A key element to growing as an artist is discovering artists that differ from your aesthetic. Artists all around the world are constantly expressing their emotions differently, with their own personal techniques and inspirations. In an attempt to grow as an artist every day, I am always eager to learn more about the creative process of the succeeding artists around me.
Last fall, I had the incredible opportunity of showcasing my photography at Connect, an art show put on by Raw Artists, and had the pleasure of sharing a display with photographer Natalie Wheeler. I was immediately grateful for Natalie’s kindness when she let me borrow a lighting for my display, but was further inspired by her work when she handed me a business card with one of her thought-provoking images.
While Natalie Wheeler has experience in various photography styles, her niche is undoubtably self-portraiture. With a much darker aesthetic than myself, I decided to reconnect with Natalie for an interview about her photography process and share with the art community.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How would you describe your unique style?
My photographs are just a representation of what I see and how I feel. I take photographs of what moves me and that’s a very big spectrum. I am often drawn to dramatic light and shadows-and the feelings evoked by those juxtapositions. Perhaps that’s why my style tends to be on the moody/edgier side.
Why are you a photographer?
I am a highly visual person, with a deep need to express myself artistically. Looking back, it seems very possible that I could have wound up being a visual artist using mediums other than photography. I suppose it’s the confluence of having the tools I needed at a time in my life when I was ready to give it my all. There are many other artistic pursuits I dream of taking on, like learning to play the guitar and piano, making ceramics again (something I fell in love with in high school), but until then, my main instrument is my camera-- maybe it is my purpose.
When did you first become enthralled with photography?
I started getting more interested in taking photographs when I got my first smart phone in 2009. I soon got hooked on the Hipstamatic app that allows you to mix up different film and lens combinations. That outlet became an increasingly important vessel through which I could focus and unleash my creativity. Then, I got my first DSLR camera in 2010. Really I just wanted a camera that would take better pictures of my children, who were toddlers then. At the time, I had no idea that photography would become the primary vessel through which I would develop my craft as an artist.
My photography is very personal and reflects my journey in life. I have always had a deep need to express myself artistically, but it wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I fully committed to that need. Now I can’t imagine living my life any other way.
When did you start experimenting with self-portraiture?
My process into self-portraiture from lifestyle and documentary photography happened very organically. At first I was just testing out different lighting environments and taking my own photograph for bio pictures, but a bigger shift towards self-portraiture started in 2016, when I started taking self-portraits as a means to explore my inner landscape. I found the process to be very cathartic, healing, and helpful in so many ways. It seemed as though I had finally found the voice I had been struggling to find my whole life.
What is the biggest challenge of being a self-portrait photographer?
The biggest challenge in self-portraiture also feels like the greatest gift. Sharing the parts of myself that are so vulnerable, exposing deep-seated, life-long fears has been difficult. It was more so when I first started than it is now. But it is sharing my work and standing behind it, and who I am as a person and an artist, that has given me a level of self confidence and self acceptance that I don’t think I could have attained in any other way.
From a technical perspective, setting up your camera to take a photograph of yourself when you can’t be behind it or holding it to focus means you have to find and set the desired focal point in advance. I either place an object in my stead—where I will be when the shutter releases or focus on something close enough to where I will be to achieve the focus. I don’t get hung up on perfect focus though, because sometimes “creative” focus can make an otherwise ordinary photograph much more emotive.
Another other tricky part is using the ten second timer, getting to where I want to be in the frame, in the pose, and holding on to the emotion—and keeping all in sync for when the shutter goes. Oh and dealing with tripods…it’s hard to find a good one, and there has been a lot of sweet talking and occasional swear words trying to get it to cooperate!
Give us insight into your creative process.
Creating my self-portraiture requires I take time away from everything and everyone else completely—so that I can focus entirely within to make my photographs. This is a crucial part of the process for me, and logistically it poses a challenge because it’s rare that I have moments of solitude when all the other forces (light, inspiration, ideas) align for me to create.
It’s also important to push through feelings of frustration and discouragement when the creative pieces don’t fall into place right away. When I begin, I usually go in with at least one or two ideas/emotions that I want to convey in the photograph. More often than not, these ideas morph into something else—sometimes only slightly, and sometimes to a large degree. As I’m working, I look at the back of the camera’s LCD screen and make modifications. I might even end up moving to a completely different area—I’m constantly changing the perspective---it’s all very fluid and dynamic as I go along.
I have learned to be patient and trust the creative process. Being open to the process and its challenges is what sustains me, enthralls me, and helps me to grow and develop as an artist.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations in photography right now?
Oh! Well, there are so many! I will narrow it down to a few artists who have created self-portraiture, but this is very far from a complete list. I love the work of the great Francesca Woodman, Robert Maplethorpe, and Vivian Maier.
I am very active in the self-portraiture community on Instagram and I am constantly inspired by what people are creating.
I help run a self-portrait hub on Instagram called @theechoesinside with the talented Michelle Pellachini, Tuyen Nguyen, Fiona Seaburn, and Cindy Knight. These ladies mean the world to me and their talent is other level. We feature inspiring self-portrait artists Mondays thru Fridays.
What is your dream photo shoot/location?
I love creating self-portraiture in old hotels. I shot my first old-hotel self-portrait at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in 2016. Then I did a two series at the Hotel Vendome in Prescott, Arizona, and Hotel Congress in Tucson in 2018. I hope to explore many more places like this in the future! In general though, I find new places are almost always inspiring to me. I love creating art as I travel.
What can we expect in the future from your art?
I want to continue to push myself out of my comfort zone and travel to new places to create self-portraiture. I am also starting to photograph others in a similar style to how I create my self-portraiture in what I call “moodoir” sessions. You can read more about that kind of session here: http://www.actnaturallyphotography.com/moodoir-sessions/
What is the message you hope to share with your visual work?
The intent and messages behind my self-portraiture are at the core of my being. I can only hope that I leave people feeling inspired—this is a lofty goal indeed! It’s not important to me that the messages in my art come across to others as I feel them or see them. One of the many beautiful things about art is that people will often see more of themselves reflected in artwork than they will of the artist—sometimes it might even shed light on parts of their being they didn’t know were there before.
Visit Natalie’s Website for her full portfolio!