CD: Hey Lise, many thanks for being part of the grand experiment called FUSEVISUAL. We have known each other for years, but i know very little about how you came to photography and developed your style - quiet, compelling, and beautiful.
Your Farm Life portfolio is a new direction for you. Tell me more about how this project developed and what your goals are for it.
Lise Metzger: This work is very much a new direction for me, but it wasn’t a conscious shift. Back in the mid 2000’s I had been working mostly on lifestyle imagery of both adults and kids. If I wasn’t shooting in beds or bathrooms, I liked to be shooting outdoors in natural light. I have always spent a lot of time—too much of my time, really—scouting for locations that speak to me. Open, minimal and neutral environments work best for me. Like a foggy beach. Except that I don’t live very close to the beach, so if I was shooting near home, I had to find something else. I was most attracted to rural or farm locations because of the landscape. I did a lot of shoots in this kind of environment, most of which were successful. But then I had a few larger productions that weren’t so successful, and it finally occurred to me that I had become more interested in the farm environment itself.
I have always thought of myself as a portrait photographer—it’s what has interested me from the very beginning. Along the way I incorporated the lifestyle work, which isn’t the same thing, but it’s still working with people. For me it’s always been about working with people. But at a certain point, and I don’t remember when that was, I found myself looking a lot at landscape photography. Landscape had never really interested me much before, and I find shooting it extremely challenging. I became more and more in awe of landscape photographers.
In 2008, at the same time that the economy tanked and our industry was going through such massive changes, I was facing a lot of challenges in my personal life. I wasn’t shooting as much, neither professionally nor personally, and I was uncertain about everything, including how to continue to make my living from photography, and whether I even wanted to. I found that what gave me a lot of peace was walking in nature with my dog. Then I started photographing trees. Then rural landscapes. Then life on farms.
So the transition was not a conscious one but a gradual opening up to what I enjoyed and what restored me. It’s only recently that I decided to “go public” with these photos and put some of them on my website.
CD: Speaking of farming: you run a year-round CSA delivering fresh goodies to your members. How did that come about? Does teaching workshops on food and canning influence your work?
Lise Metzger: I’ve been a clean eater for a very long time, concerned about how my food is grown and how it gets to my plate. When I saw a notice on my neighborhood listserve about a CSA looking for site hosts in Virginia, I dialed that number as fast as my fingers could move. Fortunately my deck proved to be a great location. I just had to enroll enough people to take on the CSA way of eating (where you pay upfront for a season’s worth of organic food fresh off the farm), and my reward would be a comped share of vegetables. I only wish that my skills at marketing my photography services were as good as my ability to enroll people into that CSA! My site is in its third year now. I didn’t expect to experience so much excitement over our vegetables and the level of joy I get from helping people connect with such fresh and beautiful food. I am loving all of it.
The canning and fermentation workshops have evolved hand-in-hand with my photo work. Let me explain: I was teaching photography at George Mason University. I found that I enjoyed teaching. At the same time, I was working on a personal project about a commercial cannery in Virginia (where individuals bring their produce in and, with supervision, can it; canneries used to flourish in rural communities). I’ve always felt a comforting sense of hominess and community among a group of people (usually women) idly chatting around food preparation, and this cannery was a heady mix of hominess, shared purpose, hard work and steam (and I love to shoot in steam). I was hooked. My love of all things food and health led me to became a Master Food Volunteer and a Master Canner with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service; I also started offering my own workshops on canning and fermentation. My experience teaching at Mason helped me feel comfortable as a teacher, and I found that teaching the workshops was a natural extension of what I enjoyed sharing with people.
We receive a lot of fairly uncommon varieties of vegetables in our CSA box that are absolutely beautiful, and I am so drawn to photograph them. I’ve made stunning photographs of individual vegetables, but unfortunately all in my head. So far I haven’t succeeded in finding a way to get what I sense in my head into my camera in a way that suits me. I guess I’m not a tabletop shooter, but I still want to show how beautiful these objects are, so I haven’t given up the challenge.
CD: Your style is elegant and simple. Was this a natural outgrowth or were there influences in your early years that nudged you in that direction? If so, who were they? In not, who are some of the artists, designers, and photographers whose work you admire?
Lise Metzger: The people whose work I first admired in my early days of studying photography were Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Roy DeCarava and Harry Callahan. There was some simple and straightforward quality to even my earliest pictures, and even though I’ve tried many, many times to emulate the style of people I admire (I went through a brief Paolo Roversi period, for example), my work seems to come out kind of the same.
My style has evolved over the years, with that fundamental simple quality remaining the same. For years I worked in black and white, then gently added color until I found a color palette that really felt right to me. I shot mostly chrome film on a Hasselblad. That’s probably the work that most people associate with me. The biggest change came when I switched to shooting 35 mm digital. There is a lot I like about shooting digital, but a lot that feels lost. The lighter camera and the ease of carrying around a few cards rather than all that film really works for the personal work I am shooting now, but I miss the whole process of shooting film: the meditative pause as you load film, the substantial “clunk” of the shutter, the sense of openness in Hasselblad images.
Whatever I am shooting, I am constantly striving to push myself in new directions and work out technical or aesthetic issues that are challenging me. I look at other photographers’ work to see how they’ve dealt with whatever issue is on my mind. There are so many artists whose work I admire, and so much incredibly strong work being done. A tiny list would contain Edward Burtynsky, Richard Misrach, Todd Hido, Rineke Dijkstra. I love looking at the light in Annie Leibovitz’s portraits. I used to go regularly to the Washington Opera, and I would be as moved by Joan Sullivan’s stage lighting as I would the singing. I get a lot of inspiration from movies, and I’ll even sit through a bad movie if the light is beautiful.
CD: What personal or long-term photography projects are you working on?
Lise Metzger: My new project is called Grounded Women: Stories of Women Who Farm. It’s a more structured project that satisfies my desire to be out on a farm, and it’s starting its life as a soon-to-be-live blog (www.groundedwomen.com). So many of my photographic and life interests are coming together in this project. My intention is to celebrate the strong and capable women who comprise one of the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S. and to tell the stories of how they chose farming as their work. The project is just in its early stages, and I’m excited about it and eager to see how it develops.
CD: What advice would you give to a young professional about to embark on this career?
Lise Metzger: Recently my teenage daughter and I went blueberry picking. While I did most of the picking, my daughter was idly taking photos with her iPhone. When we looked at them later I was impressed with how good they were—much better than my own phone snaps—and I thought, “Wow, she’s got a great eye. What if she actually wanted to do this as her living?” So your question is timely. Of course, as a parent who would like to see her child support herself, my chest got a little tight with panic. But here is the advice I would give her, and anyone else:
If photography is what you really are drawn to, and really passionate about, then you have to do it. I started my working life with a more regular job, and I was miserable. You will never feel truly satisfied, I believe, if you don’t give voice to your own creative spark. But you have to be really driven, and really committed. You have to do the hard work to develop your technical chops as well as your vision. It helps if you are drawn to a particular subject matter, something you want to express. All of that takes a lot of time and effort to develop, but if you are really invested, it doesn’t feel like effort; it feels like what you are compelled to do. You have to make a lot of pictures, and the more pictures you make the more bad pictures you will make. Keep making them, and eventually you will discover a way to have more of them be good pictures. Never, ever, stop trying and growing. Be curious about everything. Study something other than photography; if you do study photography, make sure you learn photo history. Read a lot; be a well-rounded person.
In terms of studying, I think going to graduate school is a wonderful thing to do. That concentrated focus on your work and the need to continuously produce new work will really help you grow. I also think that if you want to shoot commercially, working as an assistant to many photographers is imperative.
So all of that is just the basic groundwork, the givens. Then you need to develop good business skills. Because at a certain point it’s not just about making pictures, it’s about running a business. You need to be comfortable with marketing and putting yourself out there. Or if not comfortable (and I still am not), at least committed to doing it.
You must, must, must know the business and the value of your intellectual property. I try to pass on to my students the importance of valuing their work, when they are all too thrilled to give it away so they can see it used somewhere. Read what Seth Resnick has to say here on FuseVisual, and elsewhere. Read the ASMP Strictly Business blog. Get your ducks in a row in terms of your bookkeeping and recordkeeping. Learn how to do an estimate and to negotiate. Find sources of information that are helpful to you. I personally like reading aphotoeditor.com (posts written by A Wonderful Machine are very helpful to someone starting out) and Seth Godin, whose message of “get it out there” has helped me loosen some of my own perfectionism. Recognize that everyone feels fear about what they are doing, but don’t let your own fear stop you. Art and Fear is a great book that addresses that.
Have integrity, meaning do what you say and when you say you will do it. Treat everyone with kindness: your client, your assistant, the talent/person you are shooting. My experience has been that there is a lot of swagger in our industry, because it seems so cool to be a photographer, but you can be successful in this business without being an asshole. The truth is, being a photographer is really cool, not because you are such a hot shot, but because of the generosity of people who allow us into their lives, the experiences we get to have and the places we often get to travel to for our work. It’s important to be thankful for the gifts you have that allow you to do this kind of work and the people that help you along the way. Be grateful.