February 6, 2012

Interview: Debra Cowie

I know that our paths must have crossed while partaking in an online photo course or two, but it wasn't until I discovered her blog that I really became intrigued with Debra Cowie's (aka Manifeisty) photography. This lady takes beautiful photos and it is about time she had the spotlight.  Please welcome:

When did you begin to develop an interest in photography? Take me back to those first years and if you could, tell me about the paths you explored to expand on your craft.

I love reading these interviews when people say that they grew up with a camera in their hand always but that's just not my story. My own interest in photography kind of snuck up on me slowly and then landed on me like a ton of bricks. My love of photography was born in travel. I've been very lucky in that I've had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the world, both for business and on vacation. Like most people I always brought a camera - a series of little point and shoots - along to record what I saw. Over time I found myself drawn to capturing little details of my travels with my camera. There's actually one photo that I think of as marking my shift from snapshots to photographs. It's a photo of boats on the Ganges river that I took on a trip to India in 2007. There was something about the bright colours and repeating patterns that drew me. Looking at that photo now I see how terribly flawed it is - the focus is horrendous - but I remember my mom saying when she looked at it that she found it beautiful but would never have thought to take that photo. That's what started me thinking and trying to create images with my camera that were perhaps a little more "arty". In 2009 I got a DSLR to see what could happen if I combined my newly discovered photographic eye with some more powerful tools. 

I dabbled around with that first camera for awhile, taking a couple of courses from a local photographer (and gratefully learning how to use Manual mode) but I didn't really begin picking up my camera with purpose and regularity until fall of 2010. I took Susannah Conway's Unravelling course, where I first learned to use my camera to connect with myself, my life and my feelings. Then an Unravelling classmate introduced me to Tracey Clark's photo prompt driven workshops at Big Picture Classes. It was like a snowball rolling downhill from there. Over the past year my photography has grown and developed in leaps and bounds, both in terms of my technical skills (I think!) and in terms of the place that photography has in my life. I started a 365 project (well, 366!) on the first of the year as a way to both enhance my skills and to keep me in the daily practice of noticing and centring and shooting. Photography has also brought amazing opportunities into my life, including opportunities to travel both to Camp Shutter Sisters last fall and to Marrakech for the upcoming Instant Love Polaroid retreat. More importantly, photography has brought me a community of amazing, passionate and talented people. 

Over the past while I've been exploring new muses for my photography, including Polaroid. I fell deeply in love with the colours and quality of light that can be captured in such a unique way by Polaroid cameras. I have 3 of those cameras now - an SX-70, an SLR 680 and a Spectra. The learning curve is beyond huge and it has changed my whole approach to photography. Shooting Polaroid is so deliberate. You have to be sure of your composition and framing before you press the shutter button because you have one chance to get it right and no opportunity to crop it later. There's also a delightful element of magic to shooting Polaroid. The film is experimental. Original Polaroid film is all expired and while The Impossible Project is keeping the joy alive, their films are definitely quirky. For me though there's a special joy in getting it right on Polaroid. I've noticed that that deliberate approach has carried over from my Polaroid shooting into how I shoot digital. I try to pay more attention to getting the shot in the camera, rather than in editing.

Do you feel as though your photos reflect or reveal pages of your own story? How so?

I think that's starting to happen. As I mentioned, I started a 365 this year. I find I've been taking a lot of my daily photos with my iPhone and Instagram. I've been on Instagram for a little over a year and I really enjoy looking back on what I've shot over the year. It's a bit like a  time capsule. I use Instagram to capture little moments in the everyday. I'll shoot something that catches my eye as I'm wandering around or I'll shoot a quick selfie to capture a mood or a moment. I love how this collection of moments tells the story of my year - where I've been and what I've been seeing and feeling.

What do you love to photograph most? If you had to step out of your comfort zone, what would you photograph? 

Well, this might sound strange or maybe a little vain but I think that what I love to photograph most is me! It comes as a bit of a surprise to me but self portraits have become a huge part of who I am and what I love as a photographer. I started dabbling in self portraiture about a year ago, mostly out of necessity, I think. I live alone and was running out of things in my house to take pictures of and it can be hard to motivate myself to go outside during a cold Ottawa winter! I had been taking the occasional shot in my spare room and then I happened upon Vivienne McMaster's You are Your Own Muse course and began to discover how much I loved using self portraiture as a way of expressing myself. One of the things that I love about self portraiture is that it gives me the opportunity to be in charge of every aspect of creating the image. Sometimes I plan an image out in advance. I'll develop a concept, get props and set up the shot. Other times I'll see a location, like a gorgeous mural, and I'll want to step in for a photo and become part of that scene. It took quite a bit to get up the guts to start taking self portraits outside of my house where people might see me and think it odd (oh the horror!). It's a little hard for me to believe now that a year ago I was nervous of attracting attention for just having my camera out in public in a non-touristy context and now I hardly give a second thought to propping it up on my bag and hopping out in front of it for a quick selfie (or several!).

if I were to step out of my comfort zone I would love to try my hand at street photography or "urban portraits". Maybe I'll give it a go someday but for now it's just a bridge too far. People who know me would never call me shy but the thought of photographing strangers is terrifying to me.

Would you share three of your own tips to capture a great photo with the readers?

As much as it is great to capture moments with my camera as they happen it can be really satisfying to be both creative director and photographer on a shoot. Sometimes I picture the scene in my mind and then bring all the elements together to make it happen for the lens.

Putting myself in the picture can transform a scene into a photograph that is more personal and expressive of me.

Slowing down and being deliberate about my shots has had a huge impact on the images that come out of my camera and on me as a photographer. Shooting Polaroid has really taught me to look, think, look again, inhale, shoot, exhale (and then wait for the image to develop). It's encouraged me to be more thoughtful and almost meditative as a photographer. This can be a welcome change from the usual pace of life.

When do you feel most inspired to go shooting?

Seeing that gorgeous warm afternoon light coming streaming through the windows can definitely prompt me to get up out of my chair and grab my camera for a little explore around. Other times I'll get inspired out of the blue for a self portrait shoot. An idea for a prop or a set-up will come to me and I'll put it together and shoot it right in that moment.

Would you share the links to the photographers or books that have guided or inspired you?

Susannah Conway is an inspiring photographer, beautiful storyteller and kickass teacher. I will be forever grateful to her for helping me to discover how to use my camera to tell the story of what I see and how I feel.

Tracey Clark has created an inspiring and supportive community with Shutter Sisters. I will be forever grateful to Tracey and the rest of the Sisters for their generosity and welcoming spirit and for bringing together an amazing group of women that I'm proud to call my friends.

Like many people I'm really awed and inspired by the work of Vivian Maier. I've ordered the book of her work and I can't wait to dive into it. Maybe it will inspire me to get over myself and try some street photography of my own someday!

Debra, I can't thank you enough for sharing parts of your story with us today. It's been a pleasure :) I look forward to seeing more of your beautiful photos from your travels this year!

Debra Cowie is a photographer, baker, traveller and lover of all things pretty. Her perfect day would include a heart in the foam of her latte, pointing her camera lens at the sun for some wicked flare and the words "cream butter with sugar". She blogstweetsFlickrs, and Instagrams as Manifeisty.

*All photos have been posted with the permission of Debra Cowie


anngeedee said...

I loved reading this interview Debra! So fun to hear how photography unfolded for you. Warmest Wishes! -Angie

urban muser said...

Debra, I love this interview SO much! You are a wonderful inspiration, and it was great getting to know more about you :)

Angie said...

Loved your interview, Debra. I have a friend who feels very passionate about Polaroids as well and have passed along your interview link to him.

Too, I love how you've become comfortable with taking self portraits, I could learn a thing or two from you here because I really don't feel comfortable in photographs at all. I think over the next few months I will experiment with this a little more, takings shots of myself, as you have inspired me to do so.

Thank you for sharing and I love your work.

Angie :)

K8 said...

awesome - loved this interview - and I share a lot of the same loves as you, Debra...Instagram, Vivienne McMaster, Tracey Clark... photography of course! :)

*** said...

This interview is spectacular and SO YOU!!!! You are incredibly inspiring.
This past few years you have really put yourself out there and are even more radiant and talented than before.
Much love my friend,