A Q & A Session with Lee Mandrell of Leman's Studios

Q: Do you like to talk about yourself or your pictures? If yes, about what aspects of photography? If no, why?

A: Myself, no. I really don't speak much unless spoken to. In time, maybe I will say a little more. It could happen. Lol Pictures, yes. There is a back story to every one taken and what it took to get that particular shot. A photo is the end result of some adventure, work, commission, etc, and is the final memory. Usually great days for me, no matter what, even if the pics don't come out as expected. But all aspects of photography are interesting to me. Some more so than others. I try to experience it all at some time or another. By being open and allowing yourself diversity, you gain a broader view of photography.

Q: How would you describe your attention span?

A: Good to great. When I'm focused on something, I'm really focused on it and nothing else exists. Almost tunnel vision you might say.

Q: When did you decide to become a photographer?

A: I don't think there was ever a conscious decision that was made on my part. I've had a camera pretty much all my life. I think it chose me. :) These days, I’m convinced that it is and always has been my life’s purpose to be involved in photography.

Q: What does photography mean to you?

A: Photography is an art form, creativity, a means of escape, a passion and a way of life. When we are shooting, it takes us away from the day to day for a while, assuming it's your hobby and not your profession. When done properly, it can invoke emotions or reaction or thoughts. It is a means of conveying what you see and how you see it to others. It is a means of self expression. It is a means of sharing your visual experiences. There really is nothing else quite like it.

Q: Can you recall the first photo you took that made you go WOW!?

A: Actually I can. It was 1981/2, and some of the pics I took while on vacation in Canada blew me away. I was shooting with a Minolta Hi Matic E range finder back then. It was my first camera and I have been a die hard Minolta addict ever since. The pics were amazing. I could hardly believe "I" took them. Looking at them today I have a different, experienced, more technical opinion of them, but back then.... wow for sure! :) Some are posted on my site. Again, not impressive to me these days, but really kept me into it back then.

Q: Do you have any formal training regarding photography?

A: Photography - no, darkroom printing, yes. I shot for the paper and yearbook in high school and that's about as informal as it gets! I have made every mistake there is to make. The darkroom work was very extensive. I was production manager for over 10 years at one of Indy's largest Pro Commercial labs. Type R, Ciba Chrome, C Print, B/W, Film Processing, you name it I have done it! Once digital came onto the scene, we were one of the first labs to truly embrace it. We were using Dicomed's Imaginator before Photoshop was ever heard of. Once Photoshop came out, we jumped on board and ran with it. I have been using it since its initial release. That's about as extensive as you can get.

Q: How technical is your photography?

A: Well, I've been shooting most of my life, and my job has been in a photo lab for the last 25 years. It gets pretty technical, and trains you for what works and what doesn't in print. I can be as technical as anyone, but I truly believe it should be fun first. And, I have had my own darkroom since I was 16. So yeah, I've done it a time or two.. lol I used to tell professional photographers all the time that if they had to print their own work, they would most certainly shoot it differently. It gives you a total understanding and awareness in your photography, and little things most people have never even considered. A few years back I was asked to be a sole contest judge for a local photo club. That was also a new experience and eye opener for things I wouldn't normally have considered.

Q: How do you feel about cropping?

A: It's a necessity, no way around it! The end result is what's important. I keep it in my mind when shooting, because of the different formats. We have to be aware of some loss and compensate for it. I think shooting a little loosely also separates the good shots from the really great shots. Cropping out a bit of dead or unwanted space makes a huge difference in many final photos. I feel it should be considered and practiced more by more people.

Q: Where is your favorite place to live and work as a photographer in the world and why?

A: I have to answer this from a landscape photographers point of view, but, Indiana. Surprised? We have sand dunes, practically an inland ocean at the Great Lakes, cliffs, canyons, cypress swamps, forests, hills, valleys, farm land, land arches, light houses, cityscapes, and all four seasons, you just name it. And since we are centrally located, anything else you could want to shoot is generally within a days drive or less. We are really blessed with diversity in the mid-west. There is no place I would rather be on a permanent basis. On the other side of this coin, if I were to have to relocate for some reason, the Smoky Mountains region would be my first pick. I love the place! My second pick would be west coast, like Portland, or upper California. There are really awesome landscapes there as well. I hope to be able to get that direction some day just for the experience of it.

Q: Define the word "beauty"!

A: It's really subjective. But natural beauty is best. Be it in people or landscapes or whatever!

Q: What is your most favorite and least favorite words in photography or life? How do they make you feel?

A: Favorite words in Photography - Road Trip! Let's go! Least favorite words - Can't go take photos today.

Q: How does your personality change when you look through the camera?

A: None that I'm aware of, but those of you that shoot with me, please tell me if it's noticeable! But if I am to make an educated guess, I still feel excitement and awe in the ability to capture something for others to see.

Q: How do you feel about missed shots which can not be recreated?

A: It happens. You learn from it, then take steps to make sure it doesn't happen next time out. But when it happens, the disappointment is overwhelming. I generally take steps in landscape shooting to ensure I have it covered to my liking. Some locations you know you wont be back to for a long while, or ever. I tend to over shoot at these locations just because. It has paid off more than once for me. Life lesson learned the hard way. Then there is man's involvement in changing things to suit a particular need. Some things, due to change, can never be shot again. It's a good idea to make the most of any place you shoot. You never know when it will be gone.

Q: Ever concerned about failure?

A: Failure? What is this failure you speak of? lol Seriously though, everyday! But with failure comes learning and progress. But I also believe there is no such thing as failure, only the steps required to succeed. Failure is such a dirty word that is no longer in my vocabulary. :)

Q: Who are your influences?

A: I hate to sound cliche', but Ansel Adams really is great! Reality TV photographers, not so much, but are great fun to watch! I really try not to follow anyone. I don't want to be influenced by trends, or styles that might not be suited for me. Sure, I see great photos everywhere, but I do my best to avoid following anyone in particular.

Q: What is your favorite image, either your own or someone else's or both? Describe its creation or meaning to you?

A: A natural light portrait I took of my wife. That look you get when you know she only has eyes for you and no one else. It captured perfectly natural beauty and natural light. To me, the shot, and a series of shots from this session are simply amazing. Powerful.

Q: What are the biggest personal or professional challenges you face on a daily basis?

A: Making deadlines - Overcoming my own shortcomings.

Q: What has been the single biggest obstacle against growing as a photographer in whole?

A: Myself. Learning not to be my own worst enemy / critic. It's very difficult to overcome some days. I hate feeling like I am settling. I feel like being "as good as" is no longer good enough. To stand out, it has to be better than average or good, plain and simple, so I am always on the lookout to take my photography to the next level, whatever that might be. It just has to be great these days.

Q: What are your favorite subjects to photograph?

A: Landscapes - Anything with water - Outdoors - In the studio foods, liquids and small products - My wife. :)

Q: Tell your funniest, scariest, most bizarre, most touching story from a photo shoot!

A: Most touching - I doubt this qualifies as a real answer, but taking on an apprentice, student, whatever you want to call it, is extremely rewarding. It really does bring satisfaction to help others and teach them the finer points of what they do not know. And honestly, I learn as well when I'm helping others. I think when I take on the 'teachers' role, I learn more than the student. It's a great feeling, and one everyone should get to experience at least once. It makes me feel great to see some one else achieve their own personal goals and to know I helped get them there...

Most Scary - Oh man. Just this year (2011) in the Smokies. My girlfriend and I were shooting a sunset on a pull off along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. We saw some bears off in the distance in the trees, nothing unusual in the Smokies. Shortly after, my girlfriend heard breathing. I said "I don't hear a thing." Then again. I happened to look down and a mama black bear was looking me right in the eyes. I'd be lying if I said my heart didn't skip a beat. It was literally three feet away from us concealed in the bushes. The doors were closed on the jeep and we both know there is no out running a bear. Don't even try it. So, I swallowed hard, then bucked up to her and started yelling at her loudly. ( I have seen this is the preferred method to ward off a bear, although very unnerving) She looked at me for a minute then decided to leave, crossing in front of us a very short distance away. She looked backed, and as if to say, you just got lucky tonight. Her and her cubs wandered off. I have photographed many bears in the wild, but always with a long lens or from the relative safety of the jeep. They aren't at all cute and cuddly three feet away from you.

Q: Have you ever thought about or actually stopped doing photography? What were the circumstances?

A: I take breaks from it but have never stopped completely. I think it keeps your perspective fresh and avoids total burnout. You come back with fresh eyes and see things new again and are fired up and ready to go.

Q: Do you ever have photographer's block and if yes how do you deal with it?

A: I don't think the subject's I shoot lend themselves to block. If I get 'bored", I switch subject matter in what I'm shooting and give myself little goals to accomplish. I call these "pick me up shots". I do the same with art work. It works really well and is a big boost for self confidence.

Q: What types of assignments are you attracted to most?

A: I only do what I want. There is no better attraction than to shoot what you want and when you want and with whom you want. It truly is freedom! If people happen to like what you do and want to buy something, that is really a bonus and compliment.

Q: Describe what black and white photography means to you?

A: Every serious photographer should study black and white at some point. There is no forgiveness here. You have to bring your A game. Black and white is raw and stripped down. A color shot can be bad, but flaws overlooked because of color. Mistakes can't be hidden in black and white. Black and white is the basis for learning to be a top notch photographer in my opinion. I have a more complete description of this in my book 'Monochrome Indiana'.

Q: Do you think of yourself as an artist and what do you think of the word artist?

A: Absolutely! I think I consider myself more of an artisan these days than anything, because I do more than just photography, and I specialize in several hobbies. But yeah, the description is accurate.

Q: How do you describe your photographic style?

A: I don't think I'm comparable to anyone that's well known, at least I hope not. I just do what I do and live with it. Some people like it, some don't. You can't let it worry you or be a distraction. Just do what you do, that is your style. Never try to please everyone. You will only disappoint yourself.

Q: What has been the most surprising or most predictable reaction to your photographs?

A: That other people like them! It's still amazing to see what people like in regards to what I like when it comes to my own shots. You can never tell. Sometimes the surprises are huge!

Q: Tell a little secret about yourself that no-one knows ...

A: Then it wouldn't be a secret, now would it? :)

Q: Who or what would you love to shoot that you haven't already?

A: Maybe boudoir... Women are beautiful, and a little something on is better than nude to me. Now if I just had a volunteer.... :) Studio work is my second love. I love shooting foods and liquids, small products, etc.

Q: What would you have done differently during your photography career so far and could this be an advice to others?

A: Taken it more seriously sooner and worked even harder. Get a leg up years ago, focus and work towards predetermined goals. Definitely make yourself some goals, write them down and see them through.

Q: How do you feel about digital manipulation and to what extent do you utilize it?

A: Well, manipulation used to be done in the darkroom. Now it's on a computer. Ansel said, you dont take a photo, you make it! The end result is what's important. I have a rule for myself that I follow though. I try to make the shot as best as it can be in the camera. If I have to spend too much time on it in photoshop, I need to go back and tighten up on my camera work. But there are times when cloning or what have you is called for. No one should ever feel bad for manipulation. It's all part of it, and always will be. In the darkroom days, you selected the grade of paper, filtered it accordingly, burned, dodged, airbrushed negs, made inner-negs, sandwiched chromes together, etc. Digital manipulation, while a recent addition to a photographers arsenal, is really nothing new. Just better control, more creative control, and all in the light without the use of harmful or smelly chemicals. But there will always be purists. :)

Q: What do you consider to be your best photo?

A: I'll let you know when I take it...

Q: What other thoughts would you like to share?

A: Why are you still reading this? I am boring! Get out of that chair and go take a pic of something! The world is waiting! lol

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