Gretchen Shepherd was getting ready to head to church camp at Camp Ghormley near Yakima. It was summer in the 1960s, and to capture the special moments between all the worship and fellowship, her grandma let the 10-year-old borrow her camera. Shepherd spent the week snapping photos of the new friends she made and all the daily festivities. The camera felt natural in her hands, so once camp was over she dreaded returning it to her grandma.
“She never asked for it back,” Shepherd remembered.
Fast forward more than 55 years and Shepherd, now an influential photographer, and many other local artists will have booths in Key Center Aug. 2 from 4 to 8 p.m. for the annual Art Walk. The event is put on by the Two Waters Arts Alliance, where Shepherd is a board member.
Shepherd bought her first camera — a Kodak Instamatic — when she was 11. She still has that one, the one she “borrowed” from her grandma and many others she has picked up along the way in her home studio in Longbranch.
For Shepherd, photography was a casual hobby until she decided to set the camera down for about 20 years to concentrate on being a mom to her two daughters, and to work as an elementary school teacher and librarian in the Monroe School District northeast of Seattle.
It wasn’t until taking a photography workshop with renowned Seattle-based photographer Art Wolfe in 2009 that she gathered up the confidence to evolve from hobby to profession. With encouragement from Wolfe, whom Shepherd now calls a friend and mentor, she pursued a new career.
She sold her first photo just six weeks later and it wasn’t long until her artful compositions drew the attention of a larger audience. “My motto is to find beauty in plain sight,” Shepherd said, adding that she learned from her mom that everything needs some light, dark, and bright.
Shepherd thought she’d strictly be a landscape photographer until she agreed to join Wolfe on a trip to Katmai National Park and Preserve in southwest Alaska in 2015. Her pictures of Alaska brown bears now grace her studio wall and inspired Shepherd to expand her mind as well as her portfolio.
“If you focus on just one thing, then you miss out on so much else,” she said.
She now considers herself a landscape, wildlife and abstract photographer. Whether that’s of 100-foot-wide marula trees while on safari in Botswana, 900-pound grizzlies in Alaska, or close-up shots of colorful lichen growing on the bunker walls of Fort Worden in Port Townsend. But unless it’s culturally significant, like her recent visit to the Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca, Mexico, she doesn’t do photos of people.
“I’d rather stand in front of a bear than a bride.”
Whatever it is, she wants her photos to tell a story, each one infused with a sense of emotion and narrative. But don’t be fooled, she warns aspiring photographers, most photos seen in galleries have been edited to help tell those stories.
“Editing has always happened, even in the dark room,” she said. “Look at it and ask, ‘What’s the purpose of the picture? What am I trying to convey?’ Maybe by altering it a bit, you can tell a different story. Do what you need to do. It’s an art form.”
Photography is an exercise in patience, she said, and only sometimes with the right light at the right time of day can you find a photo that doesn’t need editing.
Her husband, Bob Shepherd, equates it to a perfect golf shot; it doesn’t happen often, but when it does you tend to remember it.
Bob, a retired executive from the beer, wine and soft drink industry, has been extremely supportive of Gretchen’s photography career and even picked up the skill two years ago when Wolfe pulled him aside during a workshop.
“I understand the passion she has, so we always wanted to feed her passion,” Bob said. “Every time she goes to a workshop she comes back with more ideas and more inspiration. It’s so wonderful to see her growing as an artist.”
The Shepherds, who have been married for 45 years, just last month wrapped up a 60-day gallery show at The Crandall Center, which houses the offices of The Mustard Seed Project above Key Center. They moved to the KP in 2019.
Even though she was a teacher for more than half of her life, Gretchen considers herself a life-long learner.
Videography, video editing and YouTube is a new self-taught venture Gretchen got into during the pandemic. She took advantage of the time at home to build an online community of like-minded artists. The former school librarian got the unique idea of not only reading children’s books online but delving into the story behind the author and illustrator.
“A lot of people don’t appreciate children’s literature for what it is, the depth that it has, and the artistry behind it,” she said.
What started with her using her iPad is now a five-camera, three-monitor production with high-quality audio and fun graphics. In under three years, she has more than 600 videos on her YouTube channel (@ImagesbyGretchen) and goes live Thursday and Sunday nights.
Both of the Shepherds will be displaying and selling their photos at the Art Walk in August.
“It’s an evening of fun and a way to celebrate the art in this community and how we support each other,” Gretchen said.
For more information on the Art Walk, go to twowaters.org.
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