Interview with Cheryl Walsh, underwater fine art portrait photographer, owner of Cheryl Walsh Fine Art Photography
Interview by Jessica Plumb
Firstly, thank you so much for this interview today and hope all is well, especially considering the event of COVID-19.
What first got you into fine art photography?
For over a decade I have had a portrait photography business that specializes in High School Seniors, AltSenior.com. My focus has always been completely on each person as an individual and that informed my photography. Photographing them was never about me and my style but always how they wanted to be seen. I needed a creative outlet to express myself in my photography and taking photos of people underwater quickly turned into that.
Did you study photography or are you self taught?
I mostly learned through workshops and online courses and just doing it.
What was the first camera/lens you purchased?
I’ve always had Canon cameras and lenses. I started with a film camera and then went to the Canon Digital Rebel and up from there.
What got you interested in doing underwater photography?
I tried it once and realized immediately that it was going to become a problem because I liked it so much. I don’t do it to get underwater photos, I do it because it’s such a beautiful environment to photograph in. Everything is darker, more quiet, moves in slow motion and the colors are more vibrant. It’s very conducive to my personality so it’s been well worth my efforts to get through the challenges so I can work this way on a regular basis.
What is your process from start to finish creating your beautiful and stunning art?
It depends on the situation. Sometimes my models or a designer comes to me with an idea and sometimes it’s my idea, but it always starts with the idea. When working underwater planning is essential. It’s a group effort to get the shoot done just right. My post processing is anywhere from a few minutes to several days depending on the complexity of the final image. I print every single one of my images myself. The final print is always the final image and determines if I’m actually done or need to make any changes. I print my work from sizes 8×10 inches to 40×60 inches and put them in elaborate frames so they look like old paintings at first glance.
You are very accomplished at digital printing. What equipment do you recommend for someone starting out in photography wanting to print their own work?
My best advice for printing is to get educated before purchasing a printer. Buying a printer and expecting to have success is like buying a camera and thinking that will make you a photographer. There is nothing intuitive about digital printing and there is almost no really good education available on digital printing. It hurts my brain to see so much misinformation about printing on the internet. It’s been very detrimental to the process of photographers digitally printing their own work. I was working hard on an online platform for digital printing education but the pandemic has put the project on pause. In the meantime have seven really good, accurate articles on printing that were published on the Pro Edu blog here. Eventually I will be able to go back to working on PerfectPrintClub.com and fill it with the best printing education.
Do you have a personal ‘hands-on’ approach as to how you run your website?
My website is a Adobe Portfolio site that I put together myself. I think that a photographers website should be very simple and just showcase their work.
Were you always interested in creating when you were a child?
I was always a bit artistic but that was never an option for a career for me at the time. When my twin daughters were young I painted murals for their rooms. And of course what mom doesn’t want pictures of their kids? So that enabled me to focus on photography.
Where do you find your inspiration in creating new ideas?
Everywhere. My current project is based on my personal wants and needs. I came up with a list of attributes that I was looking for in a project. It took a while because I am completely uncompromising on my objectives but I finally found the right fit based on those needs. I have the list on my website on a page dedicated to my project which is a Tarot Card Deck.
I have seen on your social media about a tarot card project which sounds super exciting! Can you tell our readers a bit more about the project and how it came about?
I created this list of my personal wants and needs for a project and a Tarot card deck fit those needs perfectly. It started last year with the planning and while the pandemic and fires have put me behind schedule it’s not by much. I am more than halfway done with the photo shoots. The project started as wanting to create the 22 Major Arcana cards, which was challenging enough but now it has exploded into two full sets of Major Arcana and then all 56 Minor Arcana cards, one full deck. That works out to 100 cards. That is one hundred fully edited images. It’s a bit overwhelming to think about but I am always up for a challenge. Tell me I can do something and I might doubt myself but tell me I can’t and watch out – I will make sure I accomplish it. It’s forcing me to be very organized and scientific in my thinking but it’s also a great creative outlet. There are a lot of people involved who have put in a tremendous amount of creative time and energy so I feel that I need to give this absolutely everything I have to create the best possible artwork and make this successful.
When will the tarot cards be available to the public?
That is an excellent question! It will either be the end of this year, 2020, or the spring of 2021. There are numerous factors that play a role. I have control over some, like how many images I can edit, but not over other factors such as the pandemic, the fires, civil unrest and political uncertainty.
What advice can you give to models who are interested in doing underwater modelling for you?
I do not work with anyone who just models. I like spending time with truly creative people so the people I work with are multi talented in their abilities. I do offer private commissions for people who want to hire me to take their photo underwater. But please do not just message me and tell me how much you want to “collaborate” with me when you have little or no experience. I get overwhelmed with those messages every time I put a new piece of artwork out on social media. My best advice is to get practice so that you can do what my models do. There’s plenty of photos and videos of what my models can do. I work in a very specific way so what I need from my models doesn’t change. You can do this in a safe swimming pool and just video yourself with your cellphone to show me that you can do it. Another good start is that I can refer you to another underwater photographer you can hire to teach you how to underwater model. I am looking for models with experience and also who can bring something else to a collaboration such as original costumes or designs. Like I said, I like spending time with truly creative people.
Is there any one you would love to collaborate with in the future, be it a model or another creative?
I really love the people that I work with which is why I keep coming back to them. I do wish I had more diversity in my group though. I’ve had a hard time finding more people of color, other ethnicities, with different backgrounds and ideas who can model underwater. I’m a middle aged mom with a minivan and my world is quite small. I only work in my own studio in Orange County, California so people have to travel to me. Plus underwater modeling is hard and not that many people can, or want, to do it. I’m working on it though and making strides.
Does music play any part in your creative process or whilst printing your art to help with productivity? And if so, which music genres/bands do you like?
Yes, I listen to music all the time. I have curated a station on Pandora based on music I like so I play that whenever I do a shoot. I’m sure my models are getting tired of it! It’s ethereal and some electronic music. My musical taste is eclectic. I like classical music, 80s alternative rock, hip hop, pop, jazz, edm, rap, opera, music from the 20s, 30s, 40s, a little from the 60s and 70s, broadway tunes, it just depends on my mood. Right now I’m enjoying the Hamilton soundtrack but that could rotate out tomorrow.
You have a really good media presence including a following of over 34.9k on Instagram, what do you do promotion-wise to keep the momentum going and what do you feel is the best way to advertise your art?
It’s 35.2k on Instagram now. It had been higher, then I think in 2018 or 2019 they purged a ton of accounts so it went way down. I’m absolutely perplexed by the number because I do nothing other than post images. Being a middle aged mom with a minivan I am all about Facebook so I tend to forget about Instagram. But now, with the Tarot card project I need to be on top of social media more. I’m even thinking about getting a Tik Tok for the project – I know, that could be a ridiculous idea. I’m not very savvy at social media but this project is really exciting to me and it’s not just about me, I want to showcase all my wonderful friends who are involved. I truly rely on a natural progression of people sharing my work with like minded friends. My artwork certainly isn’t for everyone so I don’t advertise, I’d prefer the spread be organic.
You have won many awards, to name a few Winner of over 60 WPPI Print and Image Competition Awards, International Portrait Image of the Year Award and Winner Canon Camera International CPS Image of the Year Award which is a great achievement. Are there any awards in particular that have a special significance to you?
My ultimate goal is to get my Grand Master designation from WPPI. Right now I have 60 points in the WPPI Awards of Excellence program. A Grand Master designation is 65 points plus a number of other accolades I have already achieved. There are only 10 Grand Masters in the world and I have worked really hard to improve my photography, post processing and printing skills so that I can achieve that status. This would be the Academy Award for what I do – there is no higher achievement. I picked the best international image and print competition in the world and set a goal of using feedback from that competition to improve my craft. The entire point of it is to become a better photographer. I set out to prove to myself that I could stick with something that is really difficult, takes years of dedication, is absolutely heartbreaking, learn from it and get better. If I continue to work hard I can probably achieve my goal in 2022 or 2023.
If you could be any fantasy creature what would you be and why?
That’s easy, my patronus is an octopus. What I wouldn’t give to have all those extra arms to help me when I’m working underwater. And I tend to disappear into my surroundings like an octopus does.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business in any way?
Yes, I can not work with my high school seniors at all. It’s just not worth the risk. I postponed the Tarot card project because of it but ultimately decided to adopt a set of safety standards that would allow us to continue. The chlorine in the pool kills all viruses so that is safe. We wear masks, keep at least 12 feet apart, and they have to bring their own safety person. I can no longer offer the hospitality of food, drinks and warm towels and worst of all is no hugs.
Were it not for photography, what other interest would you have pursued?
I really don’t know. I had a 20 year career that I retired from before seriously pursuing photography but I was always drawn to cameras and the concept of photography.
What other interests do you have outside your business? Do you have any hobbies?
What I do is all encompassing passion so a hobby would just take my time away from it. Although it is my mission to encourage and educate photographers to print their own work. I think it’s the most important topic in digital photography today. Photographers are wasting their time talking about mirrorless cameras when they should be focused on printing their own work. Nothing makes a photographer better than controlling their own prints. It’s life changing. The very first time I held a truly excellent print of my own work in my hands was Oct 30, 2016 and my life changed forever. It was so overwhelming, all I could do was cry. A computer monitor screen is a low resolution device while a fine art print on beautiful 100% cotton paper that has a weight and texture to it is very high resolution and truly a piece of art. That changed me as a photographer and I love it when I do that for other photographers. But right now I have 100 images to edit, and print, so printing education has been put on hold.
Thank you for your time today, is there anything you would like to mention or say to our readers?
Unsolicited advice: Express yourself creatively and don’t allow insecurity or negative feedback do anything other than fuel you to improve and move forward. The world needs more art and what you do is important.