by Judy Spiers
Gary McCutcheon is a professional photographer and instructor, featured in the recent Open Studio Tour, and I traveled to his workshop in downtown Puyallup to learn more about how he started, what inspires him, and to get his opinion on digital cameras.
“I was about nine-years-old when my parents gave me an old Kodak Brownie box camera. I built my first dark room at thirteen, and later I worked summers at a camera shop.”
In college, McCutcheon studied photography and journalism before switching to an art major where he studied photography and sculpture, drawing and photo silk screening.
Gary bought his studio while working on his Masters degree and has now photographed over 3,000 families, high school senior photos and weddings. His commitment to excellence in personal photography is equally matched by his dedication to photography in the creation of fine art.
“There are two approaches: non-objective, as in painting; and abstract, where you take something out of context that actually does exist in reality – which could be some inner vision. That’s what makes it abstract.”
Gary started doing chemical drawings, and working on a light series, which is at the core of his creativity and passion.
“For me, photography is a form of prayer and meditation – an affirmation of God’s existence and that he is working in our world and all of creation. Made in his image and as a creation, we are also creators. People are meant to live creative lives. Art is a pointed expression of exactly this principle.”
Gary explained that photography and art are microcosms that reflect the universe and its structure. Christianity connects him to his interest in light.
“Much of my photography deals with light, not just as an element in making a photograph, but as subject matter itself. It has a scientific and spiritual basis and I deal with that directly. They’re only a handful of artists in the world doing that, and I’ve been studying and meditating on it since the early 1980s.”
Three photographs of water reflecting light are on display at his studio.
“Light stands up on its own, and does all kinds of interesting things. I like working in the realm of the experimental. All the sparkles on the water are ripples in the sun. Each photograph becomes a microcosm of the universe. It’s like looking out into space.”
Our conversation turned from experimentation to digital cameras, and his view was upbeat.
“Digital has changed photography, but it is really just another medium that you can treat with as high a level of craft as traditional photography.”
Computers make us feel that everything can be instant, and that expectation makes it more difficult to get high quality images from digital cameras.
“The good thing about them is that they allow you to get feedback much quicker, and so can really enhance education.”
McCutcheon believes that one can learn by working on one’s own, but progress comes much faster through taking classes.
“Even then you can’t just put in a year, walk out of class, and do great work. It may take ten years of experience to shoot with consistently high quality. Photography requires time and effort. I’ve spent my lifetime learning.”
Today, McCutcheon enjoys teaching photography and learning that which keeps him abreast of the times.
“Teaching forces me to learn even more about photography. I am an avid reader and student, and love going to museums. Teaching makes me go back and reread old articles and reviews, do research, and keep up on what is new – including cameras themselves.”
In the past there were only a few types of cameras to master. Today, though, there are many different digital cameras and they are constantly changing, which makes them more complicated to teach.
“I get people all the time who come out of school saying they are advanced photography students, but who soon discover that they need a deeper understanding of the features and functions of their cameras.”
When asked what phases of teaching he likes most, Gary said that there’s something good about all of it. Then he zeroed in.
“I like the advanced classes best because you get into your own creativity and that can potentially surpass general art work. It usually takes a couple years to get really good at it – and working with a mentor speeds up that process.”
Gary reflected on the artists of the Renaissance, who worked diligently as apprentices to learn their crafts, and then grew beyond their masters, who themselves continued to work and advance in their art.
“Good teachers are like that. Most of my college professors went on working in photography all the while they were teaching.”
McCutcheon teaches photography at the Gallery on the Hill in Graham, where you can sign up by contacting Karen Lucas, at (253) 847-0858. Gary is also starting new winter classes at his studio. Those who are interested may call (253) 466-1731 to enroll.
“It’s a great time for that,” Gary pointed out. “You can take a basic photography class over the winter and be really ready to shoot photos in the spring.”
In the economy of recent years, many people seem to be putting off getting family photos. Meanwhile, their kids and grandkids are growing and families are changing. There was an album on the table, opened to the wedding photo of a young couple, smiling broadly.
“I took this photo of my nephew and his bride at their wedding. They were so young,” he sighed. “They had their whole lives ahead of them, but he passed away suddenly at the age of twenty-eight. That makes me think that fifteen or twenty years from now, the younger generation will be wishing they had gotten good professional photographs. ”
For anyone who has been thinking of family photos as a Christmas gift this year, timing is important. Pictures need to be taken in the next two weeks to be delivered for Christmas, and if there’s someone on your list who loves photography, Gary had a great idea.
“It’s possible to get gift certificates for classes. Helping someone learn to be a better photographer is a gift that will last a lifetime.”
I was curious to know what other services McCutcheon provides through his studio, and discovered that photo restoration is one of them. I’d seen a photo in his shop that appeared to be a hundred years-old and badly damaged by age. I could not imagine how such a photo could be brought back to life. And yet, with Gary’s touch it had been restored like the sweet season of renewal found in a fresh spring day.
For anyone who cares about the photographs that accompany their genealogy it’s important to know that they are yellowing and fading by the day. Gary can retake old ones and assure the preservation of precious, historic photos.
Gary explained. “The processing I use is archival which means, that if taken care of properly, they will last 100 years. Tests indicate that if these photographs are kept in archival storage or albums, they can last up to 200 years. The fact is, I use these same techniques for all of my customers’ work including portraits, weddings, art and copies. So, all of my work that is printed can be considered archival.”
By contrast, Gary pointed out that photos saved on CDs and DVDs may only be retrievable for ten or fifteen years. It is important to find ways to save photos and art that are deemed irreplaceable.
For professional and amateur photographers who would like to sell their work but not part with their originals, Gary offers an ideal solution.
“Bring me your best-selling work, and I’ll get you a high resolution, high quality file that you can sell at a greatly reduced price. This is what high-end artists are doing. This allows owners to keep the originals and sell the prints to others at very affordable prices.”
As I stood to leave, I turned in place to look at the floor-to-ceiling photographs on the studio walls. In my mind’s eye, I saw a dad handing a Kodak Brownie box camera to his young son. I understood how that gift merged with Gary’s drive to express how spiritually he interprets life.
It should be no surprise that Gary McCutcheon readily embraces on-coming technological advances. Not when you consider that it is his depth of experience, education and expertise that distinguishes him in the world of photography today.
© 2011 Judy Spiers – All Rights Reserved
Note: All restoration photographs and all stylized photos are the work of Mr. Gary J. McCutcheon and are used here with his kind permission.