In her late teens, Shae DeTar a hand painted photography expert gave up on an acting career—she was auditioning professionally since she was eleven—because of advice given to her by her acting coach. Her coach believed that actors must first “conquer” Shakespeare before considering themselves fit to act. Unhappy with her own progress, DeTar decided to quit. “Ever since then I’ve held this dream-world within me,” DeTar told me. “I wasn’t being fearless.”
DeTar, who works with paint and photography to make large-scale photo illustrations, now believes she’s fearless with her art. “I guess it’s because I am older and feel as though I have nothing to lose,” she said. Making her own photographs—which she has began only recently, in her early thirties—is a process that leads directly back to her photo illustrations. Hardly any of her unpainted photographs are on her website. Instead, photography is a way to gain more control over the collage, creating the visual parts that become the whole. “I like to re-imagine what I photographed and bring it to a new place with no boundaries.”
I spoke to DeTar over email about her process and about her thoughts on photography.
Your photo illustrations are beautiful and vibrant. But they are also sweated out, made in an experimental, perhaps incremental, iterative approach that’s physically demanding. I’d like to know what’s behind the physical labor. What’s motivating their physical process? Does working with your hands help you see something that you would have missed otherwise? Is there any anger behind it?
I’ve always loved working with my hands since I was around eleven or so; it was just very natural for me, and ever since then I’ve made creative journals that combine photography with paint and collage. When I began taking photos in my early thirties, I instantly began painting the prints that I made, which was just like what I had always done except this time I was working with my own photos. I’ve never felt that I was solely a photographer. There are only a few photographs that are on my website that I actually like without the paint. I don’t connect with photos that weren’t labored over physically. I like spending time with my image and my paints and with making it something more than what’s on the negative or digital capture. I like to re-imagine what I photographed and bring it to a new place with no boundaries. There’s definitely no anger behind it. It’s sheer bliss to paint on an image for so long. It’s the most peaceful process to me. I love it.
They remind me of Saul Leiter’s painted portraits. In his case, he worked with paint to layer colors. Some took years to complete. How do you know when one of yours is complete?
I’ll have to google him, don’t know him. I work by printing a lot of small images, printing around four copies of 8.5 x 11 or 17 x 22 images. It allows me to loosen up and be free with the paint. I never hesitate about trying something. I don’t fear messing up these smaller copies. I place my mind in this sort of childlike zone — kids are unrestrained when they make art — I always try to work like that. So I’ll experiment with these smaller images until I love something. I won’t risk messing up a big, expensive print. Once I have something that I love, I’ll make another print at a larger scale, for instance at a 4 – 7ft size range, and then I follow what I did on the small piece.
I’d like to ask a few questions about your own story. To take a question from one of my favorite writers: does shooting photography help make the anguish of life more bearable?
I relate to what Henry Matisse said: “An artist is an explorer.” Art has given me a way to stay young forever. Through my work, I get to explore and be brave and be fearless and keep my imagination wild and free. It’s given me a safe place to dream and to be bold and given me a female voice in this world. I’m very grateful to be able to create, and I’m so honored that my work resonates with some people. That feels really special to me.
How did you get your start in photography? Do you remember what it felt like at the beginning, to be at the threshold of new ways of seeing?
I didn’t go to college for photography or painting. Growing up, I made collages and painted on magazine photos as a form of my visual diary, but I never thought of it as “art,” and I never took it seriously as a career goal. I had trained to be an actor from an early age, starting when I was eleven or twelve auditioning for TV and commercials. I quit when I was around nineteen because I listened to a really terrible acting coach who told me that if an actor couldn’t conquer Shakespeare then they shouldn’t act, and sadly I listened to her. I quit when I felt discouraged by my progress with Shakespeare, and ever since then I’ve held this dream-world within me. When I started making art at thirty-two, I was finally able to release a lot of it. I didn’t realize how quitting acting had affected me, but I do now. I can remember my one acting teacher telling me that I was really good but that I was holding myself back. I wasn’t being fearless, and I was stopping myself from breakthroughs. I’m pretty fearless when it comes to my art now. I guess it’s because I am older and feel as though I have nothing to lose. It’s helped me grow in a lot of areas.
Did you ever feel like giving up? Were you ever unsure of your talents?
Absolutely. But it’s mostly financially driven. For instance, it costs a lot of money to make my work: Printing large pieces, mounting them, buying supplies, traveling for shoots, it’s all very costly. When money gets low, I start to stress out, and at times my mind starts thinking, “Maybe it won’t work out, perhaps I should quit and get a real job.” And then I say it out loud to a friend or someone, and, by the end of the day, I’m already planning new things to do in art. It’s funny, and it doesn’t stick. It’s just my knee-jerk reaction to throw in the towel and cry a little. But I can’t quit! I have worked too hard to quit. And even if my gallery life doesn’t grow and if I’m not making progress in the future, I would still be making art. I would just have to get a side job too. I’m okay with that. But right now I’m finally making some strides. I have my first solo show coming up in Berlin, Germany! I’m really excited about that, and I have some private commissions, and it’s looking pretty good. I just need to keep working hard, keep dreaming big, and stay patient. I need to continue to be fearless. My husband told me early on, Your path is going to be slow, but it’ll be worth it if you stay true to who you are and work hard and don’t quit. I always hold on to that advice.
You usually don’t make nude portraits like those made by Leiter. Yours bring in the landscape. They’re as much about it as they are about figure and color. What’s attraction of including the landscape to you, exactly?
Nature is really trippy. Look at a landscape of Iceland, parts of New Mexico, Utah, China, Turkey. Look at fish in the sea, at an ice glacier, at the stars, at a sunset. Look at the unbelievably intricate designs and colors that animals are made of. Fish and birds have the most insane colors, patterns, and shapes, and it’s mindblowing to me. I see an image of a landscape, and it never needs paint. It’s just incredible as it is and I’m inspired by all that I see. So landscapes move me, and, when I can, I try to take people to beautiful landscapes, and I re-imagine them. I always figure that there are no limitations because it’s my canvas. I can make the landscape however I please, and it doesn’t always have to make sense, and it doesn’t need to be true to real life. Color is my muse, so I just drench the landscape in whatever colors inspire me at the moment.
This is one of my favorites. Could you explain how it was made from start to finish?
I was commissioned by a jewelry shop called Bella & Chloe to use their jewelry in some painted photos. They sent me a big box of jewelry and told me to do whatever I wanted, so it was a particularly fun job! My friend Hannah and I shot her in her apartment, in Brooklyn, with very minimal backgrounds for about an hour, and then I went home and spent some time with the images. I actually had no idea what I was going to do on this one. I really just got caught up in the moment, playing with the images, which is always fun. Sometimes I really have a clear idea of what I want, and sometime I don’t. It all depends. So I cut up a bunch of the images and began painting, used a lot of charcoal and just messed around and experimented until I had a bunch I felt were cohesive. I was playful with this batch, and when clients let me do what I want, I think the images are stronger than when they limit you a bunch. I’m always grateful when a client trusts me fully, because it helps me do a better job! I’m actually printing this piece (titled “Hannah”) really big for an upcoming show. I have never seen it really big (the original is 17 x 22). I wish I had the money to do real gold leaf on the gold jewelry parts of the image. I think someday if I can afford it, I will revisit this one and do that!
What’s the story this one? What compelled to you to capture this moment?
There are multiple shoots over the past few years where I was trying to make more editorial- or fashion-styled images for my portfolio. People kept saying I needed more simple images without paint in order to work in fashion, so I kept trying to see what that was like. Almost every shoot I did like this ended up in the trash. I hated them. But I always tried to rescue a few images and make them into something else so that it wasn’t a total loss. And ironically about four of my favorite images have come from almost being thrown away. There were always a few frames that I thought were cool, and I’d fuck with those and paint and cut them up. to see if I could turn them into something different. That particular image was just one of those rescued photos, and I remember being annoyed that once again I had gone against my gut instinct and tried to do “normal and simple” fashion photos, and it’s kinda funny, but her facial expression sort of says it all. I actually really love fashion, but it’s not worth it to me, to make a bunch of images that are watered down and that I don’t believe in just to get magazine work. If I was allowed to be me and create work that reflects my brand and vision, I would absolutely collaborate with that world. People like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood would be amazing to work with. But I won’t compromise anymore. That world will either to come to me or not come at all, and I’m okay with the latter. I’m a fine artist, so I am sticking to galleries and private commissions, and I feel strongly about this path.
What have you learned about yourself from shooting photography? Any epiphanies?
I’ve learned that fear is the enemy and that I can’t ever be afraid of what people think or expectations they may have. I just have to free myself from all of that mental stuff and just create in the moment. I’ve learned to be strong and to be a leader. And I am always trying to be encouraging and giving to other artists. The art world can be a tough place, but I just try to be as genuine and true to myself as I can and always do my best and work hard. And that’s all I can do!
All images © Shae DeTar. See more his hand painted photography work here.