Valerie J. Cochran: Your Waitress Photos
At Your Waitress Photos, Valerie Cochran of Berkeley, California is serving daily specials that are feasts for the eye. “There is a definite connection between waiting tables or serving the public and being an artist. No matter what your occupation may be, it will influence the other areas of your life. With my photoblog I am serving another role of myself as well as my art,” says Valerie, who receives her gratuity in the form of comments and emails from her daily visitors.
Photoblogs Magazine: You received formal training as a photographer at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Do you feel that a photographer is better equipped by taking some classes?
Valerie Cochran: My first photography class was taken when I was 15 years old at a local college as my high school wasn’t large enough to offer them. I did not enjoy that class as I was viewed as more of a nuisance since I was just some kid and not a serious art student. However, the two years I was able to study at SCAD a few years later were wonderfully helpful and I treasure them. Learning to shoot film, and develop my own prints instilled a love of analog that has not been replaced. Learning the history of those who paved the way for all of us also contributed to my own growth as a photographer by seeking out and trying to emulate those styles in the beginning. Now I see the familiar footprints of those masters in the works of several photoblogs, regardless of whether the photographer is aware of it. I do not feel that anyone has to take a class in order to become a decent photographer. There are many wonderful books, websites, and outlets to learn from outside of the traditional classroom set up. I would encourage anyone to just pick up a camera and learn as much as you can about it. Having a ‘good eye’ and seeing the details overlooked by others is an inherent thing. You can learn all the techniques in the world, but having a sense of seeing is crucial. I personally enjoy taking classes, and am considering taking some more upper level photo classes in the near future.
PM: You’ve chosen to include your occupation in your blog title. Is there some physical, metaphorical, spiritual connection between waitressing and your photographic style/philosophy?
VC: There is a definite connection between waiting tables or serving the public and being an artist. No matter what your occupation may be, it will influence the other areas of your life. With my photoblog I am serving another role of myself as well as my art. My gratuity is in the form of comments, emails and visitors. I find myself making a true effort to thank all of those people, just as I do in everyday life. Many of the phrases that I have picked up in the restaurant business apply to my photography as well. One is “mis en place” or to put in place. If my tables aren’t set up for the next course, I am not doing my job properly. If my head is not in the right place, I will not pay attention to all of the little details that need to be taken care of throughout the course of a shift. The same is true when I am taking pictures. If I am not enjoying the experience, or feeling inspired the work comes out terrible. If I am not aware of those moments of our daily lives that others usually overlook, my subjects become mundane. I have learned that my mental mis en place is more important than my equipment or technique.
PM: When picking up your camera becomes a chore–or a necessary task to keep your blog current–more than a pleasure, how do you motivate yourself? Do you have any self-imposed assignments or techniques or tricks to break the inertia?
VC: Inspiration comes and goes. I try not to force anything. If I am not feeling like taking pictures one day, then I don’t. It will come another day. In the beginning of my photoblog I often fell into the trap of having to ‘feed the blog’. Then towards the end of last year, I promised myself to only share images that I love. If that means I don’t post for a few days, that is fine. The next week I may post everyday. As I tend to bore quickly, finding as many unique experiences as possible is key to staying interested and motivated. I crave and cultivate new places, people, events, film, or whatever else I can think of that I haven’t done recently. Just the act of being in a new place or using a new film excites me enough to find new subjects. Even old tried and true subjects look fresh and inspirational under those circumstances. Another thing that helps me is to view photography outings as adventures or assignments. I don’t take my camera with me everywhere. Photography is one part of my life and it is important for me to make it a special time for myself. Then it becomes a project and each phase of the outing is an essential part. The time it finally makes it to my photoblog and I can let the work go is just the icing on the cake. Having the photoblog helps me get the old adventures out of my system, and encourages me to find new ones. Then I can look back on it all anytime I wish to relive the experience.
PM: Street portraiture seems to be your strong suit. What makes a good street portrait…what makes a bad street portrait? Also, are there any rules of etiquette or technique you impose upon yourself while photographing people on the street?
VC: Street portraits have been my emphasis this year, in order to improve my portrait skills across the board and to learn more about the people around me. My own fears of shooting people and overcoming that fear has been well documented on my photoblog. In the end, I decided I was missing a larger subject of sharing lives that has now become one focus of my work. Documentary style photography continues to interest me and I plan to do larger projects of that variety in the near future. Shooting on the street requires you to think quickly, focus even quicker and deal with inflexible elements. Each subject has a different set of challenges whether they are in the wrong light, or in an area that is hard to isolate. I have learned more about my own skills from shooting through these challenges in the past six months, than from any other training before. The portraits I prefer, and try to always achieve, are those that find the moment when the subject becomes unconscious of the camera. The first few shots are usually not the best, it takes 5, 10 or even 50 to get to the true sense of a person. Sometimes you only get one or two shots though, and you do the best you can. My own rule is to not capture people who do not wish to be. I am open and honest about what I am doing and enjoy taking the time to meet my subjects. I try to spend as much time with them as I can in order to learn more about their lives, and to share more about my own as well. Now, when I walk through my neighborhood several of my past subjects recognize me and encourage others to become a part of the story.
PM: Now that you have been photoblogging for over a year, what role/impact has photoblogging become/made in your life? Do you plan to continue photoblogging or is it just a phase?
VC: When I started my photoblog just over a year ago, I was looking for a creative outlet. Photography had been that outlet in the past, and I was curious to see if the old sense of enjoyment it brought to my life was still there. By having the photoblog, I was encouraged to keep shooting. First for myself, then for others, and now for myself again. If I hadn’t started the photoblog, I probably wouldn’t be shooting as much and would still be missing that creative side of my life that was silent for way too long. I enjoy the conversation that my photoblog has become. It is fun, yet a bit humbling, to watch it become something else entirely than what I had hoped for. I just imagined that a few people, like my friends and family, would view my work and now hundreds visit from all over the world every week. It is my sincere hope to keep this conversation going for as long as I am able. Even as I try to find more outlets for my work, my photoblog as well as the photoblog community will remain a part of my daily life and my photographic journey.