Welcome to the second installment of my Asking Questions blog series – when I ask questions of people in the fiber world that I particularly admire (and think y’all do, too).
This installment features an interview with photographer Gale Zucker. (You can find Gale on Instagram, her currently-being-updated website, or at her blog - She Shoots Sheep Shots.) As an amateur photographer, I have long admired Gale’s aesthetic when it comes to fiber and knitwear shots, and I was super eager to learn more about her work, her philosophy, and her life.
I think you’ll all enjoy learning more about Gale. She is as kind, gracious, warm and engaging as you'd imagine she is -- her personality just shines through in her photographs! (I really wish we could all just be sitting around a beach fire somewhere . . . chatting and knitting and drinking gin and tonics -- with plenty of crunchy-salty-snacks.) (I also want to spend a sunny afternoon out on her floating carpet. Just sayin'.)
Kym: Hi Gale! I’m so excited to have you join me here for this Asking Questions blog post. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me about learning to knit? Like . . . when did you learn to knit, who taught you, what were some of the first things you made? What are your first memories of knitting, and why did you want to learn to knit in the first place?
Gale: I always loved fiber crafts. I grew up in a maker and artist family - we all knit, crocheted, sewed, embroidered, crafted anything and everything: popsicle trivets and pencil holders! Hangers covered with boondoggle/gimp! Beaded flowers! Sand art terrariums! Hand embossed stamped leather belts! Woodburning! Shrinky dinks! My dad did not craft with us but he's an inventor mechanical engineer and probably the most creative thinker I'll ever meet. Messing around with stuff to see what you can do was highly supported. I learned to knit and crochet as a young kid - 5-6 years old - from my grandma and my mom - but truthfully was too impatient to enjoy it. I embroidered a lot and sewed clothes, starting from 4th grade -- many crookedy zippers!
I definitely remember loving crochet in 9th grade, making granny vests (long vests with a tie closure in front), scarves and bucket style hats. I started knitting a brown sweater in 10th grade and never finished it. Knitting more than one project at a time was definitely NOT cool in my family.....so that was pretty much my only knitting till I graduated high school. In college I knit all the time since I could cast on a new project with impunity. (But still monogamously! I didn't start having more than one wip till I was 40). I knit a lot of sweaters, and I think they are still my favorite kind of project.
Kym: How about photography - when did that interest pop up in your life? I’d love to hear about your journey as an artist/photographer! When did your love of photography intersect with your love of fiber?
Gale: I got a little camera at age 7 and never turned back. I am nothing if not consistent in my interests! I learned to use a darkroom when I was 11 and loved it. In college I started out majoring in environmental science but what I really loved was documentary photographers who used their art for environmental advocacy (like Eugene Smith's moving Minimata photos in Life magazine - especially this one). I spent most of my free time my freshman year in a campus darkroom. So in my sophomore year I transferred to the University of Minnesota where I could major in Photojournalism at the Journalism school there.
I worked as a newspaper and magazine photojournalist from my mid twenties until I was in my forties, as a regular weekly contributor to the NY Times, and shot on assignment for national magazines and book projects, everything from TV Guide and Forbes to Woman’s Day and Yankee and Parade, Coastal Living and airline mags -- I had lots of great adventures. I moved from that to shooting for universities and hospitals and non-profits, and then to working on longer term projects (for my soul) and commercial projects (for supporting our family). It never occurred to me to combine professional photography work with my love of fiber, although I often got assignments to shoot sheep farms or weavers from editors who had no idea of my affinity. I facetiously started a portfolio called She Shoots Sheep Shots thanks to those assignments -- and it later became my blog name, in 2005.
Also in 2005 I was working on some gritty social issue projects about youth at risk, youth ageing out of foster care, youth in the judicial system...and I was knitting a lot and reading knitting blogs to de-stress. A book agent/packager I was working with asked me if I had any book ideas, expecting some kind of social issue subject. I surprised both of us by blurting out that I wanted to visit fiber farms around the country and do photo essays about them along with a knitting pattern for each one. That became Shear Spirit,a book I co-authored with writer Joan Tapper.
I am making it sound instant but it took us months to get a proposal off the ground, then get the contract we wanted (from Random House, with a very good budget-- knitting and craft books were having a MOMENT). I shot it mostly in 2007 and it published in 2008. While working on that, I shot the 2nd Mason Dixon Knitting book, having befriended Kay and Ann through blogs...and as one thing leads to another, my work moved more and more into the fiber and knitting and yarn and knitwear fashion worlds. I love it! I can immerse myself in two favorite things, knitting and photography, and get paid for it.
Kym: What is your basic process . . . when you go on assignment as a fiber/knitwear photographer? How do you find the great locations you use for your photo shoots? What do you think run-of-the-mill knitters (like me!) might be most surprised to know about what goes on behind the scenes on knitwear photo shoots?
Gale: My photo shoots start with a conversation with the creative director or the author or designer and a mood board of some kind. Pinterest is very helpful for that -- we pull things that appeal to us vibe-wise, not necessarily with knits in them. I love looking at a collection of mood pictures and extracting the aesthetic or parameters we'll use for a shoot. I try to get clients to define their aesthetic verbally, as well. Some just say "do you thing, Gale" but others have a direction in mind. Then we think about models and settings and styling to go with the aesthetic. The model has to be able to pull off the look, and the background needs to support the style. I am lucky to live in a beautiful part of the country (shoreline New Engand) in a small community but near a large city. I've been here for ages so I "collect" locations in my brain (and phone) for just the right photo shoot. I am also willing to ask for access to places as locations, mostly everyone is helpful when you say you want to do a photo shoot.
I don’t think you are run-of-the-mill by any means! However, I get what you are asking. Often the most natural looking of my photos have lots of un-natural things going on to make them look just right. We block off the sun with huge 6 foot square silk scrims...there's makeup, there's careful angles that jussssssssst manage to avoid the wrong thing creeping into the background. I spend a lot of time laying on the ground or crawling around. I spend more time than I like gathering wardrobe and shopping. It's hard to do that when you are a knitter trying to get a photo of yourself in a FO shot for Ravelry and no one around to help! I bet most knitters don't know that at virtually every photo shoot ever, there is someone knitting away furiously on a piece that isn't quite done when we start shooting but has to be in the photos! Sometimes the models are wearing a damp -from-blocking sample or one with ends discretely hidden not woven.
Also - for all the fun-looking behind the scenes work I share online there are many days of me grinding away at my computer in my office. I have editing, retouching, estimating projects, writing contract and agreements, making spreadsheets for shoots and styling and bookkeeping work ....not picturesque and at times very tedious.
Kym: How do you balance your own creative pursuits with your photography work? (If I were photographing all those awesome yarns and brand new designs, I’d have a never-ending to-knit queue. And a stash to match!)
Gale: Balance?? hahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaahahahaha!!! Have you seen my queue??!!!
I do what I do and avoid pressure on knitting or making. My photography work is extremely deadline-oriented so I tend to avoid 100-days-of projects .... or KALs with rules, for my own creative pursuits. I do not like rules, tbh! I've never been a big shopper or stasher -- but wow does stash accumulate when my clients give me yarn to play with. It’s kind of a dream come true in that way. I wouldn't be able to indulge in much of the yarn that gets gifted to me! And I often purchase a skein or two from businesses that I want to support. So yes, there's plenty of yarn here! This year, for 2019, I decided to finish one wip for every new knit I cast on and make. So far it's been a very satisfying plan.
Kym: When I talked to Kirsten back in May, she mentioned how helpful it is (for designers) to have knitters update their finished projects on Ravelry - with photos (she said “good, modeled shots”!). Do you have any quick-and-easy advice for knitters about taking good (or even just decent) modeled shots of their projects?
Gale: Do I have advice? I ALWAYS have opinions and advice ;-) !
Find a spot with open shade or indirect light to make the photos. Use your phone. The optics and lenses are fabulous and very light sensitive. I love using an app called Bena (for IOS) that lets you take motion activated selfies, allowing you to have time to pull yourself together for the pose and see yourself while doing so. It is easier than a remote trigger or self-timer or holding the phone up with your arm, and lets you get more flattering angles. Many Android phones have gesture activated shooting so check that out as an alternative. Showing FOs on a human form (instead of a hanger or flat on the sofa) is so much better for Ravelry and your fellow knitters!
Kym: You do so many cool things BESIDES knitting — what do you enjoy the most? What do you reach for first when you have downtime? How do these other “hobbies” (“practices”?) influence your photography work? What advice do you offer to others . . . in terms of “following your muse?”
Gale: I'm an extrovert-- so in my downtime I enjoy hanging out with family and friends and being part of a tight community in my quirky neighborhood. It’s an old beach neighborhood, not fancy, but lovable. A group of us women are devoted to being in the water as much as we can from June to October. We take long swims together at high tide in the ocean, and chat while we swim and meet almost every morning in warmer weather for deep water aerobics while we blab. We collectively bought a floating carpet last summer, which has been a riot. I like to be active and be outside. In a never-woulda-predicted-it turn, I became a granny younger than I'd have expected, so I spend a lot of time hanging with my fave 7-year-old. Lately we've been playing wiffle ball and testing slime recipes. Fortunately she is a mermaid and will be in the water with me in a blink so that all works out well.
TBH I am not sure how any of this influences my work, although I do think being social and getting energy from meeting people helps me connect well with other humans and that shows in my photos.
My best advice is don't overthink and don't analyze--just do it. Whatever the creative pursuit, this applies. Knitting and making are not about perfection, and they are not brain surgery. Dive in first and think about it later and then dive back in!
Kym: How do you deal with stress in your life?
Gale: 1) A good gin and tonic or margarita and crunchy salty snacks. 2) Yoga and swimming. That's what really keeps me sane. 3) Avoid the front section of the newspaper during the week, avoid political anything on FB, and since the last presidential election, no discussion of our so-called leadership during dinner. We get too ratcheted up! 4) The months of the year that are colder with short days really get to me. Every year I think of something that makes me happy that I haven't been doing enough, and add it to my routine.
This winter I realized how much I love seeing the sunrise over the water, and I was only catching it on days when I had an early morning job and would catch a view on my way. How silly is that? It’s a 1-minute walk to the beach! I started getting up and taking a walk on the beach to see the sunrise daily. Amazingly my 7-year-old granddaughter decided she'd like to join me, so it’s become a wonderful thing we do together almost every day. (Even more amazing, occasionally her father, my oldest son, joins us as well). I started being a sunriser because I am buoyed by the light and colors of sunrise on water, but I've become addicted to the natural world changes that we see day to day: migrating birds, sea creatures that are active right on the shoreline at dawn (who knew), and my already sizable sea glass collection is expanding almost too fast. It definitely reduces stress to have that peaceful beautiful start to the day.
Kym: Anything else you’d like to talk about/say? Trends you see? Things that make you crazy? Things that bring you hope?
Gale: Lots of things make me crazy! Don't ask!
Trends - silver hair being appreciated - and not called grey. Comfortable clunky shoes being fashionable (I live in 3 inch platform sandal Tevas-best invention ever!). Knitting and crafting and sewing seems to be hanging in there, with new knitters joining in who missed the entire knitting blog/knitting revival period from fifteen years ago. I kind of like that....I hope you weren't expecting something deeper than that!
One thing that brings me hope is the intense and up-front discussion of racism happening in the knitting and making community, as well as in larger society. From my own little niche within the knitting and yarn industry, I see positive change regarding inclusion and representation in the photos for patterns and books and yarn. In the past year, every single client has asked for POC and increasingly, for models with different sized and larger bodies.
Most photographers reflect their own world when they set up photo shoots or choose their subjects. I'm part of a multiracial family and have a diverse social life, so I have always represented that in my photos. Interestingly, I have always had clients say they appreciate the inclusion, or comment that they loved my range of models, long before the recent online conversations. Not to say I haven’t felt the established racism. A couple of years ago I had a chat with a would-be client who asked if I could use "normal" looking models. When I asked what she meant (tho I was kinda suspecting I knew...), she said "you know--models who wouldn't be too...distracting." And that pretty much ended our conversation about working together. (I don't think this person's company is thriving. I totally believe in karma.)
Kym: Would you like to promote anything? Upcoming books? Classes? Anything at all?
Gale: One more word about inclusion of race, age, body type, anything... please take the time to message any yarn company or business who you think is doing it right! Just a quick "I love that silver haired model/larger model/POC model I saw in your pattern collection" goes a long way. I was horrified to learn that yarn companies/publishers regularly get emails and calls from customers saying what they don't like, but not many supportive messages. Cranky people take the time --so we need to as well!
I'm excited about a bunch of projects I am photographing this summer, starting this week. I'll be visiting fiber farms for the Hudson Valley Textile Project, a fibershed collaborative. I'm doing photography for some beautiful collections and books and indie designers this summer and autumn, but they won't be out for a while.
One thing I am super excited about is I will be at the New York Sheep & Wool Festival (aka Rhinebeck) helping my friend Jani Estell with her Starcroft Fiber Mill booth -- its her first time there ever. She's the one who uses the wild Maine island sheep flock as her wool base and it's gorgeous stuff. I'll be selling some of my sheep photos there -- cards and small prints on wood. But just come say hi!
And hopefully by the time you publish this my professional website, which is in overhaul, will be back up at www.gzucker.com.
Thanks so much for interviewing me! This was fun.
Kym: Thank YOU, Gale! Now I need to find a way to get myself to Rhinebeck so we can meet in person – and maybe find a gin and tonic or margarita!
If you respond with a comment to this blog post, you will be automatically entered into a drawing for a copy of Drop-Dead Easy Knits, a fabulous book by Gale Zucker, Mary Lou Egan, and Kirsten Kapur. (I have two copies to give away!) The deadline for commenting is Tuesday, July 9. The winners will be notified by email.
For read my previous Asking Questions interview with knitwear designer Kirsten Kapur, click here.