Interview with photographer Heidi Lender
Yvette Meltzer: Heidi, can you tell us a little about your background as a photographer. How did you first become involved in photography and what led to you working in this medium as an artist?
Heidi Lender: I worked in fashion publishing for a long time as a features writer, editor and stylist. Because I worked side-by-side with the photographers to produce features, photography was a part of my life. But it wasn’t until I bought my first DSLR in 2009, while I was a teacher at my own yoga studio in San Francisco (career #2), that I truly got hooked. After I learned how to use the foreign buttons on my camera nearly a year later, I became active in the Flickr community. Here, I learned about digital photography – what I liked and didn’t like, how to create certain effects, Photoshop tricks, what I was doing wrong, and also right. Thanks to Flickr, I started my series Once Upon.
YM:The “Road Trip” issue of F-Stop includes 5 images from your series Roadtripping with Adele. What can you tell us about this project?
HL: The road trip project just happened, as these things sometimes do. I was in the middle of a pretty nasty breakup, and jumped into my car in San Francisco as a distraction. Review Santa Fe was my goal and New Mexico was my first destination, followed by Durango, Colorado, where I was opening in a show. All the while, I was scouting a possible new place to live. But really, I was nursing the heartbreak and just coping, hoping that being on the road and making images might help.
YM: Can you tell us about the show in Durango? What work was being shown there?
HL: It was a two-person show (with the talented Brooke Shaden) at Open Shutter Gallery, showing my series, She Can Leap Tall Buildings. That was in 2012.
YM: Sounds like you were an instant success! You said you got hooked on photography in ’09 and then you had a show in 2012! Can you say more about this?
HL: I don’t know about instant success — I was working my butt off, so excited to have found my “thing”, and my voice, which was a more challenging feat as a writer. In my quest to learn, I was active on Flickr, as I mentioned, and also did a lot of research online about photography, forced myself to join Facebook, and started interacting with the community. The first juried show to which I submitted was The Art of Self Portraiture at Photoplace Gallery in Vermont. Aline Smithson was the juror, and, though I had no clue of who she was at the time, I looked at her website and thought she might appreciate my work since our backgrounds were fairly similar. She did, in fact, choose one of my Once Upon images. And when I discovered her Lenscratch blog some months later, I found that she had written about my work. A year later, I donated the airstream image from the Green Dress series to “Life Support Japan”, which happily sold out quickly, and spread my work around. I had some good luck, and signed on with two galleries immediately following that.
YM: There’s some great advice for others interested in advancing in photography in what you just said: do what you love, work hard, do your research, look for opportunities, take chances and keep at it…you shared your work with Flickr and the Facebook community and donated your work for a worthy cause. You really gave it your 100%
Can you discuss your process for making the Roadtripping with Adele images?
HL: My romantic plan was to take self-portraits across Route 66, but I really wasn’t capable of doing much more than shooting the landscape and the people I met along the way, mostly with my iPhone. The movement on the road accompanied by the only CD I had with me, Adele 21 — heartbreak CD of the century — was healing. I captured anything that caught my eye, when it wasn’t filled with tears. The self-portraits I made were more spontaneous than what I may have had in mind. I was disappointed in Route 66; that stretch of the country seemed so sad, but, then again, so was my lens of my world. The project is a mix of iPhone images and those from my DSLR.
YM: So you used both your iPhone and your DSLR for this series?
HL: Yes, I used both cameras, but MOSTLY my iPhone. I drove across the US twice more after that initial trip and continued to shoot, as it was a continuation of the story.
YM: Does this differ from your usual creative process?
HL: Yes, in that I was reacting to what was around me, instead of planning and plotting beforehand. I didn’t have any forethought that I was shooting “a project.” I just made pictures. And, only after some time, with perspective, and a few more road trips that year, while reviewing my files, did I realize I had a story I wanted to share.
YM: What defines a “good” photograph to you?
HL: An interesting and pleasing (to me) composition, and something that makes me linger, or look twice, something that captures a universal feeling and evokes an emotion in me.
YM: Do you have a favorite image in this series? If so, which one and why is it the image that speaks to you most favorably?
HL: I have one favorite and three runner-ups. When I crossed Independence Pass on the way from Crestone to Aspen, Colorado, I stopped and clicked a few images with both my IPhone and camera. The pass was socked in, beautifully moody. The symbolism of the “Independence Pass” sign, and where I was in my emotional life didn’t click until I was editing the photos. The iPhone version struck me in a knock-me-on-the-floor kind of way, for those reasons, as well as for the nostalgia of the place (I used to live in Aspen). The runners up are the Hill Top motel photo of Bubba and me, the photo of the trailer, and the photo of our backs, running into a field in Taos, NM — very Dorothy, running toward home, again, independent.
YM: What is the intended “end” or “purpose” for the project?
HL: I’m just wrapping up a small edition of quirky, handmade books of the project, entitled Chasing Pavement. It’s a scrapbook of the journey, complete with pullouts, postcards, journal notes.
YM: What do you hope people see or feel or perhaps learn when they look at your photographs?
HL: My work is rather personal – a reflection of my life, who I am, or, who I aim to be. And in becoming that person, I always hope to inspire others to reflect on their own lives, for them to think, to be better, to motivate, create, and for them to further inspire others, a ripple effect.
YM: What is the most challenging work you have ever done?
HL: Collaging the road trip series on the exhibition wall of Wall Space Gallery last fall. I had one of those scary “I can’t do this” moments on the morning of the opening. And sequencing the Chasing Pavement book is challenging – figuring out how best to tell this story – and it’s taking forever.
YM: What are you working on now?
HL: Chasing Pavement. And I’m also diving into film right now, medium format, going back to the basics.
YM: I imagine you were exposed to film when you worked side-by-side with photographers as a stylist and a writer. Had you used film previously?
HL: Yes, I’ve worked with film, but never seriously.
YM: So what prompted you to dive back into film now?
HL: I crop a lot of my [digital] images to square, and have wanted to play with a Hasselblad for a long time. This brought on a curiosity about film. So, I’ve declared this the year-of-film, going back to basics, learning more about light, slowing down my process, getting into the darkroom — it’s a lot! I haven’t been such a novice at something in so long. I almost gave up when my first (very bad) rolls came back from the lab. But I’m committed and a fast learner, so it has been an inspiring adventure thus far.
YM: Do you think film will take you in a new direction? Can you tell us what we have to look forward to?
HL: I’m just exploring for now, and educating myself, and waiting to see where it will take me.
YM: What photographers or other artists inspire you?
HL: Irving Penn is my hero. Francesca Woodman intrigues me. Vintage fashion photographs are an obsession.
YM: It makes sense that as a former stylist you would be intrigued by vintage fashion photographers.
YM: If you could own one photograph whose would it be and which image?
HL: Yikes – that’s too hard! Probably an Avedon something.
YM: Do you have any other advice for people who would like to make photography a career?
HL: Like any career, go after what you want. Don’t be afraid. Break rules. Challenge yourself. Contact people directly. And do your homework before you do. Ignore the shoulds and create your own path. Be honest with yourself – and with others. Accept rejection and stay true to your creative self. And keep going, no matter what.
YM: You sure have followed your own good advice. Thank you, Heidi, for sharing your story. I’m looking forward to the release of Chasing Pavement as I’m sure so many others will be interested in doing. You might want to think about a larger edition. Good luck on its completion!
For more of Heidi Lender’s work: heidilender.com
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