October 7, 2011

Beth Perkins: Along for the Ride

In the second edition of the Artist Interview Series, Beth Perkins gives insight into her journey to the top of the commercial photography industry. A Texan by birth, Beth attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she gained the tools necessary for her to embark on a journey to New York.

How did you get introduced to the art of photography? Did you paint/draw initially or was photography the first creative outlet you explored?

I have always enjoyed photography. In college, I took photography, painting, and drawing classes, all of which I loved. I found working in the darkroom to be very meditative. In the end, I felt photography would be the better choice as a career, but all of my artistic experiences have contributed to my photography aesthetic.

How did your life transition from college into young adulthood?

My path from college to photography was more of an organic process, rather than something I was completely conscious of. I moved to New York after college with a couch to sleep on and $600. The first week I was there I went to a birthday party where I met someone who mentioned that they were hiring at GQ. Two weeks later, after interviewing with Robert Priest, I was offered a position as the Assistant to the Fashion Director at GQ. It was definitely my "Devil Wears Prada" fling. I learned so much at GQ, but realized my heart was not committed to fashion. I had met and worked with many photographers I knew about from magazines and thought, if I could travel with dozens of crates of clothing and rolling racks, I could probably handle carrying camera equipment. Shortly after this realization, I accepted an assistant position working for Carter Smith.

Where do you live now? How does this environment contribute to your work?

About three years ago, my husband and I bought a bungalow in Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. Since growing up in Texas, rockaway beach is the first place where I have felt like part of a community and I am so inspired by the people around me. We are right off the beach and the Jamaica Bay, so the light is really beautiful too.

If you were not a commercial photographer, what other professions could you see yourself exploring?

Ever since I was a little girl, I thought Gilda Radner's gig on SNL was the job for me. I even took an improvisation acting class. It was so hard.

When was the first time you felt like a professional photographer?

It has been a gradual progression getting to where I feel confident about my photography in regards to shooting something and getting what I want out of the shoot, and also knowing what kind of photos I like to take and how to achieve them.   Having said that, I still feel extraordinarily fortunate to be able to make a living doing something I enjoy so much.

What was the most fun you have ever had on set at a shoot?

One very fun shoot that comes to mind was for the Bahamas Tourism Board. The people were a lot of fun and we got to travel all over the Bahamas which are beautiful, and eat delicious food, stay in lovely places.

What is the most interesting subject matter of a shoot you have encountered thus far?

Dr. Atala for MIT's Technology Review. He managed to grow a working bladder from adult stem cells. He reminded me of Mr. Bean.

Who are your favorite artists? What about photographers specifically?

When I first started taking pictures I was really influenced by Larry Sultan's book, Pictures from Home  and Nick Waplington's, book Living Room. I had been photographing my family and friends, just trying to feel out the camera, but didn't see the validity in taking those photos (until I saw photos of their family and friends).

To you, what is the most meaningful part of being an artist?

Hopefully being able to tell a story that should be told with my images.

What “rule(s)” do you live by?

Live in the moment and don't sweat the small stuff.  I'm really good at worrying about something that may or may not happen in the future, instead of enjoying my great fortune in the present.

What inspires you?

Real life.

What in your past experiences has prepared you for what you do?

I've lived a life with some amazing highs and some pretty bad lows, and I think having experienced those ups and downs helps me connect with people I photograph better.

Who has inspired you the most along your journey?

My parents. I've learned so much from them. Turns out my mom was and still is right about 99.9% of the time.

If you could do anything differently, what would it be?

No regrets. This adventure is unfolding just like it should.

What advice do you have for any young aspiring artists?

It's very difficult to be an artist and survive because most artists aren't good at business and you have to be good at both, or have people around you who help you to be good at both. The other tricky part of being a working artist is staying true to what you like and not letting other people's opinions cloud that.


This is one of those shots that you just can't plan but is part of the beauty and magic of photography. My husband and I were trying out some the local Belgian beers in our hotel room and he was smoking and showing off making smoke rings. I was still shooting film and took only a couple frames. I was aware of the repetition of circles with his mouth, the smoke ring and the light but was very happily surprised when i saw that the person on the television also had the same facial expression as my husband. Again, it was one of those wonderful moments in photography where everything falls into place and that split second is captured.

This was for an ad job through Deutsch for the Alzheimer's medication, Exelon. They had modeled the ad from personal photos I had taken of my mother and grandmother. It was such an amazing project because creatively I was given an opportunity to draw from my own life experiences and create and intimate situation. So many people on the shoot discussed taking care of their parents and their experiences. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful ad jobs. The idea was to create a "day in the life of" for a woman taking care of her mother with Alzheimer's.

In Corsicana, I did a shoot for Texas Monthly about a correctional facility for kids 18 and under who suffered from mental health issues. I was unable to show their identities, which initially I thought would be a huge drawback, but in the end, it pushed me out of my comfort zone and created more compelling images captured in less conventional ways.

My husband and I were in Mexico on a surf trip. We went through this coconut farm almost everyday and every time I thought, "I really need to take a shot of these palm trees. They are so dramatic." But the beach was down the road and I was always anxious to get there or too tired on the way out. Finally the day was just too beautiful and I asked my husband to stop the car. I got out to take the shot of the road and the palm trees when suddenly he said "hold on a minute!" and drove away. I stood there as he drove off wondering what he was doing besides kicking up dust. He disappeared and I waited. Then all of a sudden I saw the car driving back and then I saw what he had envisioned in his mind and took two frames of the beetle driving toward me. I knew immediately that the shot would be beautiful and so much better with the perspective of the car. I like to say that my husband art directed the shot.

This is a favorite image from Rockaway. The waves get really good in the early Spring when it still is quite cold. This is right after a snow storm. The light was so beautiful with the snow and the bright red surfboard it just made for a visually dramatic image. I was so happy to have my camera to capture it.

I was so nervous about photographing Dr. Maya Angelou. I received a formal letter from her “people,” directing me on how to address her, what they considered to be proper attire, and other forms of appropriate etiquette to follow in her presence. After thinking it through, I opted out of taking an assistant and chose to take as little equipment as possible because I wanted to keep it simple. Arriving at her home in Harlem, I was escorted into her living room where I was left alone to set up. After a few minutes wait, Dr. Angelou came down the stairs with a wide smile and introduced herself warmly. She commented on my minimal amount of equipment sharing, “I like simple.” She was relaxed, but she was also very fragile and frequently took breaths from her oxygen tank. This image is the last shot of the last roll. It's a favorite because I feel it truly shows her energy and good spirit in her favorite room of her home. I think if I had lights and an assistant, I would have never achieved such a candid, intimate moment in the ten minutes I had her in front of the camera.