Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: Tell us about yourself. Who is Barbara Warren?
Barbara: That's a tough question. I think we are all more complicated and multifaceted individuals than we give ourselves credit for. I studied chemical engineering in college, and that was a time when women weren't supposed to be engineers. After I graduated, I worked for 25 years in the chemical industry. I worked in research, developing new products. I also worked in corporate management. The work was challenging and interesting. When I left the corporate world, I became a small business owner, doing my photography. I teach photography, and I also teach Photoshop. I do weddings and bar mitzvahs, and my own personal artistic work. So, engineer, manager, artist, business owner all apply to me, but they don't necessarily define who I am. I’m always open to trying new things and having new experiences.
QFTD: How did you fall in love with the camera?
Barbara: Actually, I can remember that very clearly. Back in 1992, I was planning a trip to Alaska. I really wanted to get great photographs, and I was very excited. So I studied up on photography. When I returned from my trip, I came back with pictures that really exceeded my expectations. That trip basically transformed me from a snapshot shooter to someone with a passion for photography. I haven't stopped learning and growing with photography ever since.
QFTD: Are any of those pictures of Alaska on your site?
Barbara: None of them are on my site, but interestingly enough, I'm going through my old slides and digitizing them right now. It's a huge effort, but it's a lot of fun to review the places I've been and to see how I've grown as a photographer.
QFTD: On your website, you have a theme for each category of photographs. Visions, In Close, Journeys, and People. How would you describe each of these themes?
Barbara: I didn't want to have a site that was mostly like: ‘Here is my trip to so and so. Here's my trip to Alaska. And here is one to France.’ I wanted it to be more conceptual. So, I came up with these categories. The PEOPLE category contains my portraits, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs. The JOURNEYS category is basically about travel and nature photography. It explores what I see in my external world. The VISIONS category, on the other hand, is just the opposite. It explores my internal world--my imagination. The IN CLOSE category is a little bit in between. It's based on natural subjects but often transforms them into abstracts or highly stylized depictions of those subjects.
QFTD: Your wedding photos are amazing! What is your mental approach and overall photographic goal going into a couple's big day?
Barbara: I would say that shooting a wedding is mainly about capturing the essence of my clients, their relationship, their celebration, and their families. I strive for relaxed, graceful images, filled with emotion. When shooting weddings, there's a lot of psychology involved. Once I started shooting weddings, I quickly realized that most of us don't like having our pictures taken. I never liked being in front of the camera myself, and I always thought I was a bit odd in that respect. Shooting weddings, I realized that I was actually normal. This perspective helps me to get my clients to relax in front of the camera. One of the greatest satisfactions I get from shooting a wedding is when my clients shift their focus after seeing the pictures I take. They start off saying, ‘Wow, you took a great picture of me.’ By the time they get done seeing their pictures, they say, ‘Wow, I look pretty good.’ And those two comments are quite different. It's like a little door opens in their minds so that they start to see themselves more compassionately and less critically.
QFTD: Every photographer I've talked to emphasizes lighting and how it can significantly impact a picture's outcome. How do you explain the importance of lighting in the various types of photography you do?
Barbara: That’s such a good question. I started out as a nature photographer, and nature photographers love to talk about prime light - that beautiful, soft light you get first thing in the morning, and that gorgeous sunset or evening light. Most photographers say that's the only time you can shoot, because midday light is harsh and unattractive. That was how I thought of light when I was doing nature photography. Then, when I started shooting weddings, I realized that you can't wait for that Zen-like moment. You have to make the light work for you. I learned you have to take any light, good or bad, and make good photographs anyway. I've learned two ways to photograph: One that is very contemplative, a Zen-like photography that often occurs in nature. I've also learn to shoot in a faster way, much like a sport where you practice, practice, practice until your moves become instinctive. So, when it comes to my wedding photography, I am more intuitive, and I've learned to be more proactive and creative with my light. Both approaches have helped enhance my nature photography and photographic art.
QFTD: To capture an astounding image on camera is one thing; to modify it so that it becomes art is another. How did you learn to take your pictures and produce art pieces from them, and what does that process do for you?
Barbara: That transformation that you’re describing is mostly Photoshop work. Most of that I've learned on my own. I have been taking classes recently to expand the creative and conceptual side of my work--the transformation into art. Basically, I would say photographers are noted for having a good eye, for being able to extract a good image from the environment. Traditionally, we are known for our ability to synthesize images, but that is changing. Photographers are now pulling elements from several different images to create new, more imaginative images with Photoshop. These images are called composites, by the way. I didn't get into compositing for a long time. I always thought I didn't have that talent to synthesize images myself. That changed when I started a personal project called “We Are More Than Our Diseases”. I struggled to create it for about five to ten years. At some point, I knew I needed to use composites in order to communicate my ideas. I struggled. I tried to create composites. I always ended up being very unhappy with the results, but I kept on photographing. I also took classes, mostly about creativity and conceptual ideas. So, I kept learning, and then somehow, a little over a year ago, it all came together. Suddenly I could make composites that I was happy with. So, when I look back, I see the journey that I took to get where I am artistically. But if I were to try to plan that out, like an engineer, I'd never be able to do that. So there's always been a little bit of an organic nature to how I've grown as an artist.
QFTD: Your profound exhibit, We Are More Than Our Diseases, has a personal narrative to accompany it. Can you elaborate on how it developed?
Barbara: That exhibit is based on my personal experience with cancer. I had breast cancer over twelve years ago. Thankfully, I'm essentially cured of breast cancer today. But the story is also based on a very close friend of mine, Ann. She had ovarian cancer, and she was like a sister to me. Unfortunately, she lost her battle with cancer about two years ago. I wanted to tell the story of the emotional journey that I took, and that Ann took, when we had cancer. Cancer is a very emotional disease, I think, because in some respects it's so unpredictable and so much is up to chance. When I had breast cancer, it was a very confusing time for me because there were so many different treatment options. I joined a women's breast cancer support group, and these women would share their own journeys, their own emotions, their own thoughts on their treatments. Hearing their stories really kind of grounded me and allowed me to think through what kind of treatment I wanted. Even to this day, I get a little teary when I think about these women because I owe them so much. So, in part, this work is a tribute to these women. It's also, in part, a tribute to my friend, Ann. Watching Ann go through her own emotional growth and journey as she struggled with ovarian cancer - she was so amazing. She had an incredible energy, and she had a truly creative mindset about cancer. She took a terrible disease and she truly transformed it into a gift. I don't think very many of us can do that. I don't think I could do it. She lived her life to the fullest for the twelve years that she had, and she was very inspiring to many people. Her grace, her acceptance, her willingness to see the positive side of cancer - that's so rare. So, in part, this exhibit is a memorial to her amazing spirit.
QFTD: What exhibits do you have coming up? Any competitions? What's next for you, Barbara?
Barbara: Yes, I have a few things. We Are More Than Our Diseases was first shown at Gallery 14, in Hopewell, NJ. It is already booked to be presented at the D&R gallery in Princeton for the month of October, 2015. In 2016, it will be presented at one of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical facilities in New Jersey, again for breast cancer month. One of the things that I like about this show is that it has broader appeal than most photography shows. For the two exhibits in 2015, I was very happy with the turnout - so many cancer survivors and their families attended these first two gallery shows. I'm happy now that it's going to be shown in a medical setting, where it may help other cancer patients. On other topics, I currently have an image on display at the Perkins of Center for the Arts in Moorestown, New Jersey, which took an award. It’s on display through most of March 2016. I will also have work on display at the Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood, New Jersey. That show will be up during the month of February through mid-March, 2017. It's a year away, and I hope to have brand new work to show at that time.
QFTD: What's a memorable experience you had while taking photographs?
Barbara: There's one that really stands out of my mind. I love to travel, and in 2007, I went to New Zealand. It was a trip that I had been dreaming of for a long time. It was a gift to me to celebrate the end of all my cancer treatments. I remember being in New Zealand and going to a glacier. One of the things that you can do is take a helicopter ride up to the top of the glacier and then hike around the top on a guided tour. I remember doing that and coming back to the hotel - I just started crying because I was so happy to be alive. I was finally celebrating a victory of getting past cancer and no longer thinking of myself as an active cancer patient. New Zealand had always been kind of top of my list, and it turned out to be even better than I expected. Adding all of that together, it turned out to be great experience for me.
QFTD: If you could offer advice to a young or aspiring photographer, what would you say?
Barbara: Photography for me has been a wonderful a passion, and I can't recommend it more. The nice thing about photography is it's pretty much impossible to get bored. The minute you get tired of one subject or one way of shooting, there's always something new to explore. For example, I started doing infrared photography at some point. Whether it's a different subject, like going from nature to weddings; whether it's learning new Photoshop techniques or new printing techniques - there's always room to grow in photography. It's a passion that you can have for your whole life. I'm very happy that I had a 25-year career in the corporate world first. That way I could start off my photography business without some of the huge life expenses that most of us encounter, such as a big mortgage, college education for your children, retirement savings, etc. That way I could be kind of choosy about which job to take and which to skip on. Photography has always been a competitive profession, and unfortunately, I think it's getting even tougher with the advent of digital cameras. It's becoming a profession where camera manufacturers spend a lot of money telling us that it's the quality of the camera that determines the quality of the photo, and bypasses the idea that being a good photographer is important. So, I think there's less appreciation for photography as a skill than there has been in the past, where it was much harder to get your lighting correct, or to shoot endless amount of photos to get good ones, or to work in the dark room to make prints. Those were much more technically demanding times for photography. The other thing you have to think about is that photography is about 80% business and 20% photography. And that might be on a good day. Having a successful business could mean that you have to spend an enormous amount of time on marketing and sales, on bookkeeping, and customer relationships. I’ve heard way too many times at weddings, ‘It must be great to be a wedding photographer. You only have to work on weekends.’ That is such a misconception, because you do have to work, and work hard, during the week. Some advice for young people is to think very carefully about the role that you want photography to play in your life. Can it be your full-time job and also your passion? Will it burn you out? As a professional photographer, you have to take into account the client's viewpoint, which can be a limitation on your creativity and on your vision. So, clearly think through those issues and make a decision that works for you. You may decide that photography is your passion, or you may decide that it is your profession, but this is the kind of thinking that you have to go through to come to that conclusion.