“With my camera I am able to view the transient nature of reality and the fleeting moments that surround me. By stopping time itself, photography allows me to exercise emotional control. With this visual language, I am able to communicate openly with the world around me. In practice, I create to find the way to myself.”
We did a Q-and-A with photographer and frequent Atlas contributor, Atarah Atkinson, who talks with us about her journey as a photographer and advice for up-and-comers. Makeup by Clara Rae @clara_rae.
First thing’s first: who is Atarah Atkinson?
I grew up in the giant redwood trees, scattered along the coast of Northern California, in a small town veiled by fog and rain. I am the youngest of four; with a sister and two older brothers. My mother raised us on open communication and unconditional love. She was the foundation of the family, and always a steadfast support to me. It was the photographs from my childhood, the images taken by mother, that made me fall in love with photography forever.
The town I grew up in is extremely small, tiny nook and cranny like-towns scattered around the top of California, all connected by a highway that has a max speed of 55 mph. Many people know Humboldt county due to it being the supplier of almost all the marijuana found on the North Coast–– but others know of it because of the enormous trees and vast ranges of rocky beaches. But to be honest, the only thing good about Humboldt to me is the fact that it is home to my loved ones–– if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t go back.
It was in the town of Arcata that I attended elementary, middle and high school, of which I graduated a year early due to my desire to simply be out of high school already. After some travels, a few years of working odd jobs here and there, I decided to go to college for photography.
When did you first get into photography?
Growing up I was always drawn towards photography; in high school I was constantly taking photos of my friends and family, odd things around town, or doing self portraits whenever I could. Many years before I even decided to make photography my career path, I took a job at the local Sears Portrait Studio. This was the first time I ever actually worked as a “photographer”, and still to this day I smile whenever I think back on this time of my life, as it just seems so funny to me.
For nearly 7 months, I worked 8 hour shifts, almost always 7 days a week, photographing babies, families, newlyweds, and yes of course the classic senior portrait. They only paid minimum wage there, though and being 19 or 20 at the time, I needed more income, so I left and found a better paying job in the service industry. It wasn’t until nearly 3 years later, at which point I was actually a secretary at the local medical office, that I decided to move to Santa Barbara and and study photography full time at The Brooks Institute.
How would you describe your shooting style?
I am a “conceptual fashion photographer”. I like to tell stories, no matter the subject, be it fashion, clothes, objects, a person, or a place – I find that having a narrative makes photographs more dynamic and interesting.
What do you like to convey in your images?
For me, creating a world, telling a story is the main goal but only part of the entire point, another part is to try and create something that will stimulate a conversation between the viewer and others, or even better–– the viewer and themselves.
In my photographs, I aim to give a clear vision of whatever the story is I’m trying to tell, and make the world I am trying to create within the image come to life as much as possible. I hope to transport the viewer into the photo like one may disappear into a good book; their mind completely taken over by the reality within the pages, every sense fine tuned to the words, and they can’t help but become emotionally invested into the characters as this new world comes to life in their minds. I want my photographs to that, come to life in the viewers mind.
Tell us about your camera equipment.
The first camera I used was my mothers 35mm Nikon point and shoot. When I was about 9 years old, I remember thinking to myself how strange it was that this tiny machine could stop time. That by pressing a button, I captured a moment, a living memory that could last forever. In middle school I got my first point and shoot digital camera compliments of my uncle for my birthday. It was a tiny silver Fuji, capable of creating 600×700 pixel images (amazing, I know!). Its lack of file size meant nothing to me at the time; I was in love with that camera and took it everywhere with me.
My grandparents gave me a small DSLR , a Nikon D40, for graduating high school. It was this camera that planted the real dream of being a photographer some day. Over the years I’ve always stayed a Nikon person, currently owning a Nikon D810 as my primary camera. But also while in college I fell in love with 120mm analog cameras, such as Hasselblad and Maymia systems. After graduating I got my own Hasselblad 501cm, which I still use on almost all my photoshoots.
The camera doesn’t mean to much to me – it’s just a tool – and depending on the job, the vision of the photo, and whatever the end goal is, the right camera for the job may change every time. Sometimes you use Cannon, sometimes Nikon, sometimes you use disposable cameras! Regarding lighting, I use Profoto – their equipment is sturdy, reliable, and an industry standard.
Working in the heart of fashion, what are some things you would like to see change in the fashion industry?
I would love to see not only photographers but designers, be more committed to becoming masters of their craft. I find more and more people just slipping through the cracks and getting away with being half invested in their art. Sometimes I feel like the biggest downfall in the fashion industry is [a] lack of commitment and effort to whatever it is they are setting out to do. I suppose thats why only so few people make it in this industry.
I would also love to see more people collaborate and share resources in this industry. It’s such a cutthroat world; everyone’s just out for themselves, and I’d love to do away with that as much as possible. I believe in creating as a community, working with other passionate, inspiring people, and helping each others dreams come true by sharing wisdom and lessons learned.
Do you feel there is any place in fashion to tackle social or political issues?
I think there is space for conversations of social and political themes in the fashion industry. I think considering [that] fashion is such an everyday part of our lives, it’s a great opportunity to connect and communicate with the mass public. I would love to see the fashion industry have more dialog about/take more responsibility in regards to their impact on climate change.
What is your favorite part of being on set?
I love the energy and dynamics on set–– if you have the right combination of personalities, you can feel this creative pulse start to happen. Everyones buzzing around, reacting to each others energy, encouraging and supporting one another towards the common goal of the day. It’s amazing to get to be a part of that, to be a part of a team, and work with passionate creatives.
If you could shoot with anyone in the world, who and why?
Tim Walker. He is one of my all time favorite photographers because he creates entire universes for his subjects to live in within, he tells a story with ever image he creates, and not only does he do this, but he shapes light as though it was clay, he has amazing technical skills, and perfect composition every time.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming photographers?
It takes time. Don’t expect it all to happen at once… (then again, if it does for you then, hey that’s awesome)… but for the most of us, its about patience and hard work. Try to support the creatives around you as much as you can with positivity and kindness. Seek out others who are like minded and have a similar drive as you – power comes in numbers, and having a support system of those in your industry can at times be the most valuable thing.