Welcome to the fifth in a series of interviews with creative friends and acquaintances I have collected over the years. My aspiration is to share their insights on what inspires them, how they work through creative blocks and rejection, and learn about their upcoming projects on the first Saturday of each month (the idea: if you get inspired to “play,” you have the weekend to manifest what your Muse demands!!!).
This month, we get to know photographer Karen Gowen.
Karen Jordan Gowen was born in Philadelphia and lived both in Media, PA and Chester Springs, PA. She graduated from Agnes Irwin School and went to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY where she majored in English and minored in Art History. In summers, she attended Camp Kehonka on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. In 1986 she was lost in Philadelphia and asked for directions from a dashing young man who would soon become her husband! Karen, George have been married for almost 25 years and have three awesome children Emily (22), Jordy (21) and Sam (17). They live in a 200 year old money pit in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania with their bouncy yellow lab, Bodhi.
Karen is a full-time professional photographer and also volunteers for several local non-profits. She just signed up with The Magic Hour Foundation that offers free portrait sessions to people whose lives have been touched by cancer. She loves chocolate, colorful socks and playing with her family in the great outdoors. She and George just bought a farm in northern Vermont where they escape to as often as possible!!
Karen and I are fellow Kehonka girls (never underestimate the power of a good summer camp!!!!), and I am thrilled to have her contribute to my pet project.
Let’s get to know this talented photographer better!
Lucky Ginger Studio: At what age do you remember first embracing your Inner Artist?
Karen Gowen: I believe the “inner artist” has been present in me since birth. I was born to a family who values being creative. Both my father and my grandfather were avid photographers (they were both doctors by day!) and always shared their knowledge and love of art with me. My father was also a wood carver and his father painted, doodled or drew every day of his life. My early years from 3-12 were spent at a progressive school where crayons, clay and paint were used far more than spelling books, rulers and calculators. I was handed a camera at the age of 4 or 5 and first entered the darkroom at both school and at my grandfather’s house in about fifth grade. I can still remember the acrid smell of the chemicals and the excitement as I watched my images emerge on paper when dipped in to the developer. I was hooked then and have basically not stopped documenting my world through the camera lens since!
LGS: In what ways do you express your creativity?
KG: Photography is my primary tool for expressing my creativity but I can also be seen drawing, attempting to paint with watercolors, knitting and sometimes turning to technology to do a wee bit of digital design with my images.
LGS: What time of day do you feel most creative?
KG: I have never found that I am more creative at a specific time of day but do often get excited in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is what I like to refer as “magic.” Photography is all about interpreting light so I start to salivate if I am driving in my car and spot a field illuminated in a golden glow or see an interesting shadow in the corner of a room. I’m not a perky morning person so I really have to make myself get up to discover that magic morning light!
LGS: Do you have a support group of other artisan/creative friends? If so, how do you support each other?
KG: I have been fortunate in my career as a creative to live in an area where artists abound. My friends Jim Graham and Alessandra Manzotti, who are also photographers, meet with me several mornings a week for breakfast and we chat about all things photographic. We all spur each other on to reach for the stars and find unique ways to follow our creative visions. It is so fun to collaborate rather than compete with one another. We all bring such different things to the table that we never feel like we are working against each other. Just this morning Jim and I helped Alex prepare for a boudoir session by showing her how best to conquer a room with little or no natural light. Because I was wearing athletic clothes and we were on a bed covered with plaid pillows and sheets, our session erupted in to complete silliness and laughter within minutes because the mood was far from appropriate for a boudoir session. We did help Alex get ready but all photos were ridiculous!
LGS: Training: self-taught? Formal schooling? Little bit of both?
KG: Although I have had cameras FOREVER, I guess my formal (but not too formal) training began when I was 14 and joined a photography club at my high school. My dad lent me his trusty old Pentax and I quickly got obsessed with mastering manual settings and developing roll after roll of b&w film. I continued to snap away with my camera throughout high school and college never dreaming that someday people would actually pay me to do what I adore. I took a college course in photography and worked for the yearbook but was an English major with a minor in Art History, and did not study photography.
I really cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t stop to document my world with my camera. Various jobs in marketing and PR came and went, and I got married and began a family. My babies were my subjects as I continued to hone my craft. When my youngest of three was in preschool, I literally fell in to my career by accident because they needed me to photograph the ninety children attending the school. When folks saw my work, they started hiring me to take their holiday card photos for them. The rest, as they say, is history. I have been in business for 15 years and have grown and evolved and become truer to my vision and style with each year. I continue to take the occasional classes and workshops when I can but am primarily a self-taught artist.
LGS: Do you allow yourself creative “play” time? (just messing around to make something for YOU…no specific project in mind?) If so: how do you do it?
KG: Because I have been doing this for so long, I have to force myself to play and keep my creative juices flowing. My new found love for Iphoneography has really helped immensely to allow me to play and keep it simple and fun when I am feeling stifled by yet another headshot assignment or serious family session. I love the fact that the images I produce are truly about light and composition. I don’t have to think about metering and camera settings, I simply compose and shoot. The apps available make it so easy to manipulate and change the images in endless creative ways. I belong to several Instagram groups and we all work with prompts each day that force us to think in new and interesting ways. I love the fact that I am “following” strangers all over the world as we share glimpses into each other’s daily lives.
LGS: When you encounter creative blocks, how do you work through or around them?
KG: Each January I tend to go in to a post-holiday blah period. I work flat out from about August to December photographing families, editing images and designing holiday cards and books that must be ready in time for the holidays. In January, I intentionally put my camera aside and take a few weeks off to just be. Last January, I had a Downton Abby-fest and picked up my knitting needles and made a few pairs of mittens but I literally did not use my “big” camera for weeks. When the first snow hit, I was inspired to shoot since I had taken a visual break and created some wonderful snowy images that I love and that were “just for me.” I believe we all need downtime as creatives and so often feel panicked to produce so we don’t shut it off very often. I highly recommend turning it off once in a while to allow the juices to bubble back up. You’ll be amazed to see what emerges when you allow yourself to percolate!
LGS: If the “What You’re Doing Is No Good” voice pops into your head, how do you shut it down?
KG: As I rapidly approach the age of 50, I have gotten much better at quieting the voice of doubt that used to nip at my confidence. When I was younger, I was so worried about how to keep up with the competition that I often lost sight of my own vision in order to produce images that I thought would sell. After a few years of beating myself up and feeling fruitless, I realized that I was never going to shoot like so and so and should just be myself and shoot the way I like to shoot. Amazingly, my business got stronger and stronger when I defined my own style and stayed true to it. Suddenly, the tides turned and my competition started trying to mimic my casual, un-posed style because people were turning away from her posed, formal work and seeking my more relaxed style.
I have learned that as an artist, it is imperative to listen to your gut and stay true to your vision rather than getting caught up in the brutal art of comparing and competing with other artists. Learn from my mistakes and stick to your guns and by all means be yourself and you will have a happy heart and be a successful artist!
LGS: What’s your favorite tool that helps you get your job done?
KG: As yucky as it might sound to you artists out there, the tool I cannot live without to produce my art is my computer! Gone are the days of inhaling toxic chemicals to produce beautiful fine art prints in the darkroom. Now, instead I am found hunched over a computer screen til all hours of the night fiddling with my digital images to get them just right. I miss the simplicity of dropping off rolls of film at the lab to be developed and printed but LOVE the creative freedom that digital photography offers. I have had to master many complex software programs but am now able to produce exceptional photographs through the use of Photoshop and other cool programs. I can zap zits, shift colors and create dreamy b&w images with the click of my mouse. I learned how to do some of these things in the darkroom but now I can do so much more with my computer. I NEVER thought I would be able to master my machine, but now I can even troubleshoot when my Mac acts up!
LGS: What advice do you have for someone who wants to transition from doing their craft on a part-time to a full-time basis?
KG: Being an artist is hard but unbelievably rewarding. As I said before, I am shocked that people are willing to pay me money to do something that has always been such a passion for me. I feel blessed that I was able to be a full-time mother to my kids while squeezing in time to do my craft. Now that I am an empty nester, I have something to turn to that fulfills me and keeps me sane when I miss my kids dreadfully.
I have mentored MANY photographers and always tell them that they MUST learn the business side of things while honing their craft. We all love to be artists and create our wares but are often terrible at…gasp…charging money for them! Learn basic business skills and use them when starting out (I didn’t and it took a while for me to muster up the courage to do things right!).
If you want to make art your career, don’t give it away because if you don’t value it, neither will the people that you want to have as clients! If you are going to be a full –time artist, be better than I am and actually set formal hours and allow down time. I am the worst at this and am often placing orders at midnight when I should be snuggled in bed. Do as I say, not as I do!
And most importantly, have fun being creative and feel grateful for your abilities because not everyone out there can do what you can do!
GREAT advice from a great photographer. Thank you, Karen!!!!
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