Finding my Path - by Laura Tillinghast

February 15, 2010  •  Leave a Comment

You may know Laura as the Customer Service Rockstar that provides lightening-fast support on email and on our User Forums, but what you may not know is that Laura is also an established photographer with quite a diverse portfolio under her belt. Below is the story of how she made art her life.

Finding my Path

I have been making art my entire life. All I remember wanting to do as a kid was ride my bike, build forts and do art projects. During high school every elective credit I earned came from an art class. Later in life I realized that learning to type, sew and cook would have been pretty useful. But no, as a young person I poured myself into drawing, painting, sculpture and theater. I was building sets, painting murals and imagining my work would someday be in museums. I had big ideas and knew I wanted to pursue art as my career but I didn’t know how that was going to actually happen. No one really supported this idea and told me I ought to pick something more practical.

When I began college I took an Intro to Photography class during my first semester. I borrowed an old manual Minolta from a friend and after traveling and hiking all over the place I had 3 rolls of waterfall photos. I remember the moment in the darkroom when I developed my first B&W photo of McCloud Falls. In fact I am sure I will never forget that moment. As the image slowly appeared on the paper I felt a shift inside me and I just knew. I wasn’t an artist after all. I was a photographer.

I never really put the camera down again. I threw myself into shooting, studying color and B&W film processing and printing. Eventually my voice as a photographer started to emerge and I discovered that I liked to shoot people the best but not in the traditional sense of portraiture. The subjects in my photos played characters and I built elaborate sets and costumes to bring what I saw in my head to life. I drew inspiration from fairy tales I loved as a child and literature I was obsessed with as an adult.
Jose Feliciano Album Cover
My work was well received by my peers and mentors but when I took my portfolio to art galleries I often heard things like ‘This isn’t art, this looks like a perfume advertisement.’ At first this was extremely discouraging and I worked hard to be taken seriously in the art community. The harder I tried the prettier my work became until I asked myself, ‘Would it be so bad it if this was a perfume ad?’ Well, no.

So I took out a large student loan and enrolled myself in a commercial photography program on the east coast. I packed myself, my camera and my cat into my tiny car and drove to Florida to study at Miami Ad School. It was expensive and a big risk but I had a lot of faith in myself and what I could achieve. Two very busy years later I graduated with a solid portfolio, a decent website I had built myself and a much better understanding of the photography industry.

The most important thing I took with me from school was experience. I was blessed with wonderful teachers who were working photographers themselves. When they got too busy they would sometimes pass jobs on to their students. I was lucky enough to shoot 3 album covers, a tennis catalog and get a portrait of a Latin celebrity published in Maxim Espanol. I also had the opportunity to assist some very successful photographers as well as work at a big rental house and studio where everyone around me was as into photography as I was. It was a great environment for me to thrive.

My luck didn’t stop there, upon graduating I was accepted to attend the very prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop. At the time, I wasn’t sure I deserved to be there among such talented people. Now, as I look back at the experience, I see how pivotal it was in my development as a photographer. Sometimes you need to prove how worthy you are to yourself as much as to those around you.

At that point I decided I had lived on the east coast for long enough and I missed my family so I packed myself, my cat and much more photography gear than I had started with into my tiny car and headed back to California where I now live and work. When I am not helping fellow Zenfolians, I shoot fashion and beauty advertising, model tests and I am a regular contributor for a health and fitness magazine. One day I might be shooting a gorgeous model in swim wear and the next day you will find me shooting a big pile of cheese for an article about healthy protein. The Big Fromage

I am quite happy with the way things have turned out. I have a nice camera and a very good life. I use the word ‘luck’ a lot when telling my story but my success really comes down to hard work and determination. My teachers passed those jobs on to me because they saw how hard I worked and that I didn’t waste time partying on South Beach. I got my first published fashion story because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. This is a tough industry and you have to be ready to hear ‘no’. When I said ‘I want to shoot for your magazine’ and they said ‘no’. I heard ‘not yet’. So I kept working on my portfolio and going back until they said ’yes’.

It’s very easy to work hard at something you love. I think the determination you need to make it in this business comes naturally, when your drive for success propels you forward.


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