Nathan: First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to share your work and offer a few words about it, Cynthia. For the past few years, I have tried to find ways to begin the interview without asking the common question: “How did you find your way to photography?” However, this always seems to be where I begin since it is really a very, very good question to ask. After all, each of us find our way own unique way to this interesting practice of capturing images. So, I shall ask: what brought Cynthia Haynes to the practice of photography? What first inspired you to pick up a camera and try to capture life and people in the way that you see such things? Are there any particular influences that first drew you to photography?
Cynthia: Great questions, Nathan! What brought me to photography? I had been in a long career in corporate and real estate law, which left me creatively bankrupt. Photography—especially classic black and white photography—has always been the one art that I was drawn to; I used to borrow my dad’s camera (and by borrow, I mean sneak it out of the house) and go to photography classes. But I got caught up in the “I’m-not-so-good-at-this” inner dialogue and eventually turned all my attention to writing.
Cut to several (ahem, many) years later, and I had just gone through a difficult time that began with my cancer and ended with the death of my best friend, my mother. I had gone to a still, numb place inside—I called it “Warrior Mode”—to just get through it, and I stayed there for a couple of years. But I began to feel like I was on pins and needles: almost like a waking limb, coming back to life. And in that reawakening, I had intimate portraits made to see what my post-cancer self looked like. I saw a softness there that I had been denying myself, and a grace I don’t think I ever noticed. And I wanted to offer that experience to others. So I bought a camera, went to a few workshops. and began photographing women, both intimate portraits and fine art nudes.
And I wish I could say that it was everything I hoped it would be. But it wasn’t—at least not the intimate portraits. From pre-shoot to post-shoot, I was a wreck. Turns out, I didn’t enjoy it at all. And although I’m proud of the work I created, I was never more relieved than when I finally quit trying to push myself into doing yet another thing that didn’t make my heart sing.
Somewhere amid all that soul searching, I started traveling the world, and I was photographing things I never thought I’d point my camera towards, like street scenes, wildlife, and landscapes. But I noticed that there seemed to be a sensual line running through the photographs I made. There was a softness that I liked; it felt like the curves that initially drew me into photography had shown up in a different expression.
Nathan: If I might be allowed to digress for a moment, the world of photographing women nude is primarily dominated by men who wish to exploit the sexuality of the women they photograph— in order to make the woman appear utterly and outwardly sexual, primarily an object of desire—one that, if we are being entirely honest, looks wiling and ready for any man that sees the picture. Of course, many women photograph other women and this is not the focus of their work—and there are men who photograph women without this goal in mind—but a quick visit to a popular photo sharing site like 500px reveals that many photographers, primarily men, take photos that focus exclusively on sexual representations of women—and many of these photos quickly rise to popularity on this site. Certainly, this says a lot about what men want to see. I am not bringing this up to make judgments about these photographers (though I certainly have my views about it); rather, I mention it because some of your work with photographing women certainly captures some of the erotic qualities of femininity (or perhaps the better word is sensual), but that work does not seek to make women objects of desire (and much of your fine art nude photography is not erotic whatsoever). This brings up a very important point I think. The nude body can certainly be seen as erotic, as sexual, but a nude photograph of a woman (or a man) is not in and of itself a sexual expression. And photographing intimacy and the erotic is not, in its very nature, exploitive or manipulative. Naturally, in addition to the way the photographer chooses to dress and undress and position the model (as well as the facial expression / gaze), much of what makes a photo sexual is what a viewer brings to it. Anyone who works with nudes, regardless of their intentions, is inevitably and unavoidably dealing with these realities because of the nature of human desire and our culture’s often confusing, exploitative, and paradoxical relationship with it. I mention all of this because I am very interested in hearing your thoughts about photographing nude women. What are your inspirations? What led you to that work? What is it you wish to express? I know that you have undergone personal struggles in your life that have contributed to some of the series you have worked on— but let me stop there, for I am starting to think that this is a very long-winded question on my part! What are your thoughts about all of this?
Cynthia: I’ve always been a private, modest person, and overly concerned about my own body image, so I found photographing women who were brave enough to show exactly who they were mesmerizing. Talk about admiration! The photographer who mentored me began to do some fine art nudes that I found compelling; I started seeing woman as subject and not object, and knew I wanted to explore that. There’s a graceful sensuality that’s so different from the blatant sexuality that so many women are conditioned to think they need to exhibit. I see so much of it in social media feeds—it’s “look at me” vs. “see me.” And that’s what I wish to express: being seen.
Nathan: What inspired you to start experimenting with camera movement? Like you, I see lines of sensuality running through the motion of your images of dancers and animals. In fact, I would also use words like sumptuous, elegant, graceful, and mesmerizing to describe your work. Are there any photographers or painters that inspired you to pursue this work? I certainly feel music when I see these images even though I am only greeted with silence when I see them.
Cynthia: Thanks for those beautiful words, Nathan. I joke that I’m an inspiration hoarder: my bookmarks lists (on multiple browsers) are miles long, and my book collection, while smaller—only because there’s only so much space in my house—comprises oh-so-many pages of wonder. My mother was a painter, poet, and author, so even though I watched her in her element, my comprehension was lost in the process. So I didn’t appreciate impressionist paintings because I didn’t think they truly looked like anything; I didn’t understand the point.
I took that narrow view into photography, thinking that everything needed to be tack sharp and literal (which is how I like my words). I started photographing in 2010, so I was still finding my way in 2011 when I met Winslow Lockhart, an artist who makes beautiful photographs that look like paintings. I was fascinated at what she could do with a camera. She taught me how to look at a scene differently, and I loved that I could make photographs that weren’t like anyone else’s. I knew then that I didn’t want to tell only literal stories or put my tripod in someone else’s holes, so to speak, to make the same image that they were.
In 2012, I saw a book by photographer Hal Eastman titled, Natural Dance, and the cover image was a woman dancing in the woods. But it was an impression of her; she wasn’t in focus, nor were the trees. I pored over the pages, and by the end I knew I wanted to continue working with women, but in this impressionistic way. I started thinking of my camera as a brush, and the movements as brushstrokes.
So I studied the Impressionists, particularly Degas, Monet, and J. M. W. Turner. My fascination became showing the essence of something without pointing directly at the thing itself. I’ve also worked with encaustic painter Leah MacDonald, drawn to the way wax over photographs softens the look for a certain impressionistic effect. I think I’m really a frustrated painter at heart, but don’t have the time or patience to learn it. Instead, I use slow shutter speeds and intentionally use my camera to “paint” the scene.
Nathan: I would love to hear your thoughts about the following series you have worked on. If you are willing, I would like to hear about the source of inspiration for each and what you wish to express and, then, see a sampling of photos from each series. It would be equally wonderful if you select a few images from each of those series and talk about some of the technical and inspirational backgrounds behind them.
1) Bare – The first nudes I shot were at Edward Weston’s house in Carmel, California, where his son, Kim, now lives with his family. I was in Edward’s darkroom, surrounded by original prints. To say it was awe-inspiring would be an understatement. But to revisit your question about photographing nudes, my desire is to convey “see me” rather than “look at me.” I rarely photograph faces because my preference is no direct eye contact; I find a direct gaze to be sexual rather than sensual.
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2) Curve – I found a common thread along a sensual line in landscape and wildlife, and wanted to create soft and curvy portraits in the wild by deviating from more literal photographs.
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3) Rhythm – I love the female form in motion, and what I want to capture in this series are elegant, graceful, evocative images that are sensual, dreamy, and painterly.
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4) Wanderlust – I never really anticipated having this series, and yet it’s my largest portfolio. This collection is my favorite photographs from around the world, and is inspired by the people, places, and inhabitants of this glorious globe. Wherever I travel, the goal is to create a cohesive series of images rather than just a random bunch of photographs. Challenging, but helps me to narrow down subjects.
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5) I Am – I started this passion project because I wanted women to make statements with their bodies that weren’t sexual, but significant. I ask them to finish the statement of “I am . . . “ and then I paint those words on their bodies. The idea is to give them a portrait to hang in their homes to remind them that in their own words and in their own skin, they are powerful. It’s a pay-what-you-can program where proceeds are donated to cancer research. I recently partnered with a woman with multiple types of cancer, and we were in the midst of making strides with the series when she died. It’s taken me awhile to recover from that blow, but I’m ready to return to it.
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Nathan: Like me, you interview a lot of photographers. Do you think that asking questions and reading answers has affected your own work in any way? Or, perhaps, has it influenced how you think about photography in any way? How does it feel to be the interviewee after so often being the interviewer (and to be interviewed by someone you have previously interviewed)?
Cynthia: I think it’s important to find choose voices that speak to your inner artist to inspire and motivate you. I’ve found a wealth load of information in interviewing photographers about the things that make them want to pick up their cameras, the struggles they face, the way they deal with those struggles, and the things that bring them joy in the process. I’m always curious about the technical aspects of the how but am more curious about the emotion behind the why. I find that knowing the why makes me feel more connected to the craft and the circle of artists who share it.
Being on the other side of the interview table is fun! But a bit intimidating. Words are my first creative love, yet I struggle when the answers to the questions are about me. I’m much more comfortable writing about other people, but doing this interview with you is interesting in that I feel much more vested in it than if I didn’t already have a working relationship with you.
Nathan: As you know from our conversations, I have avoided writing about my photographic maneuvers and processes. Some people think I do this because I am hiding trade secrets. What they don’t realize is: I do not keep any of it to myself. More importantly, I have no series of steps—or certainly no teachable steps. I freely admit that I just create. In fact, the free form process of creating is why I am drawn to photography. For me, cameras and software are just tools that I use to let my imagination ramble. I do not previsualize anything. I have no real plan. I stumble, sometimes accidentally, onto things. You and David publish a wonderful magazine and sell series of instructional books from a variety of photographers. I would love to hear your thoughts about the goals you and David have for your business. I know that you both focus heavily on the necessity of each artist finding an individual voice and finding ways to be inspired. What are your thoughts about the learning process and their connection to freely creating and finding your own voice / vision? And what do you think you and David are contributing to this?
Cynthia: Interesting that you should ask this at this particular time. David (duChemin) built Craft & Vision eight years ago from a simple thought of, “What if I made a $5 eBook?” That what if grew into a successful business that grosses over $1m a year, and now has a well-stocked library from multiple authors on multiple subjects. But like all things in business, it’s changing. As much as he’s a photographer, David’s also an entrepreneur; he studies business the same way he studies a scene—carefully, looking for compelling characters and a decisive moment. And currently, the decisive moment is taking the company in a new direction. Craft & Vision is all about fostering the heart of the amateur and the love of the photograph and that won’t change, but the scope will be more focused.
I’ve learned so much from my involvement in a company that was borne of a $5 eBook. I’ve studied photographers and their photographs, looked at them separately, and looked at the pragmatics of an image. I’ve spoken to students about what they find valuable (or not), and their responses are deeply interesting.
Everyone’s learning process is so different. I’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a myriad of photographers at workshops and other events, and have found that when photographing the same subject, our interpretations of that subject are so different. And how many times I’ve heard (or said), “What? I didn’t even see that!” And that’s the beauty of the learning process.
What I know now is I’m never going to see like David, you, Paul Nicklen, or Robert Mapplethorpe. I used to think it was something I could learn, but it’s in our individual ways of seeing that expression comes alive, and it’s through practice that it’s found. Borrowing from how other people see has a place in our creativity, to be sure, but I believe that experimentation and intention is where vision and voice are found.
Nathan: And … I would love to hear about your approach to photography. How important are the tools to your work? Are there any particular processes you wish to share? Do you (a) previsualize what your photograph is going to look like, (b) discover what you wish to create as you create, or (c) engage a little of both?
Oh, the tools. The tools! Honestly, I’m completely non-technical. I’ve shot entire trips on my iPhone just so I didn’t feel pressured to get behind the camera. I’ve recently switched to the Fuji X system, and while it does some things really well, I still miss a few DSLR features (like multiple exposures). And I just like the way a DSLR feels in my hand.
As for pre-visualization, I’m so literal in my thinking (which is funny, given my non-literal photography) that when I have a vision, I get stuck. I usually have an idea in mind of what I’d like to get, but I try not to hold too tightly to that idea or else it monopolizes my thoughts and I miss what’s actually happening in front of me. Sometimes just acting on a sense of curiosity leads to something new that I’d never thought about—and it leads me away from something that isn’t working. Like a cat with a piece of string, really.
Quotes are part of my digital hoarding collection, so sometimes I think about a photograph I want to make for the quote, and sometimes I find the quote I want to pair with a photograph. It’s a little like a puzzle where the creative challenge is in finding the missing piece.
Regardless of the tool, I try as best I can to get the image in camera. The amount of post-processing I do depends on the photograph and the subject, but with ICM, you can lose color and texture with slower shutter speeds.
I dodge and burn, play with color balance to pull out certain shades, and occasionally composite a texture onto the photograph. I prefer to take images from wherever I am (walls, streets, sky, grass, etc.) and layer them over the photo at a low opacity to add depth and texture to the photo. It gives me an idea of what the final image might look like, but I never really know until I’m in the digital darkroom.
Quotes are part of my digital hoarding collection, so sometimes I think about photographs I want to make for the quote, and sometimes I find the quote I want to pair with a photograph. It’s a little like a puzzle where the creative challenge is in finding the missing piece.
Nathan: Photography is many things … but one of its most important facets is the connection between what a photographer sees and how he or she chooses to capture it. This relationship typically changes over time— so much so, in fact, that many photographers feel it changes how they see. What are your thoughts about this?
Cynthia: I wholeheartedly agree. Sometimes I look at my early work and think I was a much better photographer back then. But really, what I like is how I saw certain things.
What I know is that when I’m on scene and I want to get a particular image, that emotional investment causes me to miss other things. Reviewing that work after some time has passed—whether it’s six hours, six days, six months, or six years—allows me to see those images in a different way. I’ve found some of my favorite photographs in random searches, wondering why I picked one image over another. Being removed from the emotion of the scene allows me to see something else that happened while I was chasing a different moment. And sometimes it’s surprisingly better.
Nathan: You travel a lot. I am jealous. In fact, very jealous. How has traveling contributed to the way you photograph the world? Has travel broadened your photographic eye in any way? Are there any specific places that you would like to visit to take photos?
Cynthia: Travel changes you; you never return home exactly as you left, and that’s a beautiful thing. Each photographic journey is the same for me—I’m never quite the same at the end of it as I started out. Because travel photography is less controlled than the portrait work from my early days, I’m at the mercy of whatever unfolds in front of me; I’m not directing anything or anyone. And while I (mostly) enjoy the challenge of that, sometimes I wish I could ask someone to move into better lighting or repeat an action.
Maybe it’s the portraitist in me, but I’m uncomfortable taking photographs of people if it’s not collaborative. So if it’s not collaborative, my preference is to intentionally eliminate faces because I like the anonymity of it—the mystery, the wonder. I like to invite viewers to finish the story for themselves. And that’s led me to mostly photographing people from the back in my travels.
If I were to create a series anywhere, it would be in Venice. I have a deep-seated dream to photograph a dancer there, and I’m working toward making that a reality. I also can see women with elephants in my mind’s eye: both such regal and majestic creatures.
Now is the time for some more general questions:
Nathan: When you process your photos, do you listen to music? If yes, what music do you prefer to listen to and do you think that music influences how you process your images?
Cynthia: I’m an alt-rock fan, and that’s mostly what I listen to when editing (although Spanish guitar occasionally works its way into rotation). I don’t think music necessarily influences my processing— just makes me focus.
Nathan: Who are three of your favorite photographers, and, more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
Cynthia: Just three? So. Difficult.
Brooke Shaden is a beautiful artist and storyteller. I so appreciate how much talent she has and how deeply she’s dedicated to her art, and how much she shares of herself in it (she’s also a brilliant educator). Much like my early experiences with impressionism, I didn’t understand Brooke’s work when I first saw it. Some of it’s dark and creepy, and I didn’t relate to it. But I interviewed her and learned so much about why she creates, and then I was intrigued to know more about the how. Her creative process is fascinating. And I’ve learned about thinking in series and continuity of photographs; she’s exhibited in galleries worldwide and knows a great deal about making sense of lines of work.
Richard Martin sees in poetry, lines, and color. The way he extracts details from a scene never fails to amaze me (I’ve attempted to mimic his ways of seeing with spectacularly flat results). He never takes himself too seriously and truly enjoys the process. His motto is “play!” We spent a few hours in Venice together and it was incredible to note what caught his eye—things I never would have noticed in my hunt for “finding something to photograph.” It was a lovely reminder to embrace the wonder.
Saul Leiter became one of my favorites when I saw a short documentary on him a few years ago. His lifelong painting skills as an abstract impressionist are evident in his color photography. I’m especially drawn to his frame-within-a-frame images, as well as those shot through windows. Leiter’s influence means I’m much more inclined to look through smeary windows as a filter on the world rather than an impediment to seeing it.
Nathan: Select a single photograph by another artist that inspires you. Explain why you are drawn to it and how it has inspired you.
Cynthia: “Couple dancing” (Valencia, Spain), 1952, from Elliot Erwitt had my heart from the moment I saw it at an exhibition in New York in 2011. It’s not technically perfect, but it’s emotionally perfect, and I’ll always go for emotion over the technical. It was a short time later that I learned the photo was a candid moment between Robert Frank and his wife, Mary, as they danced in their kitchen. And what I first thought was a doorway was actually a mirror frame, which was spectacular. Erwitt is a master of both touching and humorous moments, and I linger on every one of his images.
Nathan: What artistic influences, outside of photography, have had a significant influence on how you approach your photography (for example, painters, filmmakers, musicians, poets, etc.)?
Cynthia: My mother was probably my most significant artistic influence. Her poetry, writings, and paintings were always around, and as a child, I used to try to imitate her. It was probably somewhere in that space of time that I realized that painting was too intensive for me, so I skipped off to do other things. She always encouraged me to return to my writing, which I’ve done. She died in 2006, before I ever picked up a camera, and there are so many things I wish I could discuss with her.
Rumi, Mary Oliver, Hafiz, and Emily Dickinson occupy the largest amount of space on my quote list, and I draw influence from their words. As mentioned, sometimes I shoot for the quote, and sometimes the quote finds the photograph.
Degas, Monet, and J. M. W. Turner are the Impressionists who showed me an alternate way of seeing. I also find some of Gerhard Richter’s drawings of women quite compelling. The motion and mood are similar to what I hope to incorporate in my work.
Nathan: If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?
Cynthia: Tolerance. For self, for others, for our community. I often hear “I’m a hack,” or “I’m not any good,” or “this image sucks” from photographers who don’t see the beauty and possibility in both their work and that of others. And maybe it’s because we collectively see so many people jumping on another photographer’s images for having “distracting” elements or otherwise interjecting what they would have done differently. In the right context (such as working with a mentor), that can be beneficial. But when we invite too many voices to the conversation, the message becomes muddled and the person who really needs to hear it may not.
I felt the sting of unsolicited criticism when I interviewed a photographer and a reader said the interviewee was crap and basically, so was I. In a comment to the article, he made unkind remarks about the images made by the featured artist, and that I obviously wouldn’t know art if it kicked me in my non-tack-sharp face (or something to that interpretive effect). He closed with, “Have you seen Cynthia Haynes’ work? Soft. Enough said.” I wanted to respond to him and tell him that different people are drawn to different things, and that not everybody likes Picasso or Ansel Adams, but by his words, it seemed that he was closed-minded. So I let the impulse to respond pass and I’m glad I did. His comment didn’t change what I want to do, and the article didn’t change what he wants to do. So it’s all good.
The thing is, he had to seek me out to find my work. My name was just a byline: no links, no bio—nothing but my name. So he did his homework just to say he didn’t like what I do. I felt like I was nominated for a “Made It” award; someone thought enough of what I do to comment on it! And while his words are branded onto my sensitive little heart, the whole thing just makes me laugh now.
So be kind. You don’t have to like it, but appreciate that somebody somewhere has made something with all of their heart and is brave enough to put it out there. See what you can learn from it, even if it’s something you would never photograph. And if they ask for critique, use your knowledge and ask intelligent questions. What were they hoping to show? What’s the story they wanted to tell? We can all learn from one another if we just remain open. I’ve learned from landscape, wildlife, wedding, street, portrait, glamour, boudoir, and fine art photographers. The lessons are there if we choose to take them.
Nathan: What are your thoughts about the benefits of online sharing? Are there any particular social media or image sharing sites you prefer or do not prefer?
Cynthia: I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with social media. As much as I think that it’s incredible that we’re all connected via the press of a button, I also think that having that much exposure to so much inspiration can hamper creativity. I find that it’s too easy to get lost in what everyone else is doing and spend so much time looking at other people’s images that it monopolizes the time we should be attending to our own craft. It’s overwhelming, really.
Too much information can lead to creative paralysis. It leaves us running in too many different photographic directions, unsure of what we want to say with our images. I find that many of us either stop trying to be seen or heard, or instead, end up chasing someone else’s vision.
I wonder what photography would look like today if the only sources available were library books: what we would be creating if we couldn’t instantly compare ourselves to others? I’ll bet the collective landscape of photography would be quite different.
On the flip side, the outstanding benefit of social media is seeing what everyone is creating, and gathering inspiration and ideas that I wouldn’t have if I had to haul off to the library every week.
Nathan: If you were stranded on an island, and you could have one camera, one lens, one filter, one tripod, two books, and ten CDs, what would they be and why?
Cynthia: I hope it’s a big enough island that there are interesting things to photograph (at least before the batteries die in my Fuji XT-2). The size and weight of that camera + its 18-55mm lens makes it ideal for most situations, including, I assume, island-strandedness.
I’d guess it’ll be fairly bright on that island, so I’d want my Hoya Prond 8 3-stop filter for the times I wasn’t in the trees (in my mind, I’m apparently I’m stranded on the set of Lost).
Tripod? Ha! Have you seen my work, Nathan? 😉
And only two books? Another hard choice. I’d say The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, because her words wrap around my own again and again, and because I’d undoubtedly want some art to accompany beautiful words, Children of Adam from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and Paul Cava.
As for CDs, since I wouldn’t have anything to play them on, perhaps I should forget the Fuji and make my iPhone my one camera/lens combo so I could listen to my Spotify playlists (because I typically don’t listen to anything in full—only preferred songs). I obviously don’t do well with constraints (or choices)!
Nathan: Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
Cynthia: I’m working on a book, and I’m excited about that. Just a small, hand-sewn collection that mixes my photographs with vellum overlays of the words that I love.
As for goals, I want to do more work with women since they were the reason I wanted to pick up a camera in the first place. But the direction is different now: more movement, more flow, more imagination.
Nathan: Is there anything else you wish to add?
I just want to express my appreciation for the opportunity to share my own little slice of silence with your corner of the photography world. Thank you, Nathan!
Cynthia Haynes specializes in interpreting the beauty and grace of the female form. Returning to art after a corporate hiatus of too many years, Cynthia finds her inspiration in the people she knows and those she’s yet to meet on her chronic sojourns through North America, Africa, India, and Europe. Cynthia’s work is available as fine art prints as well as on a limited commission basis.
All images on this page– unless otherwise noted– are protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without Cynthia Haynes’ permission.
The text on this page is protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without Cynthia Haynes or Nathan Wirth‘s permission.