Saturday, March 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment With Paula Beehner

A Moment with Paula Beehner
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Empirical recently discovered a gifted artist in our own backyard. Here, we got the chance to chat with Paula, and gain some insight into her world of photography.

Empirical: It’s so nice to have the chance to chat with you about your work, Paula. We loved your photograph of the wooden support poles for a bridge that appeared in our June issue (page 49). And that got us interested in the rest of your work, especially since you’re from here in Chico. How did you get started in photography?

Paula: It started back in the BD days–before digital. I took some photography classes at a local community college. Learning composition, exposure, perspective as well as developing film–I was hooked! During that time I set up a dark room in my house to get consistent results with black and white. I think this led to my love of black-and-white photography now with my computer being the new “darkroom.”

Empirical: Has it been difficult giving up work in the darkroom?

Paula: Using a darkroom and developing your own film is something pretty incredible. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of seeing a blank paper slowly writing its hidden narrative on itself after being submerged in liquid, I recommend trying it at some point.

Empirical: But it has its drawbacks?

Paula: I have to say it was not a problem going from the darkroom to digital particularly with all those chemicals and the time it took to process. And shooting with film meant not knowing if your pictures came out. It might be hours or days before you knew, and by then that great photo op was long over. Working digitally has many advantages, instant feedback for one. The LCD monitor on the back of a digital camera gives you a good preview of what your pictures will look like before you take them and lets you review pictures after they are taken. Being able to see the photos on the spot allows for instant decisions, how to fix a photo regarding its exposure, etc., and how to better compose it. Another advantage of going digital are the amount of shots you have, going from thirty-six shots with film to over 400 using a DSLR. I think that working in a digital medium also allows for more of my creative side to come into play. There are so many options available working digitally, it lets me express my creativity, and gives me more control on what the end result will be. Although a lot of people take the new technology for granted I try to always have in mind how much more effort and dedication it once took to make a picture.

Empirical: Did your college classes prepare you for the life of a professional photographer?

Paula: I am mostly self-taught. Every time I am out shooting it is a learning experience. What I find is I can learn at my own pace and develop techniques which appeal and work for me as a photoartist. It gives me the chance to also create my own style, that niche. I’m learning to recognize my own passions more easily. This has brought me the increased confidence to pursue them.

Empirical: Was there a certain point when you began to take your photography more seriously, taking it from a hobby to a career?

Paula: Photography is such an artistic and creative outlet for me. I wanted to take it a step above by transforming a photo into something more profound, unique and powerful . . . a work of art. About four years ago, I started marketing myself locally by participating in art shows and being featured in local cafes and galleries. I also set up my website, This enabled my work to be seen by more than a local audience. Eventually I began hearing from various businesses, galleries, and publications statewide that wanted to feature my photo-art. Thus a serious hobby began to transform into a business.

Empirical: Did a lot of effort go into this transformation?

Paula: Just getting my work out there and having people know me and my work was an on-going learning experience requiring a lot of networking. However, I believe that when a person is following a true passion, the fortitude, and commitment required comes naturally. It does for me. And I have been very lucky to have had the support of my family, friends, and community along this fantastic photographic journey.

Empirical: What was it like seeing your own work in galleries?

Paula: I have worked very hard to have my work featured in the gallery arena. I remember when I first put up my photoart in a local cafe, having someone willing to feature my work was fantastic. Then, when I sold my first piece I was so thrilled. I began visiting all the cafes in town, introducing myself, showing them my work, and most were willing to feature my art. I have been in many venues around Chico, and am scheduled for more right now. My next goal was to have my work in a gallery exhibition. I submitted my work for a juried show (where a judge looks at all the artist’s submitted work, then decides which ones to feature and display in the show) and was accepted. I began submitting my work to more shows, and I am proud to say I have had my photo-art accepted in every one. The Contemporary Woman’s Juried exhibit at the Chico Art Museum was my first show. My work has been and will be featured at Avenue 9 Gallery. Orland Art Center, the Chico Art Center, and The Chico Museum will be featuring a few of my pieces as well. I recently submitted the “Clouded Mansion” piece in a local event, Know the Poe Festival, a benefit for the upcoming San Francisco premiere production of the new rock musical “The Raven” based on Poe’s classic poem. My piece was chosen to represent this year’s event and will be heading to The Victoria Theatre in San Francisco in October. Having my photoart in these shows has led to many other venues for my work: business websites and magazines such as California Northern Magazine and California State Parks Foundation. The State Parks Foundation was funny because my son who was just hired by California State Parks sent me a link to a photo contest that they were having. So, on a whim I submitted a photo that I had taken at Patrick’s Point beach in Northern California. It ended up winning the photo of the month contest and went on the cover of the next month’s issue. I was also thrilled when a dear friend of mine, Maria Phillips of Avenue 9 Gallery, recommend one of my photos to be featured in the form of a puzzle to be sold locally. Chico has such a wonderful icon known as the Bidwell Mansion that has been struggling to stay open due to recent economic times. My photo was selected for the fundraising puzzle and will be sold with all the proceeds going to the Bidwell Mansion Community Project. I have also recently joined the Board of Directors for ChiVAA, the Chico Visual Arts Alliance, working with artists to enhance the communities awareness of art in the Chico community. Seeing my photo-art displayed in juried shows, as puzzles and selling, well that is definitely a dream come true, having worked so hard to get there, hard work and perseverance does pay off.

Empirical: Do you have a philosophy that guides your art?

Paula: I believe that being a photographer is more than just pressing a button. My photos are my art, my passion, my creation. Each photographer has their own unique view of the world. That needs to show in their photos. I think it’s essential to show what I am capable of, and at the same time show the work I love to do. I think that photography is another way to see the world and express the things I find to be striking, exceptional, or simply captivating. Often I envision beyond what the camera captures. The photos that I take are an expression of my style. I see more than what is there, I see what can be there, what might be there, or maybe what should be there. I see beyond the shot into the processing and what it will become.

Empirical: Can you explain in more detail what you mean by “envisioning beyond what the camera captures,” and “the processing and what it will become?”

Paula: People have told me that I have an “artistic eye.” In some ways I think you’re just born with it and, if you choose to develop it, you can really do something special. To start with I shoot in RAW as opposed to the standard JPEG. RAW contains all of the unprocessed information collected by the image sensor together with the camera settings. The RAW image is similar to the negative in film photography. It allows me more flexibility when I begin processing my work, making it easier to fine tune the contrast, exposure, saturation, and so on. I think it’s important to start with an interesting subject. When I begin processing an image I can normally envision in my mind’s eye what I saw and felt while taking it, the emotion, the mood, being able to convey that to the viewer is key. Generally it does not take me very long to process my work, I think that’s my forte. Every image is different so I don’t really have a “typical” post-processing work flow. I usually set up the shot the best I can, I don’t want it to look like just a normal photograph but instead a way for telling a story, expressing an emotion or a thought. I usually take at least three or four shots of the same subject, at different angles, just to make sure I get something to work with later. I process my work in Photoshop to make sure I get the white balance, exposure, shadows, highlights, sharpening, etc. looking good. Then onto some more artistic processing with vignettes, textures, B&W conversion, or some local adjustments to make sure everything is pretty close to what I had in my mind when I took the picture. I am a self-taught “photo shopper” and use it for most of my photo-art. Photoshop is only a tool and while I think it’s important to have good tools, it’s more the creative process and imagination behind it that makes all the difference.

Empirical: You mentioned your unique style, too. How did that develop? Is it intentional or something that happened on its own?

Paula: I never really tried to develop a style or even thought about it. I remember the first time someone said that they recognized my style I was really surprised. I think that it is necessary to have a “niche” to be able to set yourself apart from the rest, and I feel that is what I accomplish with my photo-art.

Empirical: What equipment do you use?

Paula: I’m a Nikon gal. I use a Nikon 18-105 as my prime lens and 70-300 for far reaching shot. I also have 90mm 2.f8 macro and portrait lens for close-ups and special portrait sessions. In addition, I use 28-75 and 70-300 2.8 for low light and shooting sporting events. I also use a battery grip which gives me more juice for those long photo shoots and versatility of the vertical option. I also use a 2.8 which is great for my indoor work.

Empirical: Are there certain kinds of shots that you like better than others?

Paula: I knew that question was coming. I think it is important to have a strong emotional content that people can relate to, perhaps with an unexpected edgy artistic twist. Currently I really have an interest for old buildings and black and white photography. Both seem to be so visually appealing, seeming to tell a story which is my ultimate goal with my work, I feel that black and white does that on at a grand level. It can be wonderfully classic and nostalgic while at the same time paying homage to the past. I also enjoy shooting events and people. I’ve shot many events that allowed me to get the candid shots that some photographers/people might overlook, perhaps offering something that people couldn’t have taken themselves. The possibilities are endless. Event photography can be a lot of work, constantly on your toes, trying to get the best images, fielding questions from people around you. Trying to “blend in.” It is rare to get a second chance with candid photography, but I thoroughly enjoy the spontaneity of that kind of shot.

Empirical: People get very shy sometimes when the camera is pointed at them. How do you overcome that?

Paula: When photographing people I also want to focus on that same spontaneity, when the subject’s focus is not on the camera, but on their current undertaking. I love how it captures some wonderful slices of that person’s life.

Empirical: I see that you’ve become very involved in the community.

Paula: Currently freelancing keeps me very busy. However, yes, philanthropic work is an integral part of my photography. I work alongside numerous non-profit organizations such as The Child Abuse Prevention Council, The Bidwell Mansion Community Project, and Chico Heritage Association by donating my services and photos.

Empirical: I look forward to seeing how all of this unfolds for you in the future. Thank you very much for sharing your time and vision with us this month.

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