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PHOTOGRAPHER
b. 1983


Community & Chiaroscuro

LAURA DART


This nicety that she drops is not just wishful thinking either. Laura has spread the so-called love around in ways financial, artistic, and, perhaps most vulnerably, personal. As part of a fourth wave of photographers who gained their sea legs online, Laura’s evolution as an artist and photographer began as many projects, including this one, do: as a blog.

Click back to the archives of 2010 and you’ll get a glimpse of Laura in the final throes of moving to Portland. Before Portland, came Nashville. And before Nashville, there was Chicago, Laura’s hometown. At an early age Laura felt the itch to do something artistic, but fell into an English degree while in college. After the fact, she debated returning to school to pursue a more defined skill set, but ultimately, took the path of apprenticeship. Or in her case self-apprenticeship. While working as a set stylist at Anthropologie, she began pouring all of her money into camera equipment and her time into building a portfolio.

Her break came in December of 2008 when she shot a photo shoot for Trent Dabbs from Ten out of Tenn, an evolving collective of musicians from Nashville who toured and played together. When the group was in town, Laura would rent out cameras and offer to take photos. The resulting photos solidified the identity of Tenn and catapulted Laura into the Nashville music scene. Requests began pouring in and in the early spring of 2009 she moved to Nashville.

For two years, she documented the music scene, honing her aesthetic and building a body of work. And, she started a blog. Before we get any farther, there’s a caveat that needs to be made: though present in the blog world, Laura is not much of a blogger -- meaning the outpouring of images and thoughts she pushes out on her photography blog is a byproduct, not the end result. “I’m not in the blog world,” she confesses somewhat abashed. She does not sift through site analytics or optimize her content based on readership popularity. In fact, before her images saturated the feeds of Tumblr and Pinterest, she gained visibility the old-fashioned way: through her work. People were good about crediting her photos in Nashville she says. And, after partnering with Imogene+Willie, artisanal denim manufacturers, to shoot one of their first look books, she became a fixture in the Nashville scene.

A year and a half ago, Laura moved to Portland. She started anew: building relationships in the community, shooting assignments for free. And then last summer she shot an Oregon coast editorial, nearly iconic among Kinfolk fans, that was featured in the magazine’s second print edition. The photo-based narrative was about bringing friends together. While fans raved, agencies came calling. Now with several major ad campaigns in the works, Laura stands on the edge of heaping commercial success. She hasn't forgotten about her friends either. Over 30 of her friends were involved (and paid) in the behemoth production of several different holiday shoots.




Q - Not to be overly dramatic, but you appear to be at a crossroads in your life: your career is on the pinnacle of huge commercial success. Where would you like to see it go?
A - Success is a relative term. I feel like I have reached the next phase of my career, now that I’ve been given the opportunity to work with some larger companies. This past summer I was able to work with two large brands on holiday shoots that will be an entirely new direction for these companies. Being the new voice that creates with emotion rather than technical expertise is scary but invigorating. I would love to continue to work on commercial campaigns like these. I love working with a team of people and the creative energy that is present when everyone is working together on a single vision. I spent over a month with one company this summer, and it was sad to leave what had become a momentary creative family.

Q - What does success look like to you?
A - Success is so fragile. I move a lot and have left places right when I was at the pinnacle of “success”. I have started over a lot. I am not sure exactly why I do this, but I do follow my heart. Love has always been my main motivation, not a career. Whether it is love for a person, place, or opportunity. I have moved for all of these things and have no regrets for taking risks.

Q - You have a very healthy perspective on sharing work, might I add. Was this a conscious decision?
A - Involving my friends in my work has always been my heart. I have always dreamt of a collective where I can employ other freelancers from various mediums (i.e. musicians, artists, designers, chefs, writers, other photographers). Almost 100% of my current portfolio is images of friends. This summer provided a “dream come true” moment as I was able to share some larger projects with 30 of my friends, providing significant income to them as well. This is the real success moment when we are all succeeding together, being compensated for our talents.

Q - Have you ever experienced a backlash because of this? Business can break up even the best of friends.
A - Yes, actually. However, I try not to dwell on these moments but learn from them. The friends with whom there have been a disconnect are usually ones who are struggling with something internally. Although I do not like the idea of having a contract between friends, I learned recently that it is a necessity. I lost money on a project this summer, because I did not have this in place.

Q - Switching gears a little: your photographs have a strong sense of togetherness and often times adventure. What importance do these elements play in your photography and how do you find a balance between the two?
A - I have always desired to bring people together through photography. Photography began with my deep desire to connect with other artists. I have a tendency to retreat into my own mind and get lost and lonely there. Photography gave me a lifeline to reach out with to others. When I began, it was purely a gift that I desired to give to other artists. This is why I am drawn to independent projects usually with no momentary attachment. A photograph has such a powerful ability to encourage and give meaning.

Exploration and photography go hand in hand for me as well. There is a fluidity that comes with creating through movement: new sights are discovered and shared in order to inspire and energize others to love and share themselves.

Q - Was this need to connect with other artists at the core of your experience with the Ten out of Tenn collective?
A - I love the feeling that comes with purely emotional shooting. I began my photography career in December of 2008 with a Myspace message to my favorite musician Trent Dabbs. I had a very strong connection to his music and work of creating a family of collaborative artists called Ten out of Tenn. I met him in Chicago before one of the Christmas TOT shows and showed up with only a rented camera and lens. I took him to a music store and Christmas tree lot for a one hour impromptu photoshoot; this is still one of my all-time favorite shoots. I knew absolutely nothing technical, but produced some of my favorite images with the emotion that I felt for the moment, person and music. I was so connected to this idea that a few months later I had quit my job in Chicago and was living in Nashville, shooting musicians full-time. Ultimately, this is my model for an artist collective.

Q - Nashville was one stop in the road, but not your last. Do you feel like you've settled down for good?
A - I do desire to be stable and have a home base, but this career is so transient. Most of the photographers that I talk to say that the majority of their work comes from out of state. They have to travel. I've embraced that in a way that I had to. I’m a wanderer but I desire roots and I’m striving for that.

Q - No one day is the the same in the life of a freelancer and artist. What does a typical day look like for you?
A - Since moving to Portland, Ore., almost two years ago, a typical workday has actually involved looking for work. I had a lot more stability in Nashville because it was an industry town with an endless need for new images. My days in Portland consist of hours of emailing and editing at a local coffee shop. On other days I will be lost in the mountains or along the coast in search of a unique location to photograph. And, on the best days, I will be shooting!

Q - When do you mentally map out what you're going to wear to work the next day?
A - For the first time in my life, I have a wonderful walk-in closet. Although I am definitely on a strict clothing budget, I have been acquiring my share of vintage dresses since living in Portland. Since I work from home, I can wear whatever I want. I usually wear a dress a few times a week to keep myself feeling more productive.

Q - Anthro notwithstanding, what are some of your favorite places to shop?
A - Anthropologie aside, my all-time favorite clothing store and place to shop is Imogene+Willie in Nashville, Tenn. The majority of my casual wardrobe is from there. I think I own close to ten pairs of I+W’s, which have been collected over the years, some in trade for photographs. The rest of my wardrobe comes from favorite local vintage stores in Portland: Palace, Rad Summer and Lowell. All curated by wonderful and talented women with a unique eye and affinity for fashion.

Q - What shoot outfit gives you that "on top of the world" feeling?
A - My Elizabeth high-waisted Imogene+Willie jeans, a fitted gray V-neck T-shirt, my leather sandals from Spain and a head scarf. This is my favorite look and I feel the most like myself. It is casual but perfect for a typical workday -- whether it happens inside the studio, out exploring on the coast or shooting in the mountains.

Special thanks to Seek the Unique.

This interview has been edited and condensed.