Photographer interview: Carly Erin O’Neil
Art & Design
When and how did you start practicing photography?
My earliest memories with a camera point me to about age 8 or so. I was raised in the arts – as a way to be disposed of I’m sure, and remember quite vividly when the film began to be advanced backwards electronically, insuring that if exposed to light, you’d never loose a shot. I invaded people’s privacy even then–sneaking backstage to catch the crew in action, sneaking into the audience to grab snaps of the world I only knew from inside of the bubble. But as I grew up, photography wasn’t something that was carried with me as diligently as the dance or music. It became a bit lost – until modeling brought me back around to it. Originally just a way to be creative again after a brief absence from the arts, modeling became the full-circle connection of my other artistic voices to the apex of visual art I embrace today, as well as offered me a very wide variety of mentors in photo-land. My photographers have been an unparallelled support system.
What type of camera do you use and why?
I love what digital photography offers me as a street photographer. I have a super-human instinct to shoot, and digital allows a certain flexibility in post-process if I’ve missed an exposure by a half-stop. I’ve had a little education in film processes, but what I know best is digital. I do, however, love my collection of film cameras which are fun to play around with: a Canon F-1, a Mamiya 645-e and a mini-Diana from Lomo. I have a fridge full of expired film waiting for that special day of shooting with the ‘toys.’ I love that I have no control over the outcome and often am inspired by the results of letting go. I hope, though, that I’ve managed to bring that whimsy and nostalgia into my digital processes as well. I use Canon digital systems, and I shoot often over 400ISO, if not pushing it to its limit of 6400. I use my 3 lenses fairly evenly and often – a 35mm 2.0, a 100mm macro 2.8, and a 17-40mm L 4.0. I’d have to say the 100mm is the most often used, and most often used in my landscapes but lately also in live music. It just makes everything from teeny-tiny to far away look good!
How would you define your style? Do you focus on particular subject matters?
Gosh, you know- most of the time I feel like I’m a bit all over the place, but then that is the world I meant to create for myself; I am constantly inspired by the world around me. It’s truly a love story – I only get angry because I care. (Mom was right). On the other hand, I feel like I have narrowed this curiosity into what feels like one cohesive voice and vision, and am constantly tweaking things here and there to insure that I’m satisfied with the clarity of it all. Therefore, my subject matter is LIFE. I see with the eye of a street photographer in all that I capture, perhaps aside from my self-portraiture which, for me, is really a fairy-tale land; So my choice as I entered a very competitive commercial market was to focus on shooting what I loved to shoot, and started Carly Rocks Photography, Lifestyle Photography for those who also think that, “Life Rocks!”
What or who are your inspirations?
[Laughs] What isn’t? I keep waiting to outgrow this ‘phase’ but 7 years strong I’m still in love with just about everything. It’s all one big vicious cycle, I’m afraid. I love to learn. And in doing so, books or politics or actresses or movies or a place in a movie or a lyric in a song or a piece of trash on the street will just spark something, will tell a story that nobody else hears. It’s up to me to translate that into something more tactile. Sounds and smells in an environment really affect me – I suppose I expect each one of my photographs to be a feature film consisting of a single frame. The photographers in the past and present, filmakers, musicians, etc that create in this way are those I look to for this inspiration as well.
Do you have a dream subject or location that you would love to shoot?
I’m quite adventurous, and this plays into my love of everything. I do have a wishlist. I couldn’t list all the locations, but a past-present favorite is Portugal. The light is magic. It’s a purely cinematic experience. If you haven’t been, make it a priority, and have the Pasteis de Nata. On the top of my location list right now is Montana and Hawaii state-side, and Morocco or Istanbul overseas. If I could shoot anyone person in the world right now, and has been my number one for some time now, it would be Willie Nelson. That face! I grew up in Texas and I would just be ‘pleased as punch!’ to get a chance to photograph Willie.
Where can the majority of your work be seen?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been published very early on. A google search is probably enough Carly Erin O’Neil to keep anyone fed for a lifetime! [Laughs] I’ve had a few long-term publishing arrangements, was most recently a finalist to a large prize offered by the Sheikh of Dubai, and I have a running side-project Eternal Soulshine of the Jilted Generation (http://eternalsoulshine.blogspot.com), which will eventually grow up into a multi-volume graphic novel-style series and lately I’ve been working to get some new products up onto my Etsy store, EternalSoulshine (http://www.etsy.com/shop/eternalsoulshine), which will incorporate my photography into handmade housewares, textiles, etc.
You say that you are driven by “the exploration of the ordinary.” Can you explain what this means and how it factors into your work?
I think I’ve touched on this a bit in the above questions, but will elaborate further using the example of a few photographers who came before who also had this obsession: William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams, Sam Abell… this list could go on a bit longer, and this is just a small example of photographers being innately fascinated and intriqued by the world around them. As un-ordinary as their pictures are to all of us, it began with this simple synthesis of interest in something very ordinary. Ansel just happened to be the only one who would go and wait. Diane was the only one who would be brave and speak to and include herself inside of societies not acceptable in her time, William was “always at war with the obvious.” They were all just individuals whose hearts heard the stories. Find the story.
How has your background as a model, makeup artist, and muse influenced your work?
Irrevocably. Just as my background as a dancer, theatre actress, and multi-instrumentalist influenced that work, and today’s. I feel like it all feeds itself. When I feel stuck emotionally, or inspirational – I can step in front of the lens and often it unlocks the block behind it. Also being able to envision a photograph when I do occasionally use models and go into my fairy-tale mind, the ability to style the models myself is penultimate. It’s extremely time consuming and creatively exhausting to pull more than one role at a time – but doing this double-duty for years as a freelance model honed the skill to multitask my creativity. Being the muse really brought me to know that to inspire is a main goal of my life. It cemented this, in fact, so that when I made the mental switch to ‘photographer’ I was really rooted in this identity. It’s a motive for my “Muse-letters” (http://eepurl.com/g-M4w) which are sent every 6 weeks or so, and for the #InspiresGreatness feature I tweet which is pages directly from my bookmarks of interweb-inspiration.
You have done a great deal of traveling in your life. How has this informed your photography practice?
I have been very lucky to land myself in a freelance creative position where I have the freedom and market to be able to travel a lot over the past few years. I relocated from Texas to NYC, most recently NYC to LA. Most of the travel was within the “East Coast Corridor” of DC to Boston while living in NYC, and I have even been able to travel to Belgium on assignment for Santiago Calatrava, but it’s all really only the tip of the iceberg as far as I can see of my plans for future travel! As I mentioned above there are many places and peoples I have yet to meet. Travel has become harder and harder with the cost, the economy, war… but I love this chance to hyper-focus on the United States — I have actually had people over the years say, “Yeah-but, there isn’t really anything out there, is there?” and YES! Yes, there is. I really wish people understood the vastness and resources available in this beautiful country of ours. As to how this travel and my own attitude towards exploration affects my photography, Diane Arbus has a great quote, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”
Your photographs alternate between light and dark – both in subject matter and style. Do you prefer working in one mood or aesthetic over the other?
I have a strong belief in this life of dichotomy. I’m not sure where I picked it up, but for a long time now I’ve had the benefit of recognizing that all things are dichotomous, and can only exist in their natural forms speaking to this dichotomy. It’s a natural balance: light and dark, soft and hard, mean and nice, beautiful and ugly. I actually take this question as a compliment as I would love for the consumer of my photography to see this illustrated in my work and understand this natural co-existence. But, “that’s life, man” to quote a ‘Dudeism”. Life is both light and dark, and should be captured as such. It is the alternation between the extremes that teaches us to live and to love. This is one goal for me as an artist – just to make it easier for people to live and to love, and I should hope that my art is a reflection of that intention. As to a preference, I do love low-key photography, the nuances and the subtleties, but every once in a while it just feels good to scream and a certain subject or place will just seem natural inside of a loud photograph of a more high-key nature. In the end, I suppose it’s not really my decision.
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