25 March 2015


A Creative DC is a weekly series showcasing all aspects of a creative lifestyle in the District. The city's full and part-time doers and makers, how + where they live, gather, and create, and what they do, make, and notice. For more about the project click here. Follow along here at Panda Head and at @aCreativeDC on Instagram, and hashtag your own DC lifestyle with #aCreativeDC. Your life looks good here.

One of the pillars of the A Creative DC project is that creativity is so much larger than just "the arts," and also that side projects, hobbies, and interests are as valid and as deserving of acknowledgment + support as full time hustles and self-employment. That said, DC's growing creative economy is allowing – much more so now than in years past – for those who ARE compelled to make the leap from more traditional employment the ability to hammer out an actual and viable career.

In that vein, I'm thrilled to introduce fashion + portrait photographer Emma McAlary in the context of the A Creative DC series. I count her as a personal friend and have worked with her more than once, and in the interview below she's done an honest and very real job of outlining of how her career path became apparent and what it took (and is taking) to get there – "there" being financial sustainability. It's a valuable read for anyone considering going a similar route, and an interesting one regardless of whether your own creative DC involves making portraits, throwing dinner parties, or just showing support for any and all of its million and one facets.

"I'm Emma McAlary and I'm 29. I grew up in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area and I live in Alexandria, VA. I'm in DC almost daily – at least 5 out of 7 days of the week. Most of my meetings, clients and projects are located in DC. It's my stomping ground!"

When did you get started taking photos?
I've been snapping photos of everything since I was a kid and my sister handed down a blue Fisher Price camera to me. I was always heavily influenced by my Dad's collection of photographs, and he gave me all my grandfather's old cameras. Photography is something I felt I had to do. I have so many random pictures of everything including friend hangouts, weird objects, strange landscapes. I must say that looking back on those early photographs is hilarious beacause they are so bad! In high school I took the obligatory photography classes and fell in love even further. I always denied that it could be a career, so I kept photography in my back pocket as a hobby and went on to school for other things.

And when did you make your first moves towards being a full-time photographer?
I've made small moves towards this point for the past couple of years, but my big moves came at the end of last year. The previous year I'd quit working at my full time job and I traveled. I was in a long distance relationship so it afforded me an opportunity to just travel and take pictures. I kept a part-time job and just started shooting for people that I met. I did a bunch of free and cheap stuff at first, just to get my name out there. People knew people and starting saying "Hey, I know a photographer named Emma McAlary." At the end of last year paying jobs starting coming and it has grown ever since. I still have a long ways to go, but it's been such an exciting growth.

Who are you working with on a regular basis?
The two clients I work with most are DeNada Design and Monling Lee for her Color Index project. Another client I work with often is Redeem and we just collaborated with Monling. I can't wait to share those pictures with the world! I've also been doing a bit of work as part of the El Camino team and I've worked with Mutiny several times. A new, more recent client that I've been working with is DC Style Factory.

More with Emma – including how she deals with self-doubt and her advice to young photographers – after the jump. All photos Emma McAlary, for various clients.

You, more than most photographers I know, have spent so much time assisting established photographers in the studio. Can you talk about why and how you did that, and what you learned from it?
Yes, I've done a bunch of assisting in order to supplement my photography schooling. I felt it was important to get real life experience in dealing with clients, setting up sets and watching how other photographers do business. I basically wrote to a lot of established photographers that I found on the internet and just asked them if I could assist. I didn't hear back from many, but others were gracious and willing to pay it forward as they had also assisted other photographers. It was also serendipitous that one of the photographers that I ended up assisting most was a client at the hair salon I briefly managed. DC is a small world!

What were your feelings when you made the decision to try to do this full time?
I was and am still scared! I try to beat the self-doubt demons away. It pushes me to work harder and get better at what I do. I seriously still think I'm not good enough. On the flip side, though, I've never been happier. I am doing exactly what I want and I can't imagine doing anything differently. So yes – I was and am still excited. I get excited every time I push the shutter button.

"My most exciting feature this year so far was for a blog feature I did with Monling Lee for J.Crew . My work with her has really put me on the map. I also had a picture in Better Homes and Gardens. It was tiny, but it was there!" 

If the opportunities you had recently had come to you a year or two years ago, would you have been ready for them?
No, no, no, no, no! I would have been so frightened I might have let them slip away. I battled with self doubt for so long that I would avoid some high-pressure things because I didn't think I could do them. I realized over time that these things I thought were high-pressure weren't, really. Or they were, and I [finally] said "what is the worst that could happen?" Most have been successful, a few haven't, but that's life, right? It sounds cliche, but you will never do anything without some failure and I had to live with that. I've had a hard, hard time dealing with it.

Fave places to shoot in DC?
One of my most favorite places is actually Blagden Alley. It has so many different textured walls and industrial elements. I find myself doing a lot of portraits there. DC has some magnificent back alleys for sure. Another one is behind 52 O Street! For a more nature-y look, along the GW Parkway and Potomac with all those gnarly trees and brush is pretty cool too! If we are talking indoors, I just discovered Softbox Studio, run by [photographer] Tim Coburn. It is located in Fairfax, but the drive is worth it because the prices are reasonable and he has all the necessary tools right at your fingertips. It's well organized and everything works!

Whose work do you admire?
One of my favorite photographers outside of DC is Amber Byrne Mahoney. She used to be DC-based but moved to Brooklyn. She kills it every time she does anything! I am in love with her style of portraiture. Also, outside of DC and a photographer that is globally recognized that I love is Juergen Teller. He has done a bunch of work for Marc Jacobs and other fashion houses. He has such a raw approach to his photography. Inside DC I admire all my colleagues in Contrario Collective, each has their own unique point of view. I also love Keith Lane's photojournalistic work. It is on point!

Any advice to photographers just starting out?
I would tell them to shoot everything and shoot all the time! Get your work out there and make sure everyone knows you're a photographer. One, you will hone your skill and really zero in on your specialty. Two, people will take notice of how busy you are and you'll definitely get opportunities

Emma's website
Emma Instagram




Blogger Jennifer said...

Love this interview!! Thank you for sharing your story and wisdom Emma!

11:09 AM  
Anonymous James Jackson said...

This is great recognition of Emma's work and also very timely for where I find myself on my own creative path.
Thanks Morgan!

11:57 AM  
Blogger poppykock said...

Great interview! Emma is awesome:)

12:43 PM  

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