The paths some photographers take to reach the place where they’re making the kind of art they prefer is usually a fascinating trip, with interesting detours and side roads which ultimately inform and enhance the art they become known for. Rosanne Olson is one of those photographers.
In love with photography for almost her entire adult life, Olson has moved geographic locations and dabbled in other disciplines, but taking photographs has always been at the center of what she does.
Born in North Dakota, Olson relocated to the West Coast when she was in her early twenties, attending graduate school at the University of Oregon. A Journalism major, she also studied photography in the Art Department. With undergraduate work in Chemistry and Biology, she began a medical career. A photography class at an art center she took at 24 changed that. “I fell in love,” she says. “From that day on, I have been doing photography. After a while, I figured I was spending so much of my non-working time doing photography that I needed to figure out how to make a living doing it. I was involved in more of the art side of photography, but I ended up going to the School of Journalism because I also like to write—but primarily for photography. It was just the most fantastic experience.”
Olson seems to have covered almost all the standard bases of professional photography. Initially drawn to shooting the quiet stillness of architecture, human emotion made its way into her repertoire with photojournalism. Pulitzer Prize-winner Brian Lanker hired her to work at The Register Guard in Eugene, Oregon for five years. Describing herself as, “curious as a puppy; interested in everyone I meet,” Olson learned to gain the trust of her subjects. “I like to find out, who is this person,” she explains.
After her photojournalism at the paper, Olson then moved to Seattle to do magazine editorial work. Eventually, she began almost 25 years of advertising work before finally transitioning to portraiture.
Besides her portrait photography practice, Olson is also a committed teacher of photography. Her first lighting teacher was Gregory Heisler, whom she took an influential class with 1984. “I love light,” she says. “I teach a lot, and I think because I have a background in science, it makes those things a little but less scary to me. That’s one reason I like to teach—just to kind of demystify things.”
Despite the continued recession, Olson has managed to hold onto her Seattle studio. “It’s fairly intimate but I’ve done a million photo shoots here,” she says. “I feel really lucky to have this space because with the economy as it has been, so many people out here have closed their studios. This has just been a lovely place to work, and it means, of course, I can work day and night.” The studio features all her gear, an office, and a darkroom which is mostly used for computer storage these days.
Crediting the intimate atmosphere of her studio with being critical to making intimate portraits, Olson relies on the environment she’s created and refined over the years. “When I’m doing portraits for somebody, I like to work deep,” she says. “A lot of times that kind of work happens in my studio. It’s very relaxing here, very quiet.” This setting was how her book about women and body image came about. Entitled This is Who I Am: Our Beauty in All Shapes and Sizes, it features 54 women of all shapes and no professional modeling experience. These are real women with real physiques exhibiting their real beauty. If this book had no artistic merit whatsoever—and it does, in spades—this collection would be a welcome antidote to what all forms of popular media feed us daily as acceptable or desirable beauty. This is Who I Am is that and more.
With Olson’s decades of photographic experience and intimate studio, real women posed and eventually removed their clothes for this poignant collection. “It’s not an easy thing to be in a book revealing so much of yourself, and I think this space really made it possible,” she says. “It’s not possible to do that kind of work if I go to a rented location or to somebody’s home because there are too many distractions, but this place I know so well and I know the kind of energy it has. This place has really great energy if you’re into the feng shui of things. People get relaxed here and they let me do what I want to do in terms of collaborative work.”
Celebrating women, the book seemed a logical progression of her first career, which was in nuclear medicine, where she worked with many patients who needed diagnostic tests. Many women had disfiguring operations, and the experience stayed with Olson after she moved into advertising, then the world of photography full-time.
Over the course of her career, Olson has shot a variety of cameras and formats. “I had a Fuji 680 which had the flexible-bellows so you could do selective depth-of-field, with a smaller format rather than lugging 4×5 everywhere,” she says. “Then I was doing lot of 4×5 work. My personal projects are backbreaking. I would always shoot 4×5 and for ten years I worked on a pinhole project of landscapes around the world.”
Formerly shooting medium format and Fuji 680 in her studio and on location, Olson discovered something new with the transition to digital portrait photography. “I found when I shot digital I could show people their pictures on the back of the camera as I progressed,” she says. “It’s such an incredible way of building trust with people. I shoot what I feel are beautiful pictures and when I’m arriving at a place where I really like the image, then I will share with the client what they look like, because I want to help them be happy because these pictures are for them.”
The immediate positive feedback created in reaction to great photos only makes the sessions go more smoothly and gets better results as portrait subjects become more comfortable.
More than technological tools, Olson relies on her personality to help bring about good results with her clients. She was once assigned a shoot with a symphony conductor she was warned about. a notoriously difficult “Everybody said to me, ‘He’s so difficult; he’ll be terrible. He’ll just want to leave right away,” she recalls. “He came over and I made him tea. We talked. He said he had 45 minutes, so we talked for half an hour and then I said, ‘Well, could I take your picture?’ He was amazing; I got some really great shots of him. That was long ago, but it just works all the time.”
Represented by Getty Images since the company’s inception in the 1990’s, Olson shoots a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Her favorite lens is the 85mm f/1.2. She also has a 24-70mm, a 70-200mm, and a 100mm macro.
She used a Sekonic light meter until it disappeared at a recent location shoot. “I like to know what the specific light readings are behind my subject, or on your subject,” she says. “Then you can do an overall look-see with the camera but you don’t get the actual numbers. If I’m setting up something new, of course I do use a light meter. I’m going to get a new one.”
Olson relies on three Profoto Pro-6 2400 units to power a variety of lights. “I’ve had these for, like, 15 years, and they’re still working just fine. I think Profoto is just fantastic. I like their range of products,” she says. “I love old masters’ paintings, and they have a huge influence on me,” she says. “I like that evenness of light until the shadows. My style of working is that I like light and shadow. There is light and shadow but the shadows are delicate and the lights are not contrasting; the photographs are not contrasty.”
“The Rapture” series on her site features women distorted as they swim, reminiscent of “The Distortions” by André Kertész. When this is mentioned to her, Olson describes her long practice of photographing swimmers. “My work has been over the years compared to [“The Distortions”],” she says. “When I was in graduate school in the art department, my teacher gave us a final project to do. I used to swim a lot when I was kid; my favorite thing to do would be to go to school and then go to the swimming pool and just, swim, swim, swim. When I grew up, we always went to the lake, so water, I love. I did a whole series in school of swimmers underwater using a slow shutter speed.”
By switching up her methodology of shooting, Olson feels this makes her a stronger instructor with her students. “There’s nothing better than being a teacher, though,” she says. “I love it because it forces me to learn new things and to really try to understand them so that I can explain them, three or four different ways, to different learning styles.” She will teach a full term of lighting at PCNW (Photographic Center Northwest) in Seattle fall term. A weekend course entitled “Honing Your Creative Vision” will be taught at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, California this coming October 12-14, 2012. A recent weekend course at her studio called “Jumpstart Your Creativity” was a big success and more will be offered soon.
With a career map full of interesting and rewarding detours, Olson’s journeys have brought her to appreciate what we see every day: each other. Her media is digital, but her landscape is the body. This is Who I Am and “The Rapture” series of images, among her other work, celebrate the female form in a way our mass media is unable to. This photographer shows us real women at their most beautiful and most vulnerable. She is an artist creating moving portraits by holding a mirror up to us.
An exhibit of Olson’s “The Rapture” images will be at the Robin Rice Gallery on West 11th Street in New York City. It opens Wednesday, May 8, 2013. You can see many of those images on her Rosanne Olson Photography Facebook page.
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