Kate Woodman is a Portland-based conceptual fashion photographer known for her story-telling imagery and her exquisite skill in the application of color grading. A structural preservation engineer by training, Kate developed her love of photography in 2011 while investigating earthquake damage in New Zealand. What began as a compulsion to document the environment expanded into a fascination for capturing portraits. Her engineering background serves her well in her photography, provoking a sense of balance and attention to detail in her photography and engendering a creative approach to the technical challenges of creating an image. This, in conjunction with her love for all things classical, render her aesthetic clean and timeless—a nod to the past but assuredly modern in appeal.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get started in your photography journey?
Photography was never something I expected to be doing. I was always drawing and painting when I was younger (and in fact I almost went to art school), but photography ironically never really seemed that creative to me. Instead, I went to engineering school and practiced structural engineering for 10 years. In 2011, my job sent me to New Zealand after a big earthquake hit to do some building damage assessment, and every weekend I spent traveling and photographing our excursions. The photos were crap, but I was hooked. When I got back I dove head first into Photoshop, trying to figure out a way to make my images look like it felt when I was there. I really fell in love with the post processing aspect of photography—that was the really creative part to me. Eventually I started shooting people as well, and I realized I could also utilize and manipulate light to create a believable scene. Once I discovered that, I just immersed myself in educational content and practiced constantly (and still do!). Last year I finally felt comfortable enough in my skillset to take on photography as a full time job, and I haven’t looked back yet!
Can you describe your photographic style? How did you ultimately figure out your style and aesthetic?
It’s funny, I look at my work and I don’t really see myself as having a “style”—I think because my interests and subject matter are fairly broad. Aesthetically, there are some definite characteristics I like to imbue my work with however—I like my lighting to look believable and not overly lit, I like a light hand in my retouching, and I love to put subjects in an environment. I guess what I’m probably most known for though is my color grading. I definitely have a love for rich deep color, regardless of what I’m shooting and color to me is so important in setting the mood for an image—as much as lighting is in my opinion. A lot of my work has been described as cinematic, and I supposed that’s true in a lot of cases, because color is such a critical aspect of storytelling in cinema. There are also my own style preferences when it comes to personal work, i.e. I love anything vintage or historic so I try to incorporate those elements into my photos as well if I can.
How do you go about building story lines for your photography projects?
I’m a big planner when it comes to my shoots. I use a lot of methods—Pinterest/moodboards, sketching, jotting down ideas in a journal—it sort of depends on the project. Sometimes I’ll just gather images that give the general mood of the shoot; other times, if it’s a real storytelling/conceptual piece, I’m more attentive to detail and will sketch out each scene or vignette as much I can. Of course it never usually manifests like I expect, but at least I can go into a shoot with a solid game plan and objectives which helps give me some peace of mind—especially if there are other variables that are out of my control.
I’m not always the best at being super attentive to detail in the moment, so having the right team is really important to me. I rely heavily on my team to do their jobs seamlessly so that I can do my job to the best of my ability, and there’s a lot of trust that goes into that. What makes a good team are obviously people who are good at their jobs and will pick up on those details, but also have a great attitude and a solid understanding of my aesthetic so we are all on the same page. They have to be excited about the idea too—the concepts are a collaborative effort, and I find you get the best work when you allow for some creative freedom from everyone.
How important is it for you to test/collaborate? What do you gain from testing?
Testing is so so so important to me. We do this work because we love it and when you’re doing what someone else tells you all the time, that passion can dissipate. Testing allows me to be 100% myself no strings attached. It allows me to play around and try out stuff I normally wouldn’t, and to create work that I love and don’t have to worry what someone else thinks of it. It also helps me to become more comfortable in my skills so when I do get that big job I know I can go out there and kill it.
Collaborating is an extension of that. I think there’s only so much you can do creatively on your own because you don’t have the faculties to handle all of the pieces of the puzzle. I very much welcome other creatives’ input—it has often times helped take my images from good to great. Plus it’s really awesome surrounding yourself with other people who are excited about your/their work—it definitely reads in the images when you have a good time with each other and aren’t afraid to be have a creative voice.
You’re well known for your color grading skills! Can you tell us how you developed your eye for color grading and how you utilize this technique to bring more depth and meaning to your story lines?
I’ll be honest and say I think a lot of my skill with color just comes intuitively to me, but I do think it’s possible to train your eye to see color. As photographers, we are constantly observing our surroundings—particularly the lighting conditions—we just can’t help it. We evaluate light wherever we go because it’s a necessary tool for our craft. I think if we had a similar mindset regarding color—observing the color combinations we see around us—you’d find color grading would become more instinctive.
Color elicits a visceral response from us too, and I think it’s important to embrace that in our imagery. When I color grade, I have to take into account the inherent color palette of the scene (if you can control it from the get go, even better), but also what kind of overall mood I want to create. Again, we do this with light—if we want happy images, we use high key lighting, if we want mood, we embrace our shadow a bit more. With color, if I want happy images, I use bright warm, saturated colors—for moodier images, the colors are deeper and darker, with lots of blues and greens, which we often associate with sadness.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I have drawn inspiration from the most random of places. Of course there are the photographers whose work I admire for either their aesthetic or their brilliant ideas (Erik Johansson, Erik Almas, Erwin Olaf, Rodney Smith all come to mind), and I also find inspiration in classical art, books, and definitely in cinema (I’m a huge movie junkie). But sometimes it’s a random Instagram snapshot of a friend doing something cool or whacky and I’ll save it to my phone because it could make for a cool photo. Sometimes it’s something I hear, not see—it really could be anything. A lot of my more recent stuff is composite and so recently I’ve been trying to draw inspiration from various landscape images I’ve shot over the years and trying to imagine what kind of scene I can create in that environment. I’ve found though that ironically as I move into more conceptual work, I try to not become too inspired by others because I want to try and create something new that people haven’t seen before (which is really hard by the way).
What is your advice for anyone looking to expand their portfolio to incorporate more story lines?
The first step is to find a story line that’s compelling to you. Sometimes it starts with pulling inspiration from a movie, your favorite book—sometimes it’s simpler, I’ve done whole concepts based around a particular garment I fell in love with. Jot down your ideas, starting with creating your “character”; who is she/he? What do they like to wear? Where are they going? What time period is it? Are they happy/sad/angry/insane? Then once you’ve got your character you figure out the time frame; does your story take place over the span of minutes? Days? Years? From there on you start thinking about snapshots from the time frame and what kind of critical plot element you’re trying to show. Think of it in terms of a movie—could you pick 6-10 frames of your favorite film that would summarize the whole story? From there on, it becomes a matter of merging your aesthetic and your story telling interests.
You recently won the Rangefinder Portrait Competition for “Oregon Trail” – what was it like winning that award?
You know it’s funny, I never really expected to win that—I mostly just submit to contests because they’re a great way of getting my work in front of people who might hire me for something one day. I didn’t see my series as very “portrait”, more so a blend of cinematic/fashion storytelling—a blend that I think applies to a lot of my work. I’ve always sort of felt that my work doesn’t really fit into one category and its always toeing the line between one genre and another. But the win was definitely a pleasant surprise—to be recognized specifically for the type of work that I love to do is always rewarding and validating. It also encourages me to explore that a bit more, knowing that people will respond to it.
What are your goals and plans for 2017? Anything you can share with our readers?
Oh boy, lots of big goals for this year! I’ve recently started teaching, and it’s picked up more than I ever would have expected so it looks like I’ll be doing quite a bit of that this year. Obviously photographing for bigger clients with nice big budgets is always on the goal list. But I’ve also recently been focusing on trying to break into the fine art world a bit which is a whole other animal to me. Fine art is super appealing to me because it allows you to have full creative control of you work without having to compromise your vision to client requirements. Plus, if you’re going to generate personal work, you may as well try to monetize it.
In terms of artistic goals, I’m just constantly trying to explore new things. I think my recent focus on fine art has also got me thinking that my work really needs to mean something and not just be aesthetically pleasing so there’s definitely an element of introspection that’s emerged from that. Finding out what drives me, and figuring out what I can say with my art that relates to others in a way that is consistent with my aesthetic I hope will really push my work to the next level.