Interview with Elizabeth Siegfried, Fine Art Photographer

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Professional & Academic Perspectives of Photography

Elizabeth Siegfried is a fine art photographer and platinum printer whose work has been shown in Japan, Italy, Mexico, Canada, and the United States, and reproduced in such publications as Shutterbug, C Magazine, and Photo Life Magazine.

Ms. Siegfried first was introduced to the platinum process in 1982, while studying at The Maine Photographic Workshops, where she studied with platinum print master Sal Lopes. She continued this work as an Artist-In-Residence at the Banff Center for the Arts, and has made the platinum process her specialty.

Ms. Siegfried & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends

Ms. Siegfried & Her Career

How did you discover your talent as a photographer?

As a child, I took many pictures, and I think I developed an eye at an early age. I felt that I had an intuitive sense of photography that I could not explain. I was intrigued by the idea of being able to shoot with a camera and then see that image on a two-dimensional piece of paper.

I always related to what Gary Winogrand once said about taking pictures: He wanted to see what the things he liked looked like as photographs. I still get excited about this concept.

When I went to photography school and had the opportunity to immerse myself in photography, the talent that I suspected I had became more pronounced.

Tell us about your professional career. How did you get your start? How did you advance to where you are today? What has been the “driving force” behind your career?

It was not until my last year in university that I discovered the magic of developing my own photographs.

I took a photo class quite by chance during the January session at Skidmore College and was captivated by the whole process. Watching an image that I had taken slowly appear in the developer tray was a life-changing experience. By that time in my college career, it was too late to change my major from English to photo/art so I promised myself I would seriously pursue photography after I graduated.

Once graduated from Skidmore, I started to take as many photo classes as possible. I signed up for the six-month intensive residency program at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, Maine and there I could devote all of my time learning about photography. After the six months was over, I was even more committed and continued to take workshops to upgrade my skills.

I have advanced to where I am today by involving myself in any photographic opportunity that comes my way. I network with other photographers and rarely say no to a competition or exhibition. I continue to challenge myself. Even if I feel nervous about taking on a job, I accept it because it always stretches me.

The driving force behind my career has been my love of the medium. I love the challenge of becoming better known as a photographer and respected for my work.

You specialize in the “platinum process.” Explain what this is and why you chose to focus on it.

The platinum process is an historical process which was popular from about 1873 into the early 1900s when platinum became more difficult to access.

The process came back into fashion around the 1980s which is when I started to use it as my primary method of printing.

Instead of silver, the platinum process uses the metal platinum and/or palladium. This metal salt is mixed with a light-sensitive compound to make a solution which is then hand-coated on a piece of fine rag paper.

It is a contact printing process, which means that the negative is placed directly “in contact” with the emulsion and then exposed to light, developed and cleared. Obviously the negative has to be the same size that you want the desired print to be. I make enlarged negatives from 35mm negatives and 120 negatives.

The platinum process is the most archival of all the photographic techniques and it produces tones of great depth. There is a three-dimensional quality to a platinum print that is unique to this process. The first time I saw a platinum print, I was amazed by its beauty and tonal range. The platinum process had an old-fashioned quality to it that I felt would enhance my work, and I’ve been printing with platinum ever since.

Your work is represented in major international collections in Canada and Japan and has been reproduced in a number of professional publications. How important is this kind of recognition to you, personally and professionally?

To be represented in major collections and reproduced in professional publications is very important to me, both professionally and personally.

When museums and other organizations with collections purchase my work, it legitimizes what I do. The more collections that have my work, the more collections want my work.

Professional publications are important because it is the best way to get exposure. Gallery owners, collectors, and colleagues begin to see me in a more professional light, and as a result I get more shows, more interest in my work and more sales. Again, it legitimizes what I do.

Needless to say, it is thrilling to have an article written about you and have a spread of your photographs for people all over the country to see. There is a certain sense of permanence to being published in a magazine that one does not feel through having an exhibition.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments and favorite projects and why?

My proudest accomplishment is my book, titled LifeLines. The body of work, which is a photographic narrative sequence, took about three years to complete. A couple of years later, I published the images in a hardbound book.

The process of book publishing was fascinating and a labor of love. I was involved with everything from the design and choice of cloth on the cover, to the quality of the printing of the images.

I met and became good friends with the fabulous American writer Andrea Barrett, who wrote a beautiful introduction to the book, and I became involved with the distribution of the book once it was published.

As a bonus to this project, an American composer, James Grant wrote a symphonic poem based on the images in LifeLines. His piece was performed by the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra and the Bay Atlantic Symphony in Baltimore and New Jersey soon after the book was launched.

I am very proud of LifeLines, and the process through which it became a reality allowed me to meet and work with wonderful artists in many disciplines.

Who are your three favorite photographers working in the world today and why?

Two photographers come to mind immediately. The first is Robert ParkeHarrison. His work is beautiful, provocative and profoundly meaningful.

In his images, ParkeHarrison depicts himself as the character Everyman, surrounded with symbols and myths to convey his message about the environment. Sometimes that message is hopeful, sometimes it is a strong warning about the way we are abusing the earth. In each case his images, along with being strikingly beautiful, can be seen as important educational tools to bring awareness to the viewers.

The second photographer is Pentti Sammallahti, who was born in Finland and has photographed all over the world, primarily in places with low sun, bitter cold and snow.

I am quite taken with Sammallahti’s work because of the quality of light he is able to capture. There is a very quiet sense about his images, a combination of contemplation, a subtle sense of humor and a compassionate affection for creatures (he often photographs animals, particularly dogs, in barren places).

Most of my favorite photographers are not living today, although if I were to choose a third living artist, it would be Olivia Parker. Her first book, Signs of Life (1978), was exceptional.

Using a variety of objects, Parker created beautiful still lifes: the objects photographed in the images seemed to be at the edge of change and transformation, so they had their own energy. Her prints were split toned (a process done with the chemical selenium), so they had a fascinating three-dimensional quality.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do as a photographer? Do you consider yourself a fine artist, a studio photographer, or something else? How do you get your clients?

Although I have done commercial work in the past (such as working as a fashion photographer, professional printer, and photographer’s assistant), I am now basically a fine art photographer.

I teach platinum printing workshops and do my own work for exhibition and publication. I occasionally do freelance work that might include a portrait assignment. I often work with design companies that are looking for specific images for their clients, but much of my time is spent dealing with galleries and magazines.

I also sit on a number of committees in photography organizations. That includes working on an exhibition selection committee for an artist-run center, participating as a judge for competitions, and acting as a curator for specific exhibitions.

Much of my time is spent marketing my work. I write letters and emails, make phone calls, network, go to conferences. A lot of my work comes through word of mouth, through my website and through referrals. I follow up and follow up.

What can you tell us about cameras? What kind do you use most often and why? Do you have any advice on choosing a camera?

Although I have quite a few different cameras including an 8″ x 10″ view camera, Holga toy camera, a Lomo toy camera, and a Nikon point and shoot, I tend to use two specific cameras most often.

I have a Canon F1 that I have had for ages. It is fully manual, heavy and an old friend. I rarely use any other lens on it other than a Macro 50mm 1: 3.5. I own a wide angle 28 1:2.8mm lens and a telephoto 135mm lens, but my work rarely calls for their use.

Although I have a Hasselblad, I prefer to use my twin lens reflex Yashica Mat-124G as my square format camera. It’s quiet and reliable and has fine optics. Since I work primarily in a historical process, there’s something fitting about using older cameras as my cameras of choice.

There are many different types of cameras out on the market these days, including a vast number of digital cameras. If you are interested purchasing one, you should make a list of functions that you want before you go into the camera store and do a lot of research beforehand.

What about photographic attachments, equipment and facilities? What does a photographer need, and how expensive is it?

I know many photographers who carry bags of camera equipment, and I would be surprised to hear if they used half of it.

I have added different types of cameras over the years, depending on whether I wanted to experiment with a plastic camera, or shoot with a view camera so I could contact print the negatives without making enlarged negatives, or simply shoot in a different format and shape of negative. However, one camera with a couple of lenses (a normal, a wideangle and a telephoto or a zoom lens that covers all those distances), a flash unit if you think you will shoot with flash (I always use available light), a tripod, light meter, shutter release and film are all you really need (other than your personal vision) to make great pictures.

My photographic mentor once told me that the camera is merely a recording device. I have taken great shots with a point and shoot as well as my professional Canon F1.

You learn what tools you need as you go along.

If you want to do your own developing and printing, a darkroom is essential. I have used closets and bathrooms at one time or another as my darkroom. They might not be the optimum, but they suffice.

An enlarger is a must if you plan to project negatives, an easel for paper, the correct lighting for the technique you use, chemicals, and developing trays are all necessary.

Water in your space is not essential as long as water is nearby. I have used hoses poked through holes in the wall to get water into some spaces, and I’ve carried prints into bathtubs for washing. One of the most important tools is your resourcefulness.

The prices for all this varies. I buy all of my equipment used and that cuts down on the price significantly.

Find yourself a good used camera store and establish a relationship with the salespeople. That relationship can be invaluable throughout your photographic career.

On a basic level, what kinds of skills does your profession demand?

My profession demands commitment and patience and a unique personal vision.

You have to be committed to photography and love what you do. There’s a lot of competition, but if you have your own style, are patient with the ups and downs and are committed and work hard, it can be extremely rewarding.

What are the greatest stresses and anxieties in your professional life as a photographer? What are the greatest rewards?

I find that the greatest stresses and anxieties come with working with people who are disorganized or unprofessional.

That can come in many forms from working with a gallery owner who doesn’t promote your work the way he/she had claimed to do, or working with an organization that doesn’t pay you on time. The greatest reward is when everything runs smoothly, you get a positive response and recognition for your work, and there are sales.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education, including schools attended and degrees or certifications earned. What did you like and dislike? How has your education benefited your career?

I attended Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York and earned a BA degree in English. After graduation from Skidmore, I went to the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, Maine for their six-month intensive residency program.

The program in Maine was invaluable and although they did not have a Masters Program at the time, they stressed that the intensity and quality of the program was equivalent to a higher degree.

I liked everything about it, particularly the privilege of living and breathing photography for an intensive period of time. I left with a very solid foundation of photographic knowledge. Not only have the skills that I learned become the basis of my career, but the people with whom I studied have become lifelong friends and colleagues as well as great connections to the international photographic community.

In retrospect, if there anything that you know now that you wish you had known before you pursued your education in the field?

I had no misconceptions about being a fine art photographer, in terms of the financial aspect. I knew that, in the beginning at least, it was not going to be a huge money maker. I also knew that it would have to be supplemented by teaching or other photo-related avenues.

What I did not know before pursuing my career was how personally rewarding photography would become. If I had known that, then I might have started seriously working in photography at an earlier age.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an photography school or program?

The most important factor in choosing a photography school or program, I believe, is the instructor.

A program may have the “right” courses, but if those courses are not being taught by a good person, something very important is missing.

Do research into the background of the instructors, look at their images, read about their photographic philosophy, question their students. The best way to find out about a teacher is to ask their students.

Another factor is where the school is located. I have known people who have signed up for programs and have arrived at their location and realized that there was nothing there for them to photograph. In other words, they were not inspired. Cost and the time it takes to complete the program are also important things to consider.

What should photography students try to get out of their education? What areas should they focus on to be better prepared for the professional world?

Photography students should try to get a solid foundation of photographic basics and techniques.

Learning as many photographic tools as possible and being exposed to all aspects of photography will help in career decisions.

The opportunity to look at images with a critical eye and the interaction with other photographers, both famous and not so famous, are two powerful advantages of attending photography school and something to take seriously. These two experiences will enhance students’ imagery as well as educate them on how to look at other people’s work, a distinct advantage for photo editors or teachers, or those involved in a number of other photo careers.

If possible, photography students should try to take some photography business courses. This is a topic that is often overlooked in photography schools, and one that is imperative in the real world.

Because technology is moving quickly, it is very important to have a working knowledge of digital photography and computers.

What do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for photography in the U.S.?

There are many photography programs available in the U.S. and the best way to research them is to go online and talk to former students.

There are programs that emphasize the commercial side of photography and there are programs that emphasize the art side. The Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester is a well-respected graduate school and The Maine Photographic Workshops now has a Masters Program in addition to their Summer workshops.

Brooks Institute of Photography in California is well known and offers undergraduate degrees in photography and a Masters of Science in photography. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is another respected school that offers photography. These are just a few that I would suggest.

Job Information & Advice

What are the professional options for someone graduating from a photography program?

If your primary interest is commercial photography, then gathering clients and starting a business, or getting a job on a magazine or newspaper is an option.

Keeping an ear to the ground for job opportunities is important. A lot of work comes through word of mouth within the business.

For the fine art photographers, teaching is usually the first choice. This allows for supporting yourself while pursuing personal work.

Becoming an apprentice or photographer’s assistant are other possibilities for both commercial and fine art photographers.

What career advice can you give to aspiring photographers wanting to make a name for themselves to stand out from the crowd?

To stand out in the crowd, you have to be true to your vision.

Success comes from following what you believe in, photographing what you know, taking advantage of every opportunity that comes along and getting the word out.

It takes time to be recognized, but when it happens, people will recognize your own “style”. This style often emerges without you realizing that it has emerged.

Each one of us has a unique vision, and over time and with life experience that vision will only become more of what it is. While that vision is evolving, we have to let people know that our work exists. That comes under the heading of marketing.

What’s the salary range that graduating students can expect to start out? How about later in their careers?

This is a difficult question, and it varies dramatically. So much of it depends on the type of job you’re able to secure. The more experience and exposure, the more the demand, and the higher the salary.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in the field?

I do not think that graduating from a prestigious school makes a difference.

As I mentioned before, the quality of the instructors is what is important. There can be terrible teachers at the most prestigious schools, and the most wonderful and generous teachers at not so prestigious schools. What matters most is what you end up doing with the tools that you acquire.

Industry Trends

How have computer advancements, such as digital photography, affected your profession? How important is it for upcoming professionals to be well-versed with computer technology?

The digital age has allowed photojournalists to immediately send their images across oceans to have them published the next day in the newspaper. It has allowed anyone to send pictures via email to magazines, galleries, design companies or friends, and Photoshop has allowed for easy manipulation of photographs.

Although I work in a 19th century process, I use the new technology in some aspects of my work. I scan some of my images so I can decide whether or not I want to make enlarged negatives for platinum printing; I have a website so I can direct curators and prospective clients to my work; and I use the internet for sending images. From the business end of photography to the creative end, it is very important to have a working knowledge of digital technology.

How important is it to have a website?

In this day and age, I think it is extremely important to have a website. A website that has images and background information is a very valuable tool. It should be simple to navigate and have an email address where you can be reached.

I have had magazines, television stations, curators, and others contact me because they saw my work on the web and were interested in working with me. It is the easiest and most efficient way to direct contacts to see work.

What other equipment is needed for sending images to clients?

In this digital age, it is important to have access to or own certain equipment.

If you do not work with a digital camera, a scanner is important to have. This way you can scan prints or slides and put the files on your computer. Often clients will want to see a jpeg of an image before making a decision to use it.

A good ink jet printer is helpful for making ink jet prints to use as examples of work (these can be used as press prints or work prints, etc.). With the advanced quality of ink jet printers these days, final digital prints for exhibition can be made without the use of a darkroom. More and more clients are requesting cd’s with images as opposed to Zip disks so owning or having access to a cd burner is becoming more and more important.

Is there any special photography software that I should have on my computer?

If you are a photographer and have a computer, Photoshop is essential.

Whether or not you use it in a creative way such as to manipulate images, it is important to have as a basic software program. When you start sending your images around, or design your website, or use the internet in any photo business capacity, Photoshop is a must.

What are the greatest challenges that your profession faces?

The greatest challenge that my profession faces is the economy. As a fine art photographer, I have to depend on people’s disposable income, and, in hard times, most people do not buy art.

The other challenge that I face as an artist is the discontinuation of certain materials that I use. On many occasions, the powers that be have discontinued film and other chemicals that I have learned to depend on. There are also threats that film may become obsolete because of the digital age, although that’s questionable.

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