Our next interview in the series features wedding photographer Nessa K of Baltimore, MD. Nessa was named amongst Rangefinder’s Rising Stars of 2014 and talks to us about her love for shooting different wedding clients, working on personal projects, the importance of networking and why having schedules and a routine is key in maintaining her creativity.
Interview by Sachin Khona // November 2015
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
HEY NESSA! WHERE IS HOME FOR YOU AND WHERE DO YOU WORK?
I live in Baltimore, MD. I work from home, beside a giant window that faces a back yard.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS LIVED THERE OR WAS THERE A CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO MOVE TO WHERE YOU CURRENTLY LIVE?
I’ve been a bit of a nomad in my adult life, moving from state to state around the US, but I love seasons, mild summers, and barn weddings, so the Maryland/Virginia/Pennsylvania area feels right. I love being in one place.
In what way, if any, does your location influence your work?
Every shoot and wedding usually means an hour or so of travel, but I feel like this area has everything. The style of weddings and clients in this area differ so greatly in just a few quick jumps. DC weddings can be more traditional with huge columns, giant parties or it can be full of exposed brick art galleries and warehouses, but just 45 minutes outside of the city is farmland, barns, and beaches. Plus, I’m only a 2 hour train ride to NYC. I love that I’ve had the chance to photograph so many different types of clients and so many different types of weddings in the few years I’ve lived here.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
I’m not sure it’s what I wanted, but it’s what happened. I wanted to be an illustrator or a painter since I was 7. I had tunnel vision about it, even. My high school art teacher told me I had to go to college when I didn’t really have aspirations to do much (I’m not a planner). So I asked her, “Which college?” she said, “Pick one.” “What should I major in?” “Pick a major.” So my BFA in Photography/Computer Digital Imagery was picked at random from a list of art majors and I just feel endlessly happy that I loved it so much.
Do you have a designated workspace or office? Do you have a picture you can share of it?
My current office is not up for photographing – it’s just a messy desk by a window. :) Up until a few months ago, I shared a studio space with my boyfriend Sam Hurd.
I loved having a space that told clients everything they needed to know about the rest of my branding as soon as they walked in the front door, but I’m much happier working from home. Easier access to dessert.
What has been the most defining moment in your career? OR
Do you feel there was a turning point, monumental time, or series of events in your life that you were felt as though you were on the right path in regard to your photography career that bought you to where you are now?
I feel very fortunate that the first year I shot weddings, I booked 25 weddings (at low low low prices). I submitted to wedding blogs immediately, was turned down a lot, but in art school we learned that you’re likely to get into 1 out of every 30 art galleries you submit to so I was persistent and had quite a few wedding blog features my first year. I decided to only shoot 25 weddings per year and it’s been that way for the past 6 years. I feel like my career has been incredibly gradual, but steadily rising, thanks to all of my friends and colleagues who all do wedding photography.
Can you describe your style via a series of 10 photos that you feel define the work you’ve done in the last year and where possible describe why each one was included? (editors note: These images are spread throughout the interview)
I love moments where everything lines up, if only for a second.
A girl looking out a window for a minute, distracted by a passerby. A fleeting moment as the bride walked through the trolley on the way to her ceremony. A child who had two brief seconds of calm reflecting with the bride in the background before she resumed jumping on the bed.
Some of my photos just show my love for silliness, primary colors, happiness, stillness, interesting framing, and the decisive moment; things I look for every time I take photos.
What inspires and motivates you?
Traveling, friendly folks, and deadlines.
I’ve been ecstatic and buzzing with creativity shooting in a fluorescent lit church basement on a stormy day because the energy was lovely and the people were kind. I also feel like some of my best portraits have come out of 2 minutes of really great light that I want to use up entirely, so I work like a madman to create something unique with something so fleeting.
What creative training do you do outside of your work?
I took all the art electives I could in university and I still paint, draw, make video art, and write frequently. I love working on personal projects to get creative energy out, but I don’t do commissioned work for anything other than photography.
As Bill Cunningham says:
“You see, if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.”
When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
I love the book “Manage your Day-to-Day” because it preaches the act of consistently working to maintain creativity and not waiting to be inspired. Another great one is “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” – a book following the daily ins and outs of famous artists, writers, and philosophers in history, creating work every single day (and I’m sure not all of it good).
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?
I’m not a perfectionist and I usually base all my decisions on “would I be happy to receive this?” but sometimes things are simply finished because it’s time to quit working on them. This is where the creativity that comes from a deadline comes in handy.
Are there any key lessons in your career that you’d like to share? OR Best piece of career advice you were ever given?
Networking is everything and always share your business/photography secrets. Having a built-in support system of people who understand the problems that can come up in business or can relate with your hectic schedules is crucial and truthfully, the only way I was able to start my business is because I had friends who helped me. Friends who knew more about what they were doing than I did, and who openly shared it.
Share what you know and people will share with you and you’ll both go further.
Do you have a photograph burned in your memory that you never took but wish you had?
Not that I can think of, but I wish some things could be photographed. I feel like standing in a forest at noon with light spotting a mossy ground feels magical and good, but it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing. I love working outside of photography or looking at conceptual photography because I feel like it’s a better way to encompass these types of moments than traditional photos.
Can you share one creative tip that you use when you are working?
Have a schedule! Studies have shown familiarity is best for focus. For example, listening to a specific playlist over and over every time you edit helps you to do the repetitive task at hand and the only distractions you’ll find are because you found an awesome photo you want to blog (vs listening to podcasts where I constantly try to Google things they’re talking about).
Having a routine helps you cover all of your bases and still have time to experiment. I mentioned working consistently helps to maintain creativity and I have routines for everything from daily life scheduling; to the mental checklist of photos I take during portraits; to editing; to the questions I ask during client meetings.
What are the 3 most important things in your personal life?
Relationships, mindfulness, and food.
Do you work in any other fields of business?
I don’t; aside from photography related jobs, I’ve only done retail. Life has taught me I’m so horribly bad at selling things, so I’m yet again lucky photography worked out.
Can you share a bit about your daily schedule? What within your work do you not like to do and why?
I did a video about my morning routine last year because I think schedules and routines are so important for maintaining creativity! Not much has changed, except I’ve been eating packaged oatmeal to save time and I skip out on journaling frequently now that it’s wedding season.
What was your hardest / painful creative failure to deal with and what did it teach you?
Rather than having one big painful failure, life has graciously peppered my life with a million little mistakes that I get to learn from. Learning how to provide great customer service was the hardest bit for me because in retail, mistakes are never your fault. A manager handles issues if it gets out of hand.
In my business, I accept responsibility no matter where the missteps were made along the way (even if a client has misunderstood something, I apologize for the confusion), which was a new mindset to settle into, but providing great customer service is one of the most rewarding parts of being a business owner to me now.
I also wanted to say that I love being a member of a few online photography forums because I also get to learn from others mistakes as well!
What will you be doing (or hope to be doing) 5/10 years from now?
I’ve never been a planner! But I loved going to school for photography and would love to be a photography professor at a university in the future.
Can you share an image that you’re particularly proud of and tell us why?
This was maybe the third frame into my first family session when I decided “Yup. I definitely want to do family sessions” and booked these clients. It’s one of my favorite images from the session and completely set the stage for how I wanted to interpret family sessions — I wanted them to be beautiful, love encompassing, but not necessarily always literal portraits of families.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
Are there any mantras that you live by?
I really don’t; I just try to like myself and be positive.
If you were no longer able to use a camera, how else would you express your creativity?
I rarely take on personal projects using photography anymore — I’d keep painting, playing ukulele, writing, designing, and maybe take up woodworking, since I’d have a hole in my schedule to fill.
If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?
Writing letters to everyone who I loved so I didn’t feel guilty for wanting to spend it almost entirely alone in reflection.
If you could change one aspect of our society through your work, what would it be?
Openness, acceptance, and love. Is that a pageant response? Like I basically said “world peace?” Maybe I could start small.
I wish everyone loved themselves. I feel like that would probably solve a lot of problems.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
All the time! And it doesn’t matter if I doubt my work because, the thing about being an artist is that you have to create art. You don’t always love it, you’re just compelled to do it.
A question that I haven’t asked but should have or something you’d like to share with others?
Not that I can think of! I have lifelong issues with anxiety and sharing anything about myself makes me feel incredibly exposed, but I was happy to do this. Sharing is a huge part of what makes all grow.
If we give away our secrets, we have opportunities to make more and become more complex, thriving artists.
I’m happy to have been included, Sachin. Thank you.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
I don’t listen to any consistently, but the Design Sponge archives are great to listen through. It’s for business owners and creatives alike.
Music // Share a Spotify playlist
I don’t use Spotify! :) I made this one that I still love though – http://8tracks.com/nessakphotography/october-is-coming
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Anything by Jean-Luc Godard. He’s a french filmmaker and I really envy use of primary colors, strange dialogue, and mod styling.
Your favourite book // A book you are currently reading
Currently reading: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
A website you regularly follow?
http://www.messynessychic.com — the best compilation of vintage photographs and wonderful stories that I’ve found.
Last place you travelled?
I barely saw my home in October! I started the month off in rural Michigan for a wedding, then went to Sweden to speak at the Way Up North photography conference, went to Portland, OR to teach a workshop with Sara K Byrne, then off to Puerto Rico to shoot a wedding with Sam Hurd. The morning after we got back, we drove 7 hours to Charleston WV to pick up our new puppy, Popcorn. I’m not leaving the country again until February when I do a workshop at Photography Farm Week in the UK. I missed being home.
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
I feature a lot of photographers in my newsletter because I have too many favorites to choose, but lately this group photo project by Osamu Yokohama has been especially captivating: http://www.yokonamiosamu.jp/02/
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident.
– The War of Art
Coconut La Croix
Favourite (photography related) TED talk
I’m not sure I’ve seen any! I think empathy is huge in the way I work and communicate with my clients, so I think this one is terribly relevant – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
When I was in London, I sought out the dodo bird skeleton in the Museum of Natural History.
Your favourite photography book
I tend to read more art-in-general books, but Picture Perfect Posing is a great read for those wanting to improve posing.
Links to your personal work // projects
I have a newsletter where I share the most of myself. Everything stuck in my head, sometimes a bit from my personal journal, recipes, etc.
Can you share a short assignment / project that has benefited you in the past OR create / describe an assignment that you feel can help those reading this interview?
My first year of photography school, all we used was black and white film. The idea is that it strips your photos down to shapes, light, and composition.
The biggest thing that helped me when I struggle to see creatively while I’m working is to put my LCD screen in black and white (and if you shoot in RAW, the photos are still in color when you edit them). It really does change the way you see. Portraits are easy – black and white are fairly standard and tend to look interesting no matter what, but if you can make a landscape, for example, look beautiful out of black and white, you’re onto something.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME nessa!
You can see more of Nessa’s work here // Web
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