I live and work in the ‘Capital of the Luberon,’ a Roman town named Apt by Julius Caesar. It has never escaped my mind or imagination when I walk along the Via Domitia though the heart of my village—all the souls who walked here before me and will continue long after I am gone. Perhaps most important to Apt is the Saturday market, which has been taking place here for over 900 years!
People ask me all the time how I ended up in Apt. Well really, it can only be described as fate. I needed a lease on an apartment to get a French visa, so I asked an American couple who had an apartment in Apt, within the region I knew I wanted to be, if I could rent it for a year, sight unseen.
They agreed, I got the visa, and a month later I was following their hand-written instructions around windy corridors and unmarked streets until I found it. Little did I know then, this apartment would change my life; for it is here where I lived, worked and loved.
I grew up in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. I spent most of my days as a child with my grandparents, playing outside or helping in the garden. We did endless craft projects, caught caterpillars and watched them turn into butterflies, and shopped for antiques at thrift stores. I had a wonderful imagination and the day, around age 13, when my mom showed me how to use her old 35mm film camera, it changed the trajectory of my life. When I looked through that frame, I didn’t see what was in front of me anymore, but rather what was in my imagination. The camera was a portal to another world, the one I dreamed about. From that moment on, the only thing I cared about was photography.
A photograph is a moment in time from a compilation of experiences I had in my personal life; you can have it too if you stop and look at the world around you.
I took very naturally to being a productive photographer; be it photo club president, yearbook editor, or newspaper photo editor. I entered contests and received awards all the way up until I began my degree studies in commercial photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
I knew I wanted to be in New York—my dream from the moment I took my first photograph of my best friend in my backyard, in an evening gown I had bought from a thrift store, was to shoot for Vogue. Funnily enough, the first job that brought me to Provence was shooting a fashion story for Vogue.com. So in a way, Vogue led me all the way from childhood to my life now in France!
I cannot separate my life and my work; I think it is because of this that my work resonates with others. We all have universal life experiences. I show you what I am feeling; I show you what I am seeing. But I don’t just do that by taking a photograph of a moment in time, I simplify it.
I bring it back to my wall to tell the story. If it is about the beautiful peonies in spring from the market and the big black bumble bees I watch on my morning walks and the rain shower that afternoon…then I create a little universe for my camera in order to direct your gaze to show you truth in beauty.
Once I held my mother’s camera, a whole century of study became open to me and I loved every second of it. I checked out photography books from libraries, I photocopied page after page of photographs that moved me. I studied imagery everywhere! I went to museums; I tried to understand why certain photographs were significant, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Gare Saint-Lazare photograph or Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. I wanted to know how those photographers found themselves in those moments.
I’ve listened to the history of photography podcasts on repeat, attended photo fairs, and perhaps most importantly, experimented. I bought old Kodak Brownie cameras, Polaroid cameras, view cameras, anything I could get my hands on. Even now I have a kit to make some cyanotypes I’d dying to work with. That’s the level of passion I feel.
I know at the end of my life I will never have had as much time to do within photography all the things I dream of.
My process and what I create has changed many times over since I began photography. When I went to college for photography we learned on film and in the darkroom; when I graduated it had become a digital world. So I had to learn everything myself at first, by observing other professional photographers and assisting on shoots.
Later, in New York when I had my own commercial studio, I did a lot of technical research before a shoot: testing lighting, doing test shoots, trying new gear or lighting equipment. It was very analytical, but for the most part, it was very self-learned. Just going, asking questions and doing.
Now I have an entirely different process that has very little to do with the technical aspect of photography and much more to do with the heart and soul. How can I communicate an idea, a feeling, a moment? How can I show you the simplicity of beauty that surrounds us, so that you too can appreciate what is available to us all?
I have always compared New York to an abusive relationship. You love it but it’s not healthy for you. When you are done with New York City, you are done. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had put my entire life on pause to be in New York. Toward the end, after I had found success and reached the goals I had set for myself, I discovered I wasn’t happy.
I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t happy and I looked everywhere for things to blame, but really it was because money, success and power don’t bring you happiness. I needed freedom. I needed, more than anything, creative freedom. I needed a break from stress. Social stress, financial stress, work stress. I needed to rediscover life and living.
It’s so simple, but the first time you smell a lemon in the summer in Provence you truly feel life in your soul. A lemon! I needed more of this and, you know what, all the stuff in New York—the space, the parties, the endless options—do not even come close to comparing to the amount of joy and happiness I have felt standing in my quiet small apartment in Provence with a kitchen full of local ingredients and a day making photographs. I think that love, at least I hope, is in my work here.
I start with an observation, which I typically find by going on a walk in the country or a walk around the Saturday market. I let my eyes NOT look for something but wait until I SEE something. Ah-ha! Look at the ripe persimmons! The branches and leaves still attached, the beautiful autumn colors so perfect in November. It always just strikes me and I instantly become obsessed with creating.
An observation can also be just a realization I have about life or myself when I’m out on a walk, and I that is what I work from. Right now as I’m writing this, the landscape of Provence is changing into winter, the colors are beginning to disappear, and all that is left is blue. Blue of the frost, blue of the sky, blue of my baby’s eyes. I shall make a portrait of “winter blues.”
Now, after working in my space for four years, I know the time of day for my perfect light, which lasts for about 30 minutes when the sun slips off the wall in the kitchen but has yet to begin to set on the horizon. This is the most special time of day for me; when I work in my studio on a photograph, I spend the entire day to build up to this moment. This moment of execution.
My current digital process is a compilation of multiple plates I capture in this light, usually as the starlings begin their evening dance in the sky outside my window. That is why Eloise Starling, my daughter, is named after this moment in the day.
My photography style is romantic, natural, emotional, and seasonal, incorporating fairytales and truth. Nature is my biggest source of inspiration. The nature around us, the nature within us. Is the back of a woman’s neck not nature, just as the curve of a flower’s stem?
My life is my work, my studio is my life, and I cannot separate the two.
In a small corner across the room from the south-facing French windows is my wall, my studio wall. I trace the light every day—high in the winter, low in the summer—along this wall. I create within this light in front of my wall. I dream here, I weep here, I grow and change, like marking a child’s height, along this wall. I think often about why this space is so special, and of course the light is everything. A photographer is nothing without the light. But there is also the silence. Being tucked away in the center of the old stone walls, the only sound I hear is that of the church bells timing the hours away, not the sound of a car or another human’s voice. I am alone here with my thoughts; and the world, the real world, is someplace far, far away.
The most significant item to me in my studio is the marble table top I build so much of my work upon. It’s cracked, broken, stained and heavy, and I love everything about it. When I am not working on it, we roll pasta on it or pizza dough. Every day, even when I’m not shooting, I graze my hand across its surface and I think about great Italian art. The sculptures in Florence. How artists have made such beauty and movement out of something so hard and shapeless.
I always feel in that moment that creativity is a human gift and it is up to us to make it. Otherwise, the marble will just sit there and be only marble, when it could be so much more. I like to think that every time I touch the surface of my marble, a piece of my energy is transferred to it, and a part of me will live on in the stone one day.
My biggest challenge is time and money. That is a constant in life! I wish I had more time, more free empty and open days to be alone in my studio. Those are the best days. Now, with a baby, I am just trying to keep up. I hope next year we will have a better balance again as she gets older. And, as we all do, I have to make money, so I am moving towards beginning to sell my pieces, which is exciting and terrifying…but mostly exciting.
The greatest thing I have ever created is my daughter Eloise. I am still understanding and discovering the effect of what becoming and being a mom has on my life and work. Obviously, it’s more exhausting, limiting, and distracting, but then it also just gives your life so much more meaning.
I am not sure how this will affect my work yet. Understanding takes experience, and I think I will only truly be able to answer this at the end of my life when I can look back and see. For now, I just try to create as much as I can, with and without Eloise, in the moments that I get, and I just have to follow my instincts.
There is so much beauty accessible to us all in the nature around us, in the light and changes in the weather, in the food we eat, in the people in our lives, and in our own unique human experience. I just hope my photography encourages you to slow down and appreciate what is already in front of you.
These last few months of enforced lockdown in France due to COVID-19 have put many of our plans on hold; we try not to focus too much about the future but find ourselves living forcibly in the present. Each day, I get up and I honor the commitment I made to myself to create one original piece of artwork per day while we are in quarantine, as issued by the French government. I named my series #isolationcreation and invited the community on social media from around the world to partake in the creation process while our lives and livelihoods were on pause.