Tuesday, August 27, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Mary Nash-Pyott

A Moment with Mary Nash-Pyott
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical

February’s featured photographer, Mary Nash-Pyott discusses her photography in motion. She shares with us her keen eye for the serene and the sacred.

Empirical: Hi Mary. We first became acquainted with your work through a regular contributor to Empirical, Randall Auxier. We’re glad he brought you to our attention. How did you get started in photography?

Mary: It happened in fits and spurts. My adopted father is a successful photographer, now retired, but active in experimenting and astrophotography. But my early experiences with cameras were disappointing. The ones I could afford were the little instant cameras for snapshots of the family. I was intrigued but had little control over the process. When I could finally step up into an SLR , I selected the Canon Rebel, and began shooting 35 mm. I was able to get some fairly nice shots, enough to wet my thirst, but I was unable to master the camera. This is mostly because I am inherently disorganized. Finally, in 2007, as I entered midlife, I received a Canon Powershot A530, and silly as it sounds, went nuts with it. I finally had the instant feedback I needed, and I fell in love. I quickly ran into the limitations of that camera, but I challenged myself to never shoot in any setting but manual, and no flash except when absolutely necessary.

Empirical: Do you think the advancement of camera technology has made the field better or worse? Most young photographers today don’t have to challenge themselves the way you did.

Mary: My goal in using manual was to learn the relationships between the adjustments until I could manipulate them intuitively and without looking at the camera. But now I am seeing excellent quality pictures taken even by cellphones! It’s a lovely development that places a delicious creativity in the hands of anyone with a thirst for it. I like to press myself to learn. And I trained my hand to make the adjustments and shoot without needing to look through the viewfinder, and coupled this with my pilot training to scan my environment while driving.

Empirical: Driving and photographing at the same time?

Mary: My family expressed concerns about that, but I felt more aware of the road than I ever had been plugged into music, the audiobooks, or even talking to a passenger, which I found so much more distracting. I attribute the fact that I am still alive to mindfulness practice and good procedural discipline, plus learning to play the guitar as a youth. I discovered as I played in the dark and in secret that my fingers have eyes, and I can trust them to learn the way. Plus keeping my eyes on the road! I am proud to say I’ve never had an accident, though I did push the edge of the envelope a few times.

Empirical: Did you ever come too close to pushing the envelope all the way?

Mary: Yes, but not as often as you’d think! I am what may be described as a sedate driver: I rarely exceed the speed limit and continually scan the environment as well as my mirrors and gauges, drawing heavily from my pilot training. But yes, at times I would get too excited about a shot and might swerve or slow down abruptly in traffic, which would provide the feedback I needed to bring me back to reality, causing me to re center and reconsider my priorities. I think that was the hardest part, to learn to not take a shot when it may cause an accident.

Empirical: Was there a certain point that you began to take photography more seriously … that is, to see yourself as a photographer?

Mary: I can’t say that I truly see myself as a photographer even now! I see myself as helplessly pursuing something that sets me on fire. I’ve thought of going professional now that I am between jobs, or maybe careers (though that hasn’t been decided yet). But I do not in my mind even approach the stunning works I see others produce who know their stuff and have the frequent-flyer miles and equipment to prove it. My dream is to wander the wilds of both nature and civilization, and to compile a publication of my journeys at home, while I prepare for the next jaunt and save for that next tank of gas.

Empirical: Any wilds in particular you wish to wander first?

Mary: Goodness! Where to start? I dream of spending a couple of weeks in the Appalachians, and maybe walk a section of the trail around Asheville, NC. New Orleans is calling to me as well. And I have an opportunity to visit a ranch in British Columbia. The west always beckons, too. I love the Rockies, the high plains, and deserts. The low humidity causes colors to snap, rather than the haziness that is almost always present here in Illinois. It seems you can’t take a bad picture!

Empirical: Do you like any particular kinds of shots over others?

Mary: I love surprise, so wildlife is fun. I have only recently begun stealing candid shots of people, but that makes me feel like a thief, so I generally approach and ask if they want a copy. I truly don’t know how other photographers overcome that social compunction!

Empirical: Not knowing how is one thing–is there a desire to overcome it?

Mary: Absolutely! I do not want to go to my grave with compunctions that I do not choose for myself. And I fiercely love the stories I see in the lines of the face, in the glint of the eye and the poetry of movement. I have learned that faces are like wildflowers in the wind: if you hold still and wait, you can capture them in a slivered moment between expressions, which for singers can make or break a shot.

Empirical: What kind of equipment do you like to use now?

Mary: I’m currently using a Canon T3 with a kit lens and my trusty XSi with its 55x250 telephoto zoom. I am experimenting with ways to keep these stable on my body as I move. These are pretty tough cameras, and take a lot of abuse, believe me! But I do try to minimize the battering. But my needs inform my designs, and slowly I develop the ways and means to both wander freely and keep my cameras intact.

Empirical: You believe the camera has given you the finest education you can buy. What has it taught you about yourself ?

Mary: I married my husband and moved to our 15 acres and a sturdy farmhouse in rural southern Illinois in 1986, where we raised two beautiful, exceptionally talented, and fiercely independent daughters who are now up and out on their own. Our property abuts what was once a major Indian trading post prior to white settlement, just north of the breathtaking Shawnee Forest. The forest tumbles 60 miles south to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. I have grown to revere that rugged terrain, and walk the Trail of Tears, where the natives of the south were cruelly shunted toward their barren reservations to the west. There is almost a hush in those towering hardwoods, which rise like a cathedral over the bloody footprints and buried corpses of a once-proud people.

Empirical: Do you do some other kind of work other than photography?

Mary: I was forced to graduate in 1996 with a Master’s degree in social work, and began a career in mental health counseling, which draws heavily on my psychology minor. I practiced individual psychotherapy until I left my position in May of 2011 due to deteriorating conditions in the state systems and working seven-day weeks for more years than I care to remember. The camera is what saved my life.

Empirical: Where are you from originally?

Mary: I was born in Bellingham, Washington, but moved to southern California when I was very young. I grew up running the cliffs of Del Mar, just north of San Diego. It was there I developed that love of adventure and surprise as I ran the trails and clambered the beautiful red rocks like a little barefoot goat, drinking from puddles and heading home when the coyotes howled. It was a time of great freedom and expansion for a very lucky little girl. I will always be grateful for an amazing childhood, and will never forget the moment I returned to see those beautiful cliffs of my homeland covered with condos. It is a grief I still bear.

Empirical: Does that memory move you to partake in your adventures today?

Mary: Seeing the condos shocked me into recognizing that the world can shift at any time from beneath me. It stole something from me, something deeper than I could name. And while the adult in me understood the practicalities of expanding populations and the booms and busts of commerce, the child in me held even more fiercely to the memories of running wild, and the magical world revealing itself all around me.

Empirical: Thank you very much for sharing your photos and story with us, Mary.

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