginning classes. To this day I am very thankful to my amazing tolerant high school photography teacher, Mr. Jim Smith, who taught our small group of photo nerds though encouragement, honest critique, patience, and an appreciation of the art in all things that our cameras could capture.

A few years later, a summer spent teaching darkroom while a photography TA at the University of Washington, & working part time as a portrait photographer, only solidified the passion. Experimenting with color slide development, larger format B&W, and spending even more time elbow deep in developer & fixer in the darkroom was my entire focus. From this came an exploration of early 'street photography' with a series on drive-ins and diners and a chance to work with a professor on a film about the Umpqua Dunes on the coast of Oregon

Then focus shifted and expanded for several years as I completed my teaching degree and began that career.  While raising a family and teaching elementary school, I willingly set my photography aside instead using my skill as a teacher to encourage creativity and imagination in my students and children.  But I never stopped looking for the images that are truly there but rarely "seen".

Around 2006 I picked up a new camera  and leapt into the digital world of photography outside of my phone.  My main subjects then were family, family gatherings, and recording events at the school for compilation into the end of year slide show.  I soon discovered I preferred photographing wildlife, landscapes, and nature rather than weddings, family groups, and people in general.  Don't get me wrong, I love photographing kids in a natural playful setting, but portraits and studio work just was not my thing. So the next few years I spent photographing, reading, attending classes, and following the work of photographers I admired. During that time I attended a lecture by Art Wolfe and that proved to be a significant event.  While speaking with Art, after the lecture, he asked to "see some of my work" so I showed him some pieces on my iPad.  He looked at my work, then turned to me and said "You know with some effort and practice you could do this". I was stunned and over the moon!  My confidence soared and 6 weeks later I sold my first piece.  What a turning point!

Fast forward to the present -- Photography is back “in focus" in my life. Art Wolfe's words, continued encouragement, and mentorship are never far from my mind.  Retiring in 2018, after 35 years of teaching, I now have the time, intention, support & vision to bring my  passion for photo artistry to the forefront. My camera is always by my side, and my "digital darkroom" has replaced the chemicals and film, although I admit to missing the distinctive smell of developer and fixer.

My photos still represent my effort to "look up, down, around, through, and look closer in my attempt to share the texture, vibration, imagination, and magic I feel when ‘finding the beauty… hidden in plain sight’.  But now I see so much more.   The image may be in a vast landscape, a tiny clump of rocks or sand, a drop of water, the look of a wild animal, or in the giggle and awe of a child.  If it speaks to me,  it becomes part my photograph or digital art. The photos I make and share are truly what I see “though my  eyes”.  Those 'turning point'  words of encouragement "you could do this" have expanded to  "I am doing this" and the journey is not done...there is so much more.....Namaste'

Gretchen W. Shepherd

"Finding the Beauty...Hidden in Plain Sight"