On Saturday, the Artist & Elaine Thornton Foundation for the Arts hosts its annual lecture series with portrait photographer Gail Nogle as this year’s featured speaker. Prior guest lecturers have included Howard Bingham, R.C. Hickman and Gordon Parks himself.
Nogle has snapped everyone from a newborn baby to Dick Cheney, and a walk through her lavish North Dallas studio is a virtual stroll through her three decades plus career of shooting portraits. During Saturday’s lecture at the Dallas Museum of Art, she hopes to inspire the young artists waiting for the announcement of the winners of this year’s Gordon Parks Young Photographers Competition. Late last week, she spoke about her own beginnings as a young photographer, the difficulties of working with nervous subjects, and her resistance to digital technology as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:
Art&Seek: Should photography be approached as an art or as a business?
Gail Nogle: You won’t stay in photography long if you don’t approach it both ways. You’ve got to have a business, and it is an art as well. For me, money never ran me. It was the art I was going after. Now, as things have changed a little bit, you’ve got to do both or you’re not going to be in business.
A&S: Have you ever felt conflicted or had a moment when you questioned if you were selling out?
G.N.: Oh, many times. I worked many hours for nothing, many years. It was a passion. I was driven. I don’t recommend people be as driven as me, because I couldn’t help myself.
A&S: What was your first camera?
G.N.: A Brownie Starmite. I got it when I was 8 years old. Still have it.
A&S: Was that a child’s camera?
G.N.: It was the camera of the times.
A&S: Have you gone digital yet?
G.N.: I’ve got a digital camera I’ve had for about a year and a half. I don’t have a romance with the pixels. Digital has no soul. That doesn’t mean it can’t be used – the people coming up, they’re more used to that. I’ve spent my whole life learning film, seeing light. It’s different now. After my generation goes, it’s going to be harder for people coming up to see light, I think, because they’re shooting everything and then they go and fix it in a computer. That’s okay. It’s really not for me.
A&S: Are portraits your focus or your specialty?
G.N.: I’m unusual. I studied portraiture. I graduated then I came and worked for Gittings Studios here in Dallas. Gittings Portraits, very prestigious studio. I was in portraiture, strictly, for 14 years starting in 1973 working for Gittings. Now I do all kinds of things. I photographed Princess Diana’s funeral. Have camera, will travel.
A&S: I’ve seen a lot of portraits today walking through your studio. How do you get people to relax? Do you have tricks?
G.N.: I wouldn’t call them tricks, although I do trick people because they don’t know when I’m going to shoot. That’s probably one of the greatest gifts that I have, is the art of getting people to relax in a very short time. I had a group of 27 one time, and the mother comes up to me and goes, “Make us all look natural!” I said, “You got a margarita machine? Because you people are uptight!” I kind of tell it like it is. It’s about talking to them. Sometimes I have to take a few shots – if you take a few shots right away, people relax. I work very quickly, and I think people realize I know what I’m doing. It’s a gift.
A&S: Have you had a shoot that was all at once the worst shoot ever, the most memorable shoot ever, and the most comical shoot ever?
G.N.: Oh man, in 40 years I’ve shot thousands and thousands and thousands of sittings. There are many times it went crazy. I do not like to shoot with the parents or anyone else in the room with me, except if they’re assisting me. I want [the child’s] attention on me… If I get them to smile, they’ll rivet to the mother, and I’ve lost them. So I want the mothers out. If you’re a photographer, you’ve got to wear many hats.
A&S: A lot of your stuff is online. Do you feel any anxieties about thievery of images?
G.N.: Hell yes. It’s terrible. I’ve had to let it go if my work is going to get out there. I don’t want anybody taking my work, but I know that’s happening. How do you stop it? Everybody thinks they’re entitled. In the music world it’s the same thing. When I used to say, “I’m a photographer,” it meant something. When I worked at Gittings, I would say, “I work at Gittings,” and people would say, “Wow, you must really be good.” I knew I wasn’t that good, but they thought I was, so what the heck? Now you say you’re a photographer, and people go, “Yeah me too.”
A&S: Have you written your lecture for the evening of the Gordon Parks Young Photographers Competition?
G.N.: It’s going to be spontaneous.
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.