South Pas Teacher Sweeps Photo Contest

Apr 13, 2009

The first graders at Marengo School in South Pasadena know her as Ms. McNulty, a fun and funny teacher. But the attendees at the recent Professional Photographers of California 2009 Expo (held at the Pasadena Civic Center) know her as Suzanne McNulty the winner — as in the winner of 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the Expo’s ProPhoto West Competition. A clean sweep — not bad for a first-grade teacher. Colleen Bates talked to Suzanne about photography, creativity and Pasadena. 

tk, 1st place winner at ProPhoto West, by Suzanne McNulty

Eyes to the Future, 1st place winner at ProPhoto West, by Suzanne McNulty

My ethics as a journalist require that I reveal that we’ve been friends since the age of 7. So for a lot of years I’ve known just how creative you are: I saw you star in grade-school and high-school plays, make gorgeous jewelry (I’m currently wearing a turquoise and silver ring you made in the 8th grade), heard you sing a thousand times, saw how hard you worked getting your MFA at UCLA in acting, and have heard raves about the creative way you’ve taught young children. Isn’t that enough creative expression for one lifetime? In short: Why photography?
I fell in love with photography when I was 16. I’d borrow my dad’s Nikon F and shoot unposed portraits of all my brothers and sisters, and then print my own black and white enlargements at Barnsdall Art Center in Los Feliz — the same place that handed me a blow torch as a young teen and taught me how to solder sterling silver, hence my jewelry buiness. It still amazes me that those opportuniies were available to me then. I studied photography again at Orange Coast College when I was an undergrad at UC Irvine.
      Why now? One day I was looking at the pictures I’d taken of my first graders — I make a yearbook with photos at the end of each school year — and the portraits really struck me. People have always asked me how I manage to capture the spirit of the child and not their “school smile.” I think that’s my favorite part of the process.

Although you shoot beautiful landscapes, your real strength seems to be with people. What do you look for in a face when photographing it?

The Old Woman of Tunisia, 3rd place winner at ProPhoto West

The Old Woman of Tunisia, 3rd place winner at ProPhoto West, by Suzanne McNulty

I do love travel photography, but with me it usually ends up being about the people. One of my idols is Steve McCurry, the National Geographic photographer who took that iconic shot of the Afghan woman with the green eyes. He talks about waiting for the unguarded moment when their essential soul peeks out. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Do you use Photoshop? How extensively do you edit your shots? 
I use it on everything, and I can spend 20 minutes or 20 hours working a shot. I dragged myself kicking and screaming into the digital world, and now I doubt I’ll ever go back to film.

How did you acting inform your teaching?
I think all the best teachers are performers — entertainers who are sensitive to their audience. You’ve gotta know if they’re with you and how to get them back if you lose them. There’s a lot  of power in silence, and one’s first instinct is to increase the volume when working with kids — it took a few years to learn that one!

Suzanne McNulty

Suzanne McNulty

And how did your acting, jewelry making and teaching inform your photography?
Acting’s about emotion and telling a story. Jewelry is about beauty and composition. And teaching is about how to make kids comfortable and relaxed.

You’ve always had an eye for visual beauty. What’s the most beautiful spot in Pasadena?
There are just too many beautiful places here! It’s all about the light. There’s a walk I take with my dogs ending on Mendocino east of Allen, at twilight. The curve of the palm tree-lined street… the orange-red light hitting the mountains right there, so close — it’s got this quintessential old California craftsman feel that I’d love to figure out how to capture someday.

You can learn more about Suzanne’s photography work at

10 Responses for “South Pas Teacher Sweeps Photo Contest”

  1. Altadenablog says:

    Suzanne was my daughter’s teacher (she’s going into 9th grade now), and we remember her as fun and creative. We had no idea! So glad she’s finding success!

  2. crsn2u says:

    Suzanne, your work is beautiful and inspiring! Makes me want to pick -up a camera again.

  3. allison says:

    Suzanne is so gifted – not many individuals can do what she has accomplished.

  4. I met Suzanne in 1993 while working as a guidance counselor at Allendale Elementary School in Pasadena. She is one of the most creative, intelligent, generous and interesting people I have known. I am thrilled that she is receiving accolades for her photography. She captures something wonderful in all her photographs. Her website is absolutely amazing.

  5. Tracey Mallett says:

    Suzanne you’re so talented, we feel so fortunate that my daughter has you as her teacher. I’m so happy you’re finding success with your passion for life.

  6. A Vineyard says:

    Suzanne is an amazing photographer who creates beautiful art and lasting memories.

  7. Suzanne, Here at ProPhotoWest Magazine and Pro Photographers of California were excited that we were able to award you 1st, 2nd and 3rd place metals and ribbons (Ribbons are on there way to join the metals that you already received). It was a pleasure to Judge your work!!

    I also comment you on your other Awards of Merit from Pro Photographers of California, outstanding – competing against the best Pro Photographers in the State, if not the nation!

    Steven Roosa, Ph.D.Co-Editor, ProPhotoWest Magazine

  8. Petrea says:

    Wonderful portraits. I think there’s a particular talent to getting a great shot of a human. Photographing a stationary object poses problems, but you can move around, try different angles, etc. A human changes position and emotion, and you just have to be ready.

  9. HON says:

    Dear Suzanne,
    It’s 11 pm and I just saw your website, and am kicking myself all over the place. Taylor’s just delivered some of our pictures (I mentioned having my husband & myself taken for our 50th anniversary @ Rosaria’s party). The whole delivery and pics are (for me) quite unsatisfactory. I WISH I had known of your work before we had them taken.
    Wishes come too late!!!
    Your work is lovely…such an understatement! HON
    ps. I’m not sure what you mean by mail?
    pps: I KNEW I liked you. I retired after 25+ years of teaching … K- 7th!

  10. Bonnie Blake says:

    What a great article. And gorgeous portraits. A very inspiring biography!



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