“Janet talks about her journey as a photographer and shares tidbits on maintaining a garden with squirrels nearby.”
Leigh Lim: Hi Janet, Thanks for being open to do a Q&A! Looking through your Photo feed, I’ve noticed you have a number of squirrels in your photos. Is that because of they are quite friendly when you are taking their photos?
Janet Wasek: Squirrels and I haven’t always been so friendly. I used to get angry with them when I’d find my gardens destroyed by their little diggy paws. But I made peace by teaching them how to take peanuts from my hand. My husband’s grandmother taught him how to do this and he showed me.
We had one very clever black squirrel trained, and the others caught on by watching her. Now we’ve got a few generations of squirrels that live in our mature oak trees, visiting for a free meal. They’re used to the sounds my camera makes as I photograph them. Squirrels, being very quick and well, squirrelly, challenge me to release the shutter at the right time. I usually miss.
LL: Can you give a quick summary in terms of how you got to where you are with Photography?
JW: Photography has been a part of my life since childhood. I used to love it when my parents brought out their Kodak Hawkeye and waited with great anticipation until the packet of prints was ready at the drug store.
When I was a teenager in the late 70s I loved going to rock concerts and would take my woefully underpowered point-and-shoot 126 camera to the shows. I’d have photos of little tiny smudges, but knew those smudges were the members of Queen, The Who, or Led Zeppelin.
Eventually I got a 35mm Pentax K1000 and was able to get decent images at shows. But I soon realized I had more fun taking pictures of my friends, family, and other things in my life that made me happy.
Soon the camera became indispensable to me, and eventually I made the switch to digital about 10 years ago. This opened up a whole new world, to be able to see my images instantaneously and make adjustments on the spot. Translating that imagery, how I “see” things, has always been my goal.
LL: If you were to put together a ‘learning plan’ or practice pack for someone who has never consciously paid attention when taking photos before, so they could have the capacity to capture photographs at your level and skill. What would it look like?
JW: I wouldn’t have the first idea how to accomplish this. I don’t give my photography enough thought to really examine what I do enough to understand it myself much less pass it on to others. It’s something that I feel rather than think about extensively. It has been a very personal experience, so I would emphasize that it’s important for people to discover what works for them, rather than try to copy someone else’s technique.
LL: Do you have a piece of equipment (or software) that you thought was a good buy at that time, but you eventually didn’t use it as much as you hoped?
JW: Over the years I’ve accumulated a shelf full of equipment that I no longer use, but all of it has been used at one point. I could mention the 35mm I had that fell apart repeatedly and was in the shop more often than not, but I don’t want to badmouth [the brand] since people seem to be satisfied with it.
I’ve purchased cameras that have rather fussy interfaces, and I tend to use them less. I favor straightforward equipment that does what I want it to do, rather than to have it second-guess for me.
LL: Favourite time of the day to photograph?
JW: I like morning and evening, when the light is long and soft. But the kind of light I like the best is a nice bright overcast when it seems like morning lasts all day. On sunny days I tend not to photograph, as full sun causes such harsh shadows and I don’t carry around equipment to bounce the light. If the weather is dreary or bad (fog, snow, even rain) I lunge for my camera and dash out the door.
LL: Do you plan when you take photos?
JW: I just assume I’ll always be taking photos, so to be prepared I go everywhere with my camera, and this was something I did before the advent of iPhones and tiny digital cameras. The camera is as essential as my driver’s license or wallet.
I tend to travel light, however, and don’t bring tripods or flashes or anything that I have to lug around when I’m out. I will use them at home, however. This is why I tend to favor bridge cameras with a large optical range so I don’t need to bring along extra lenses.
LL: Are there times when you bring more than one camera?
JW: I usually have my little Lumix point-and-shoot as a backup just in case I need it. Batteries die, cards fill up, lenses get stuck…so it’s best to be prepared.
LL: Are you learning something specific at the moment?
JW: I’m always learning something every time I use Photoshop.
LL: Do you have a specific site you go to for Photoshop tips?
JW: Flickr is a wonderful resource and I usually go into the Photoshop groups when I encounter difficulties or have an idea for an effect in mind but don’t know how to achieve it. Plus it’s always fun just to play around in Photoshop to discover new effects.
LL: Do you have a regular schedule of posting photos?
JW: I post photos on a regular basis, at least one a day. If I’m away from my usual computer I make sure to have some photos on a thumb drive so I won’t miss a day.
LL: How often do you back-up your photos?
JW: I back them up at least once a week – or I try to stick to that. I don’t always make it.
LL: Are you a big listener of music?
JW: I love the music of Kate Bush and have for decades. I love her fearlessness and loyalty to her muse. Being American, back in the early days it was difficult to find another Kate Bush fan outside my circle of friends. This was long before the internet, you understand. Things have changed considerably since the advent of the web. It’s wonderful to know there are so many others out there who feel the same way. It was a dream come true to see her perform live in London earlier this year.
I recently discovered the music of Marissa Nadler, and her soundscapes have a certain kind of lighting and color in them (does that even make sense?) that I find inspiring.
LL: Do you think it’s because you can imagine how Marissa’s songs would look like if they were a photograph?
JW: Yes, I do tend to interpret other art in visual terms. With Marissa’s work it’s something to do with the light, I get a feeling of that kind of light just before a storm.
LL: Do you go out of your way to discover new things?
JW: In the 1980s I’d find out about new music from reading imported British music magazines rather than depend on the desert wasteland of radio or MTV. Now I find out about new music from recommendations from like-minded people on the internet and from other sources like Pandora.
LL: Where do you go for inspiration?
JW: Often I find myself looking back on the photos I’ve taken in years past, trying to recapture in my soul whatever it was that spurred on those images. Or seeing if I can do better with the skills I’ve learned in the interim. Of course, seeing other people’s work on Flickr is endlessly inspiring.
LL: What’s your view about social media?
JW: The old bulletin board style social media from the 90s left me cold, so I wasn’t too keen on jumping back in. Therefore I was reluctant to get into the current crop of social media but I begrudgingly got into Facebook. I don’t do Twitter, but am curious about Instagram.
I loved Fotolog from the first time I encountered it, but over time the fun was lost there so I made the jump to Flickr and haven’t looked back. The people there are fantastic and inspirational, fun and interesting, happy and encouraging.
LL: Do you currently post at any Forums?
JW: I don’t participate. Just as I wouldn’t jump in to a conversation between strangers, I don’t feel right about doing so electronically. I guess my natural shyness extends into the cyber world as well as the real one.
LL: Are there websites that you like to visit just because you like the design?
JW: I really love the artwork on this site: https://artandghosts.squarespace.com/ Louise’s style is enchanting and I love to visit her site just because it makes me happy. I have some of her artwork framed and on my wall, and I never tire of gazing at it.
I also really admire Cate’s photography http://catedavies.com/ I find her style to be pure magic.
LL: What would you do when you need cheering up?
JW: I can always depend on the writings of Colette to take me into her world and when I return to mine, to “see” it better. Listening to Kate Bush’s Aerial – A Sky of Honey has the same effect.
LL: What helps you focus on your uniqueness? (either during ‘down days’ or when you get a disappointing result)
JW: Oh I have down days all the time, and am disappointed in my results more often than not. But when others see something I can’t, or have overlooked, that helps me look at my work with a fresh attitude. Feedback from the community is so important.
LL: Are you interested in technology?
JW: I’m a total Luddite when it comes to this sort of thing. Well, that’s not exactly true. It’s not that I don’t enjoy using technology and I do update my skill set as technology changes, it’s just that I’m not always looking for the next big technological change.
LL: With your photos, are you looking to upload the same kind in the future? Or are you looking to do different things?
JW: I seem to have a rhythm to my work that coincides with the seasons. Each year I learn a little bit more, and build on the previous year. But I don’t see any big changes. Then again, the big changes tend to be the ones you don’t see coming.
LL: If you were asked to pick from the photos you have, which one would be your favourite?
JW: Oh, I can’t pick a favorite. But I am fond of my autumnal collections, especially the images of things I’ve gathered. I like the soft light of autumn’s cloudy days, and the lovely shades and colors both bright and muted as nature goes to sleep for the winter. I’m gearing up now for Autumn 2014.
I find it strange that some of my favorite photos are barely noticed, while ones I’ve put in my reject pile get so much love from others. This one’s a perfect example of that.
LL: What are some misconceptions you find about you as a photographer?
JW: Now that everyone has cameras on their phones I find taking pictures is much more acceptable. But also there’s the feeling that photography is something anyone can excel at if one’s camera is good enough. Not that hardware isn’t important, but there is something to be said for the eye that’s behind it. That part often gets ignored.
LL: For someone looking at your photos for the first time, what is the message you’re hoping they’ll take with them?
JW: I would want them to take a deeper look at the things around them, to see them in different ways or imagine seeing things through another’s eyes. For writers, the golden rule seems to be “write what you know” and that can be turned into “Photograph what you know” just as easily. To be able to transform something familiar in your life into an image that inspires you and others is a magical feeling.
LL: What feeds your soul?
JW: Being out in nature with my camera, but also finding time to be with my dear friends. Also, I love to explore new places almost as much as I love returning to beloved places.
LL: What do you find is the best way to connect with your audience?
JW: I never set out to have an audience, I do this for myself. Although, it’s nice to be able to share and I’m honored that others find what I do of any interest at all.
* Janet Wasek is a photographer currently based out of Maryland (just outside of Washington DC). You can check out her recent photographs by visiting her Flickr Photostream.
Source Material and Notes: The material posted is based on correspondence (August-November 2014) between Janet and Leigh. Content has been edited for length, and the final version has been reviewed and approved by the interviewee.
Leigh Lim is a musician based out of Sydney. You can find a sample of her music here. To reach out to Leigh, you can do so via this form or a direct message through YouTube. (Curious to find out if she’s your kind of person? You can check out her slightly cheeky FAQ.)
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