LaRae Lobdell is one of Seattle’s treasures. Known best, perhaps, as an on-air host for CreativeLIVE, Ms. Lobdell also runs Photo Sister, where she specializes in photography and social media for bringing together community and industry in successful online interaction and branding connections. For the past year and a half, Ms. Lobdell has been on a project photographing the most renowned theater artists in Seattle. That project culminates on June 20th with her exhibit, Celebration!. A series of over two hundred photographs that occupies three floors of the Eagles Hall where ACT Theatre resides, Celebration! is a true labor of love that shows not only the depth of Ms. Lobdell’s photographic talents, but also her incredible generosity and dedication to this community that, to many Seattleites, is often mysterious or simply ignored.
I sat down with Ms. Lobdell a month ago as she was preparing the finishing touches on her upcoming exhibit. She is, in person, every bit as warm and lovely as I expected, with an infectious laughter and brassy manner that subtly conceals her sensitive humility.
Seattle Star: So you’re a photographer, right?
LaRae Lobdell: Yes! Well done, sir! (laughs)
Seattle Star: Let’s talk about your upcoming project at ACT in a bit. But first, tell me about CreativeLIVE?
LaRae Lobdell: CreativeLIVE is an amazing company started by Craig Swanson and partner Chase Jarvis. They basically bring in the top instructors in the world. They started out with just photography instructors, flying them into Seattle. to put on three day workshops that packed essentially a whole semester into the three day weekend course. They air the classes live on the internet to large audiences. I think the largest one was over 150,000 people watching. Basically they started with photography but now they’re branching out into business instruction and such. It’s an amazing platform and it’s interactive so people from around the world can go into three different chat rooms to communicate. I’m an on-air host, so I’m the point person between the internet audience and the instructor. I get so excited talking about it because it’s free knowledge, and it’s elevating the bar for people in so many areas. It’s amazing.
Seattle Star: How does your experience with CreativeLIVE relate to your larger interest in social media?
LaRae Lobdell: Before I was with CreativeLIVE I was with a camera company called Blackrapid. I worked with them and ran all their social media globally. I took them from a small Seattle company to a trusted worldwide brand. So I had that momentum going for social media, with connections to other people in social media as well. When I moved over to CreativeLIVE it was a natural progression. More people now are interested in what I do with it and by extension with my own business. There’s more awareness. So when I post something, say, on my personal Facebook profile or my business page, I know that my audience is not only local around Seattle, but worldwide. I’m doing good with that information, too, and helping others.
LaRae Lobdell: It has been fantastic. I get to see what other people are doing, and I get to take what works for them and kind of use that in my own format. For my own social media, specifically for my theater project, I use it so that I can bring the entire community together, not just with individuals talking to other individuals about one project or one theater company talking to another theater company talking amongst themselves. I’m branching multiple theaters, multiple artists, multiple audiences, and not just theater-going audiences. Photographers, for example, who weren’t really interested in theater are now connected to theater artists, and different artists are now connected to other photographers. Naturally, industry follows. I always think of social media as a beautiful triangle, connecting individuals, community and industry. I’ll try to come down off my soapbox now. (laughs)
Seattle Star: Naw, stay. You look good up there. (laughs) Just don’t fall.
LaRae Lobdell: Well, if I never fall, I never learn, though. One of the biggest takeaways from these past fifteen, sixteen months is just that. Everybody falls. You have to risk to gain something but in doing so you will fall, just expect it. Craig Swanson from CreativeLIVE pulled me aside last year, talking to me about learning to fall gracefully. A lot of times I’m not so graceful. The trick, I guess, is not to fall the same way twice.
Seattle Star: You’ve been on this project for about a year and a half now. In that year and a half, have you found that your original idea for this project has changed, and if so, how?
LaRae Lobdell: Really, the personal project is so much bigger than I imagined originally. I was thinking originally I’d photograph, oh, twenty, maybe thirty people, over the year and a half. Not only has the scale grown, but also the way I approach it. I’m a lot better at the way I use the time I have with artists, though they can correct me if I’m wrong! (laughs) Originally I was just going to do a sort of mini lifestyles of individual artists series. Then as I talked with the groups they were in, I had other questions. What about two people in a shot? What about four people in a shot? And I thought, “Wow, I never thought about that. This is scary. I don’t want to do this. I have to do so much coordinating,” and so on. I mean, if you ask any photographer, shooting anyone you don’t know, total strangers–it’s kind of scary for me, because it’s all my responsibility to create that comfortable atmosphere and feeling for the subject. When you work with people who have come together for a show or as a group, it’s even harder, because I have to sort of break down that wall, intrude on the family so to speak, within a few minutes. I have to very quickly establish trust and be loved by everyone so that I can put them at ease and convince them that I do have their best interests at heart.
Seattle Star: As you establish with more pictures in the series and more reputation, has that become easier for you?
LaRae Lobdell: No, it’s become harder! From the technical aspect, yes, it has. It’s forced me to work faster, so now I work off a template for all my blog posts. I have an amazing intern now who has been with me the past few months and we’ve worked out a system. I upload the images to Dropbox, she puts them into the template and writes beautiful words for me, and times them for release on our content calendar. It definitely got to a point where I couldn’t keep up with it myself, because of the quantity, and I was spending all my time on it, around sixty hours a week, and then working at CreativeLIVE and then shooting weddings on the weekend all on top of that. So I’m very grateful that I can delegate that to someone I trust so much.
Seattle Star: If only there were twenty-five hours in a day…
LaRae Lobdell: I know. That’d be fantastic! (laughs) Going back to your last question about the project changing over time, I was just going to do individual portraits and found myself doing group portraits, still in a lifestyle vein, which is my style, but then people starting wanting concept photos and pre-production shots as well. At first, I was like, “I don’t know….” I like shooting the truth, you know, who the people really are, what people are really like off the stage. So there was some give and take with some of the theaters where I said, “Okay, I’ll shoot some off the stage and then I’ll take some with them in character–but I get to tell you what characters you get to be!” I’ve been really lucky to work with great companies who have given me copies of the scripts before hand, so I can have my own opinion about the characters or the design, or they’ve given me a run-down of the scene they have in mind, and then all I have to do is fine-tune things. That changed. It made me grow even more. I thought, “Well, you don’t know till you try it,” and it turned out I liked it, and it’s definitely become part of the series.
Seattle Star: So let’s go back to the origin of the series. What was your original idea?
LaRae Lobdell: Quite a few things all happened at once. I was introduced by friends to a lot of people in Seattle theater. I had never attended theater and I didn’t know a whole lot about it. It’s been a great process to learn. Anyway, with my photography, marketing and social media background I was meeting all these people. I’d go see them in a play and I was just blown away. I wanted to know who they were and what they’re like outside, in life.
Then I would go to their website, only to find about 95% of the actors didn’t have a website. So then, being a social media girl, I’d wonder about their Facebook and Facebook business page. I was looking for branding, marketing–because that’s what I would do–and I found there was a missing link there. Most of the pictures the actors had were either selfies off-stage, or in character, in makeup, in costume onstage. I wanted to know the personal side of them, the real story. I wanted to know what they looked like, because I’m a visual person, a photographer, and that’s what makes me want to know other people. Maybe it’s just the voyeurism of our society. We want to see pictures of people, see their lives. That’s what drives us to be passionate about following an artist in anything they do. So I kind of took up that idea and I thought, well, let’s get these people some pictures, at least.
Too, I wanted to use all the skills I’d been learning at CreativeLIVE. All these instructors were teaching these amazing lighting techniques I needed to try out. I also wanted to work on my clothing shots, especially for men. Shooting weddings, I’m always with big groups, and with the guys I had only two go-to poses. So I needed to learn body styling for people and groups and their dynamics and all these things. It was really a matter of thinking, “Well, if I have to learn all these things, I could hire models but that would be boring and not challenging, because models already know how to pose.
Seattle Star: Right. They’re going to give you what they have already, so it determines what you can do with them.
LaRae Lobdell: Exactly. So I thought, well, I have all these amazing friends so maybe we can work on learning together. Tommy Smith was the first person I photographed, for White Hot. As soon as I started working with him, it came to me, “Oh wait, we’re working together; this isn’t just me.” I’m learning to direct, he’s willing to trust me. He would do things that I didn’t even think about so it was just great. So I had these photos and I’ve always been kind of bloggy, and I’m really into SEO that way. I was like, cool, I’ll do a blog feature, Facebook, Twitter–cool! It became like a premium package everytime, coordinating the posts with their opening shows and so on. But the main thing has always been to keep it about the person. The elevation and publicity for the play and/or the theater itself is just a by-product of that.
Seattle Star: You started with a group of technical concerns, then, that became a kind of excuse to engage in this collaborative art. I understand that part well enough. All artists do that–set themselves some technical goals, apply some limitations, and create new work that way. If you were to talk about the series with a random stranger, what would you say it’s about?
LaRae Lobdell: It’s hilarious that you ask. I was just talking about that with someone yesterday, and saying, you know, I have no elevator pitch for this at all. I need to work on this. Maybe you can help me work on one! I’m not a writer. (laughs) Honestly, it’s about bringing individual artists in the theater community together within the industry.
Seattle Star: Now let me take the perspective of a non-photographer. Most people who look at photographs have a sort of “greatest hits” mentality. They don’t think about photographs as being part of a larger body of work, or even of a series, but rather as cool little isolated moments that don’t relate to anything else. In an exhibit, you have to work against that. On the level of a series, beyond the technical issues, what’s your idea for assembling the pictures as a narrative?
LaRae Lobdell: The entire collection?
Seattle Star: Yes.
LaRae Lobdell: That’s an excellent question. It’s at the tip of my brain, because I’m having to think about that right now. Touring the building at ACT Theatre, the Eagles Hall, I have three floors to display almost two hundred images. I’ve been thinking about how to tell a story in this building, how to collect it. It’ll be one image of every person from each shoot. I will try to get two or three people from each play in smaller collections within the larger collection. I’ll probably group all of the men of White Hot together, for instance, and all the characters of the Ramayana shoot, since they’re concept shots. It’s quite hard, because there’s such a diversity in my work. One half is natural portraits of people in a natural environment, being themselves. In the other half there are these controlled editorial shots. Yet they’re both mine.
Thinking in terms of the display at ACT, I’m leaning toward floor by floor display, with the natural environment shots on one floor and the more editorial work on another floor. And some big pictures for display of course. Buy, buy, buy! (laughs) I’m also rethinking and rebranding the website, which should happen the same week, if not the next day, as the exhibit. It’s a lot of hard work to do a web version of the series in a portfolio form, too, because you can’t have two hundred pictures in a series on the web. You lose people too quickly. After 30-60 seconds, they’re either interested in you or not. I want to include everyone, of course, but it’s not going to happen.
Seattle Star: That’s a very tough call, for sure. But knowing you, I’m sure it will be amazing.
LaRae Lobdell: Oh, thank you. I hope you’re right!
LaRae Lobdell’s Celebration! exhibit of 200+ prints will be displayed over three floors of the historic ACT Theatre building in downtown Seattle through October 17th. The opening night gala is June 20th at 6:00 pm. The event is free, but you should RSVP here.