One of my favourite ways to stay inspired is to read about how other people put their creativity into practice and learn to live creative lives. Every so often, I’ll be interviewing someone who is letting their creative light shine. Hopefully, these folks will inspire you as much as they inspire me.
I met Dallas at a Creative Mornings event shortly after she had moved to Edmonton. Right away it was clear that we had lots to talk about and I've really enjoyed getting to know her as she settles into our city. She's very generous with her wisdom about creativity, social media, and running a small business, and, of course, she takes beautiful photographs. I can't wait for our next tea date!
What sort of creative work do you do?
I am primarily a photographer and makeup artist, but I often do bits of art direction, styling and hair in my work as well. I run two photography studios: Dallas Curow Photography, which is my portrait, wedding and lifestyle brand, and I’m in the process of launching Dallas Alexandra, the name under which I shoot commercial and editorial work. My goal, for every project, is to take the raw materials (setting, lighting, subjects) and create a little bit of magic in each frame. I want to create a wonderful experience that yields the best photographs people have ever seen of themselves, and let the images be a memory of the joyful and empowering experience.
Have you always thought of yourself as a creative person? Why or why not?
Yes, as long as I remember, I’ve felt driven to create. I feel energized creating something, and parched and depleted when I’m not creating. I do better when I’m creating rather than consuming; happier when active than passive. I’ve been lucky to have many creative outlets. For a long time, it was classical singing and musical theatre, plus theatre direction, and I’d love to find my way back to those artforms soon. At other times it was painting and drawing. I’ve always loved writing and have often found work as a writer/editor. But photography has always been a part of my life.
How did you get started?
I started as a hobbyist as early as I can remember. My mom is a photographer and she and my dad gave me my first camera when I was a tiny little kid. In fact, the camera came with a teddy bear. Throughout my childhood, I would take photos of my world, my friends. I loved to do elaborate makeovers and before/after shots. My birthday parties often involved photoshoots with all my friends, compliments of my mom. In high school, I learned how to develop my own negatives and film, as well as how to use one of the very first digital cameras. I was a yearbook photographer, and loved it.
When I arrived at the University of Western Ontario to do my BA, I joined Western’s daily student newspaper, The Gazette, almost right away. I went on to become a photo editor and learned so much from my fellow editors, nearly all of whom have since gone on to be successful photographers, which is quite cool I think. After Western, I did a master’s in Media Studies at Concordia University. Living in Montreal, being totally immersed in that fabulous city, was a constant source of creative inspiration. The music, the festivals, the art openings, the style, the elements of strangeness... I breathed it all in. I worked several jobs (social media manager of a cooking show; marketing, design and copywriting at McGill University) while beginning to shoot portraits and weddings as my side hustle.
For a long time, it honestly never occurred to me that I could be a photographer as a job. I thought I’d be an academic or a journalist, but after I found my forays into those two fields very lonely, I learned that I’m not the kind of creative who can work alone. I need to be around people, communicating and collaborating, to truly flourish. I credit my friends and family for convincing me that I just might have the skill and personality to make a go of a career in photography.
When I left Montreal to join my husband in Madison, Wisconsin (where he was doing a research fellowship) I decided to become a full-time photographer. That was January, 2013 and I haven’t looked back since! I’ve been operating my business from Madison, Toronto and now have moved (hopefully for a long time) to Edmonton, and am now basing my life and business here.
What’s your process like?
I have slightly different processes for client work and personal work.
For clients, my aim is to deliver work that is highly consistent (yet continually improving) while offering a lovely client experience. I make a point of getting to know each client personally, asking them a lot of questions (I ask them to fill out online questionnaires) in order to get a sense of who they are, what’s important to them, and what kind of images they’re dreaming of. Before our shoot, I look over everything they’ve sent me (including any inspiration images or ideas they’ve sent) and do a bit of pre-visualization to imagine some shots and/or poses I might like to include. This helps calm me and focus my mind. When I’m actually shooting I get into a zone that probably looks a bit manic from the outside. I lose my sense of time and temperature, so much so that I have to set alarms on my phone or ask my assistant to keep time, and I make sure I wear the same degree of clothing my clients are wearing so I’m in tune with if they’re cold or not. Before doing this, I used to run over time and freeze people too often!
For personal work, it all begins at a coffee shop. My husband and I love to go work together for a few hours at time. He on his academic research and writing, me on my ideas. It’s one of our very favourite things to do. He brings his laptop, while I bring my sketchbook and a bunch of pens. Together, we sit quietly and work and it’s the best. I find a 90-minute stretch to be particularly productive. I map out my ideas through words and pictures, list-making and drawing. Once I feel like I have a good idea for a personal shoot, particularly one that will push me and help me develop new skills, I start planning it right away. I begin thinking of other artists I could team up with, and think about models who might be perfect for the project as well.
After shooting either client or personal work, I upload and select my favourite images, then begin editing using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I deliver the images using an online gallery to my clients and collaborators. If I’m showing the work, I arrange to have it printed and framed.
What or who inspires you?
Television and film. Going to the movies. Reading magazines (I subscribe to Bon Appetit, Travel + Leisure, Vogue, Flare, Elle Canada, InStyle and Style at Home). Reading blogs (I love following other photographers, graphic designers, fashion designers, and stylists). Film directors (Baz Luhrmann, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Sarah Polley, Guillermo del Toro, and Park Chan-wook are a few of my favourites). I read voraciously, both fiction and non-fiction. Travel fills me with new ideas and whisks away all the detritus of my everyday life. Last year I took a trip to Scotland and am already itching to return. Talking to other creatives about ideas. Meeting new people at parties and events and getting to know them. Reading about how perfumes are made. Walking my dog. Doing Yoga. Drinking wine or scotch with friends. Just sitting quietly and letting my thoughts wander. All of that good stuff!
What’s your biggest creative struggle and how are you coping with it?
My biggest struggle right now is closing the gap between how I want my work to look and its current state. With each shoot, I’m inching closer to my dream aesthetic. I love vibrant colour and dreamy black and white. I love a bit of graininess. I want my photos to look like film stills. I want to be better at luminous lighting. I want to be more detail oriented on set so I don’t obsess over my mistakes at the post-production stage. Every time I struggle, I cope by educating myself. If I feel I’m plateauing or spinning my wheels, I sign up for a workshop or take an online class or read a book about something I identify in myself as a weakness. I cannot sit idle if there’s a problem to be solved or a gap in my skill set. I need to get at it right away.
What’s your # 1 tip about everyday creativity?
Don’t be lazy. Doing things with care leads you to do other things well, and all your actions are connected. So if you’re mindful and engaged in doing mundane tasks, that can often refine your creative practices as well.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a personal endeavour called the Heirloom Arias Project. This is a series of photos inspired by arias in a book of sheet music I inherited from one of my great grandmothers. I’ve shot one so far and plan to shoot many more in the next few months. I’m also working my way through some of photographer Sue Bryce’s posing workshops to hone my posing direction skills. Lastly, my main technical focus right now is lighting, which is a whole new world for me. I’m planning to shoot experimentally on my own time to nail a few lighting patterns and work with gels to play with colourful effects.