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.
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?
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!
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 suzannemcnultyphotography.com.