Moon Over Cheryl Fair
I am so excited to publish this Moon Over interview celebrating the work of Cheryl Fair. Even though we both are from Baltimore and ran in the same circles for many years and most likely attended many of the same events, our paths did not cross until I came to know of her unique photography from the internet and we became friends from mutual admiration. Anyone that has ever lived in Baltimore certainly knows that the concept of “six degrees of separation,” is more like half a degree in charm city. I have been so honored to get to know Cheryl, her astrological advise and her Magical Realism Tarot Deck have both been so valuable to me in the last month, that with my return to Maryland, on the top of my list of things to do is meet her in the flesh, knowing the conversation will most likely be empowering and to entice her to share her wisdom in a Red Tent, in Baltimore, one day soon. Here is Cheryl Fair in her own words…
How did you come to be a photographer, when did this medium call to you?I bought my first SLR when I was 27. It was a Pentax K1000 (all manual 35mm) and it felt like I’d been waiting all my life to use it. I was already designing and making clothes for musicians, and managing bands, so it was natural to start taking pictures of them. I still enjoy working with performers, in addition to my portrait and fantasy photography.
A few years later, I moved to Los Angeles and upgraded to Nikon equipment. When I got my first Nikon (FM) I was obsessed. I had a photography related day job, a part time job as a photographer’s assistant, and continued to work freelance. By working in a camera store in Studio City, and bringing my portfolio to work with me, I was able to learn quite a bit about the technical aspects of photography from some very high end professionals. Of course there are lots of people in L.A. who want their picture taken, so I got tons of practice.
By the mid 80’s I was back in Baltimore (my mother had become ill and I came back to help her). I started shooting little scenarios that I made up, using my friends as models, and became interested in time-based art forms. I thought that if I went to college for filmmaking that I would have access to film equipment, so even though I was beyond the normal undergrad age I went to UMBC as a full time art student. That turned out to be a good decision. I was able to use what I already knew about photography, learn new things, meet wonderful people, and borrow equipment. I continued to shoot stills for publications, as well as for models portfolios, actors, and musicians, while I was in school.
I had also begun working at a recording studio in Baltimore, (owned by George Hagegeorge, who is now my husband) where I got the opportunity to meet more musicians who wanted album covers, promo photography, and music videos. I was making music videos and short films on super 8 movie film, transferring it to video and then editing in video. This was an innovative thing at the time.
You also delve heavily in digital media; can you explain how this has changed your work? I started using Photoshop in 1993. I was shooting on film and processing and printing my work in a darkroom, then would scan the prints into digital files and manipulate them. I was always into “darkroom tricks” to change the images, so Photoshop just seemed like one more great tool to help me get what I wanted out of an image.
I first started seriously using digital cameras to shoot photos of people in 2008. I found the digital images to be disappointing and felt the need to do something about it, rather than go back to film, because not only was film expensive, but the darkroom chemicals had begun to make me ill. The digital images showed so much more than we see when we look at a person…all of their “flaws” showed and the subtlety of mood seemed to disappear. I want to present things as I see them in my mind’s eye, so I had to digitally manipulate the photos to make people look the way I see them. It didn’t take long for me to go full out fantasy with it. I figured “I’ve changed the original this much, why not go all the way?”
The thing is though, that I like to keep enough of the “real” in the images to make them seem like they might be reality. That’s why I start with a photograph rather than a drawing. I love it that the photograph makes the image seem like real life. There are fantasy artists and photographers who make images that have no sense of earthly humanity in them – I can appreciate the beauty of that, but don’t want to do that myself.
What are your thoughts and feelings on being a female artist? Do you think this is an additional challenge culturally? In some ways I think that expressing oneself as an artist is easier for women, but then when it comes to being taken seriously as an artist and making a living as an artist, it is more difficult for women.
When I first became a photographer, photography was primarily a male world. I mean, there were some other female photographers, but most opportunities for photographers were still under the control of men who would rather see a male point of view, and wanted a man with a camera to do the job. Filmmaking is the same. It’s still a boys club to some extent. How many high budget directors are women? What percentage of photojournalists are women?
It gets especially complicated when it comes to making images of women, and the male vs. the female gaze. I’ve known male photographers who were excellent with other subject matter, but when it comes to photographing women, they lose their perspective (figuratively and literally!) Even now, most of the images of women we see on a daily basis are from a male perspective. This is why it’s so difficult to broaden the public perception of what a beautiful woman looks like.
You have magical and dark themes that prevail in your work, what inspires this aesthetic? We all have a dark side but most of us hide it, or even try to ignore it, but it is part of the balance of life, and one “safe” way to explore that dark side is through art. I have always been attracted to dark themes, and themes that go beyond the mundane world. I naturally put my own sense of magic into my images.
I’ve always believed that the best art is both extremely personal and universal. Everyone, including me, has their own struggles and tragedies. Some of us have had nightmarish things happen to us, and survived. For me, making images is part of a healing process for the psyche. Interestingly, the people in the photographs have often expressed that same feeling, at the end of the photoshoot. One reason that I go with classic and archetypal themes so often is because I think it will give the viewer an opportunity to heal themselves through whatever emotions the image brings to their mind. I guess that’s a pretty lofty goal for a simple photograph!
How does living in Baltimore as an artist affect your work? Baltimore is like a small town in many ways, and the creative community is very accessible. It really is “Smalltimore.” Knowing so many talented people who will collaborate with me is great! Also, Baltimore is a very photogenic place, with grit and grandeur everywhere; both classic and modern architecture, bricks, cobblestones, wrought iron, water, lots of green space and trees and even rocky hills and (small) mountains aren’t very far away.
I think the biggest limitation in Baltimore is a lack of genuine patrons. We need more people who will actually buy the art, for a decent price. It sometimes feels as if we have the same bunch of artists who go to each other’s shows, and encourage each other, but very little in the way of genuine audience.
On one hand I am extremely grateful for this creative community and I love their work, and feel emotionally supported by them, but on the other hand, Baltimore can feel restrictive and small. One way that I break out of that feeling is to get commissioned work in other places. That way, I can get new input and inspiration, but still live in my hometown.
I know you do commissioned work, and have worked with musicians? How do you approach this work? Generally, people hear about me and they contact me by email, facebook, or even twitter or text. We start a dialog about concepts, budget, and scheduling. Location is a big factor, so if the client is in Baltimore, or will come to Baltimore to work with me, we can do more with less money. If I need to travel for the job, we factor that into the budget. We set a date and the client sends a deposit. I review the material (if it’s for music or a book, for example) and ask more detailed questions about what the client wants/needs, and we come up with a general outline together. By the time we do the shoot, we are all on the same page and able to “go with the flow”. Pre-production and post-production are the time consuming parts. Actual camera time usually goes very quickly. An average photo shoot takes less than 2 hours.
I’m willing to travel almost anywhere for a shoot. Once I have something booked outside of Baltimore, I try to get other shoots in that location for the time that I’ll be there. This approach saves my clients money, because I can spread the cost of travel over several jobs, rather than one client paying for the entire trip. Building relationships with people in other places has been one of my favorite parts of what I do.
I always edit at home, so if I’ve traveled for a shoot, I strictly concentrate on shooting while I’m on location and then edit like a fiend when I get home. I edit and send the final results electronically. I choose the final images (I don’t show clients contact sheets, or raw footage) and send the client completely edited work. I’m really flexible about doing what the client wants, but I am going on the premise that they like the style of my work and have hired me because they want my vision of them/their project. The fact is, that there are a gazillion photographers out there, so they must like my work, or they wouldn’t bother connecting with me. There has to be a certain degree of trust between us. I work quickly – still photos are ready in less than two weeks (usually less than a week). Video projects depend on the complexity of the project.
Communicating via the Internet and social networking is essential to my process. All of my business is by “word of mouth”, but that means something entirely different than it did when I first started. When I lived in L.A. in the early 80’s Henry Diltz (a photographer who took some of the most iconic photographs of musicians during the 1960’s and 1970’s) looked at my portfolio and was very encouraging. He said “Just hang out with your friends and take pictures of them; that’s what I did.” I pretty much followed that advice and it’s worked for me. (Of course Henry Diltz’s friends included a lot of rock stars.) It’s still kind of like that. Over the years I’ve connected with many fantastic people, as clients and friends. They recommend me to their friends and acquaintances, and so on. it’s genuine social networking. My clients are my best advertising.
What are your thoughts or spiritual beliefs on Divine Feminine? I believe there is an equal balance between the masculine and feminine forces and that nothing works correctly without both. Over the past several thousand years, organized religion has tried to erase the divine feminine, giving all power to a male creator-god, but it makes no sense, and both men and women are lost because of the imbalance. Following the seasons, paying attention to the elements and seeing that there is definitely a “time for everything under heaven” is what makes sense. I believe that honoring the feminine as well as the masculine is necessary for both men and women to feel spiritually complete.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how does that integrate into your work? Yes. I am a feminist and I don’t understand how anyone can believe that we don’t need feminism, or that feminism isn’t relevant in today’s world. The world is out of balance and we need feminism, to begin to set things right. [My work is an expression of who I am, so of course my feminist attitudes come out in my work. I think this is especially noticeable in my images of women.
Last year you released the Magical Realism Tarot Deck, this must have been a huge undertaking. How did you approach this project spiritually and artistically? Although I first started to make my own tarot deck during the late ‘80’s, I put the project aside until a few years ago. Once I re-started the project it took about two years to complete the images and get the deck published. I only shot one color photo in 1989, for the first tarot series (I was working mostly in black and white at the time) and I used it in the Magical Realism Tarot. It’s the Empress photo of Juli Moon (an extraordinary tattoo artist and close friend). I reworked it digitally in 2014, to fit in with the rest of the deck.
I am a professional astrologer, and also work with tarot. The two systems are very different from one another, but I use both. I started using tarot cards when I was 18 and always loved the images on various tarot decks. I enjoyed the challenge of using my artistic style to illustrate the archetypal images on the cards and thought it would be a great art project. I ran an astrological chart on each model to see how their basic nature fit with the archetype they portrayed.
I also wrote the booklet that goes with the deck and had to think about the meaning of each card, in detail. Having to break it down, and write about it is quite different from knowing the meanings when doing a reading. The whole process required quite a bit of self-discipline.
What did you learn about yourself during the project? In addition to the project reinforcing some things I already knew about myself (that I like to direct challenging projects, that I work best with other creative people) I got a big lesson about myself, by playing one of the roles in the deck. My friends and my husband told me from the beginning that I should play the High Priestess. I was hesitant. I thought it seemed a bit egotistical to appear in my own deck, and also was a little afraid to claim that energy for myself. I asked another woman to play the part. Shortly after I finished editing the image, but before the deck was complete, she told me that she was uncomfortable with it. I thought that was quite odd, but decided not to use her image, since she wasn’t comfortable. I also realized that my husband and friends were right, and that I should play the role myself. I made the costume, did my hair and makeup, and was going to use a timer to shoot the picture, but my husband said that he would “push the button”, once I had the shot set up. We quickly did the shoot and I had the narcissistic pleasure of photoshopping myself. It was really fun! Playing the role of The High Priestess made me contemplate the real life role of “wise woman” that is part of aging. I realized that the original model I’d used for the part was actually too young to play that archetype and that it is important to take your place in society as you age. This experience actually inspired a new project that I’m working on now. (see the question about future projects, below)
Being from Baltimore, I love seeing the familiar faces on some of the cards. Can you talk about some of the experiences in choosing models and working with them to create the deck? I used my friends and family as the models for the images in the deck. By knowing the people and looking at their astrology, I chose models that naturally embodied the concepts behind the character they were playing for the deck. The models are all creative people, and helped put together their own look for their archetypal character.
My artist friends helped me immensely with completion of the project. Paula Millet designed the borders and backs for the cards and did the graphic layout. Paula is currently working on her own tarot deck. Her daughter Lydia portrays The Moon in the Magical Realism Tarot.
Clarke Bedford created the metal sculptures that I used as the knights helmets, as well as the ‘Pentacle’ in all the pentacle cards. He also made the art car that we used as ‘The Chariot’. Clarke makes sculptures from found objects and is a photographer, actor and an amazing multi-talented artist. He also worked as a conservator for the Hirschorn for over thirty years, and modeled for The Hermit shortly after his retirement. Of course he made his own costume for the part. When I said that I was looking for a young red-haired man to play the Knight of Wands, Clarke brought in his son Tim.
One of my favorite collaborators, Jay Calvert was the model “driving” Clarke’s art car for The Chariot card. I’ve been working with Jay for a number of years making both still images and film/video. Jay always seems to understand what I want from an image and portrays his role perfectly, while making it look effortless.
Rae Beth of Rae Beth Designs created the crowns for the Queens in the deck. Rae Beth also designed and made the headpieces that she and her sister Paige are wearing on the Wheel of Fortune card. Theirs was the one shoot that was not specifically set up for the Magical Realism Tarot. We had one of those days together that just felt magical, and when I saw how the images turned out, I knew that they should be on the Wheel of Fortune card.
Hollie Chantiles is the Page of Wands for the deck, and did the face painting for the character Death. Hollie is a painter who graduated from MICA. The “Death shoot” was one of the most lighthearted, fun sessions of the entire deck. George Hagegeorge is a Scorpio and was perfect for playing the role of Death. George also helped with some of the photo shoots, did the proofreading for the deck, and was extraordinarily supportive throughout the entire process.
I asked Harry McKenzie, who plays the Hanged Man, to do the part way back when I was first thinking of doing a deck, over 20 years ago. He said yes then, but we never did the shoot. By the time we did the shoot in 2013, he was older, and actually better for the part (which is basically, Odin). He’s a martial arts instructor and had no problem hanging from the tree by one leg. He’s also studied the Norse myths and is very knowledgeable about the role he was playing. Harry is married to my beautiful friend Tracy McKenzie, who played The Star. Tracy is a very spiritual person and a brilliant hairdresser, with an incredible sense of style. We did her shoot in about 10 minutes, on the median strip on Spring Lake Drive. The dress was too long, so we just lopped it off with a pair of scissors while she was wearing it, did a couple of quick shots and were on our way, before any of the local residents even noticed us. Tracy and Harry’s daughters are also in the deck. Anlara plays Strength and Orlagh plays The Page of Cups. When we did the Strength shoot, the family dog was a stand in for the lion (which I added in post production). The only person in the McKenzie family who isn’t in the deck was their son Colum, because he was simply the wrong age/size to play any of the characters, at the time.
Several burlesque performers were models for the deck. Maria Bella is the founder of Gilded Lily Burlesque and also plays the trumpet. I immediately thought of her to play Judgement because of the trumpet. When I contacted her about it she said “Oh, have you seen my Judgement routine?” I didn’t even know she had a Judgement routine, and was totally blown away! She put on the costume from her act and we went to a cemetery, doing the shoot in about 20 minutes. We had lunch and discussed the concept and how it fit her life circumstances so well at the time. Judgement is one of my favorite images in the deck.
Jonathan Mayo is a Leo, who portrays The Emperor to perfection. He is a wild and crazy musician and a wonderful accountant who works with a lot of artists. Jonny was totally prepared for his part and brought a crown that had been given to him by a friend who won it in a drag king competition.
Skizz Cyzyk is a musician and filmmaker who was my first choice for The Magician. A couple of Skizz’s bandmates are also in the deck. The Devil and his minions are played by Chris “Batworth” Ciattei, John Irvine and his artist wife Kelly Scannell Irvine. Kelly and John have an extensive collection of mid-century clothing and accessories and played the perfect 1950’s materialistic couple, in bondage to the Devil. Skizz’s partner, my friend Jen Talbert helped costume Skizz and also provided the fabulous red vinyl jacket that Batworth wears as the Devil.
Casting the parts was similar to casting a narrative film, and I very much enjoyed the process. All of the shoots took place in Maryland or Massachusetts. Some of the images have both places represented. For example, the Queen of Cups was played by Mourna Handful and shot in Baltimore, but the background is a shot I did of Nahant beach in MA. Each image is a collage, using my own photographs, except for the occasional public domain image, when I needed one to fill in a detail.
If you had any advice to give to other women on what you have learned in this world, what would be the most important message to convey? Know your own worth! Be realistic about it. Don’t just say “I’m great” with nothing to back it up, but know that you have something to offer the world and that it has a value. Also, please stop worrying about being pretty enough! You are attractive in ways that you will never understand. Attractiveness is subjective and changeable, so just make sure that when you look in the mirror, it looks like you…like you are expressing yourself and not somebody else’s idea of what you should be. There is an old song lyric and I can’t remember the title, or who did it, but it said “Don’t give it away, if he don’t appreciate it” and I think that’s awesome advice…it works for business, family, and love, and for dealing with both men and women.
What are your plans for this upcoming year? What is brewing in the cauldron? I’m getting ready to start the final phase of production on a music video/short film with Dreamchild, a duo from Boston MA. We completed the first phase of production in Boston in December 2015 and will be doing the final phase in Spring of 2016.
I also began The Crone Project in January 2016 and am continuing to work on that. This is an exciting project that seems to be growing into more than just a photo series. I’m working with women over 50 on archetypal portraits that represent facets of crone-hood. So far it’s been fascinating! I’m in the early stages of planning a workshop for women that includes portraits like these, where women can get in touch with their own entry into crone-hood. I think that one reason that people dread aging and are embarrassed about their age is because the images we see everywhere give us nothing to look forward to. We are encouraged to think that there is not much left after menopause except invisibility, loneliness, illness and death. Another approach I’ve seen is to present older women as caricatures; as “cougars” or “these old women are hotties too”. I think this version is also kind of insulting. Frankly, I haven’t seen many depictions of women who are middle aged and beyond that I like, so I decided to create my own images and put them out into the world.
CHERYL FAIR is a photographer/filmmaker whose photographs have been published internationally in magazines, newspapers, blogs, and books, as well as on album covers and posters. Her short experimental films and music videos have been shown in film festivals, on public and cable television, in art galleries, and performance venues. Cheryl comes from a family background of card divination, and is the creator of the Magical Realism Tarot deck. She is also a professional astrologer, and has been interpreting natal, transit, and relationship charts for clients for more than 25 years. Cheryl holds a B.A. in Visual Arts from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and a Juris Doctorate from The University of Baltimore School of Law.
Link and Websites:
Cheryl Fair Photography website
The Magical Realism Tarot website’
Cheryl Fair Art Etsy site
The Magical Realism Tarot on Amazon
Cheryl Fair Photography on Facebook
Magical Realism Tarot on Facebook
Magical Realism Tarot channel on YouTube’