Natalie Nesser: A Day at the Beach

Natalie Nesser was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but has been living in the San Fransisco Bay Area for about 14 years. After high school, she had lots of starts and stops in the world from flight attendant to financial services, never feeling anything was the right fit, until deciding to explore her passion for photography and take it to a new level. Her work is on display at Stephen Bartels Gallery in London, as well as Visual Staging, Peter Michael Foundation and Studio 333 in Sausalito, California.

Q: Your beach pictures certainly show your evident fascination with shooting in this environment. What is it about the beach and the shore environment that you find so inspiring? Were all the beach pictures in your portfolio shot in the San Francisco area?

A: To me, there is something magical about the beach. It resets my bearings. It is awe-inspiring every time I go. I never tire of it.  Also, what I like about the beach is that it is a level playing field. Anyone can go to the beach. The beach does not judge you or have expectations of you. On a busy day at the beach you can look around and see a melting pot of people. So to me, the beach connects humanity. All of these images were taken at the same beach in Sausalito, California.

Q: On your website you state, “I am fun to work with, very creative and I can keep a secret.” Can you explain this and how it shows visitors who you are? Is it important that photographers be good secret keepers?

A: I am extremely camera shy and uncomfortable in front of the camera, and I am confident I am not the only one. So I try to create a level of comfort in the process by letting people know that it doesn’t have to be a stressful; it can be fun. The experience can be something you can enjoy creating and participating in. Anything goes really! Which leads to the secret keeping part … is it important? What do you think, haha?!

Q: What camera and equipment do you use? Do you have any preference for film or digital capture or are their certain types of subject that work better in each?

A: I use a Leica M3 with a 50 mm Summicron f/2 and a Leica M9-P with a 35 mm Summarit f/2.5.

I love how easy both camera are to take with me. I have one of them in my bag at all times. Although they are not necessarily easy cameras, it takes time and effort to develop a rhythm with them, they feel natural.  There is absolutely something distinctive about the way they render a subject. Tangible yet unexplainable. It is quite special.

I prefer film. The tactile elements suit me. But it is not always practical or affordable. And now with the M9-P I am not missing it too much. When I am struggling with inspiration or feeling discouraged about my work I will go out with my M3 and film and process it myself and it helps to bring me back to the beginning.

Q: All the images you presented here are in black-and-white. What is it that you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium for your kind of work? Which black-and-white film do you favor and do you do any traditional darkroom work?

A: I think it is the timeless feeling you get with black-and-white. For me, it allows more of the texture and emotion of the image to come through. There are color images I like and I will even try to shoot in color, but I am not drawn to it. It never sits right and then I convert to black-and-white and it just fits.

The film I like to use — Ilford Delta 100 or 400 or Ilford HP5 or FP4. Depending on what is in stock. I have been developing my film in my kitchen, using a dark bag and tank. Then I hang the negatives in my shower to dry and scan them into the computer. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to a darkroom right now and my scanner isn’t working so it’s a bit frustrating.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Susan Sontag put it quite nicely in her book, “… the idea of blurring the lines between art and so-called life, between objects and events, between the intended and the unintentional, between pros and amateurs, between the noble and the tawdry, between craftsmanship and lucky blunders.”

So I try to take things as they come, be flexible, enjoy the process instead of obsessing over the outcome. To allow the situation to guide me instead of fighting it and stressing about it. That will kill my passion for it, so I try to operate under the mantra of “things are what they are.” I try to expose the beauty in reality. I believe there is beauty to be found in everything if you keep an open mind and take the time to see it.

But it is hard. I do worry. I have very high expectations of myself and the end result, plus I want everything to be perfect so I feel like my approach is filled with contrast. I am not sure I could find a bigger critic of my work than me.

Q: I appreciate the brilliance of your Susan Sontag quote, and I agree that it relates to your work and says something about your creative process. However, you go on to say that “things are what they are,” but also that you are attached to the end result and that you have high expectations of yourself and are your own worst critic. Can you say something about how this tension manifests itself in your work, and how taking an approach that is “filled with contrast” works in actual practice?

A: I feel the tension and the high expectation keep me from being lackadaisical. I am constantly learning, studying technique, always looking to get better or learn something new. Having that anxiety or that critical edge keeps me on my toes. It helps me to be prepared mentally for what I am going to do and with my equipment. To think through the process and make sure that I have been responsible to prepare to the best of my ability and then whatever happens from there “is what it is.” That is when I allow the process to take over.

Q: There is a dreamy, misty quality to a few of your images. Can you say something about this technique and why you decided to shoot these images in this way, which give them a kind of timeless quality?

A: I like to over expose my images a bit so they have a dreamy quality. That is why I like the look of backlighting. It creates a feeling of abstraction too and keeps identifiable elements a bit mysterious. The thing about this beach is that with the way it is situated, it is easy to find that kind of lighting. It is often foggy too, my perfect situation.

Q: This image, dominated by a roiling sea with suggestions of land or rocks and sky in the background, is certainly a dramatic statement that gives you a feeling of actually being there. From what vantage point did you shoot this compelling image and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: There is an inlet that you can really only get to at low tide. I climbed in there as the tide was still on the low side and my dog followed me. I was leaning way back on a rock to try to get that low, almost in the tide perspective; I wanted to catch the tide coming in. It was very precarious. I was trying to hurry because I could tell the tide was changing but then the tide came in with a vengeance. So when I pressed the shutter I wasn’t even sure I got the shot because I was hit with the wave. I quickly put my camera up over my head and was trying to get back around the rocks to the shore without it getting wet. I thought my dog was gone and I was wet up to the top of my thighs. We all made it to safe ground and I was so happy with the picture.

Q: There is a random quality to this image showing groups of people in the foreground walling or standing on the beach. The figures and indentations in the sand are clearly defined, but the background is low contrast and kind of grayed out, probably due to the severe backlight. Does this image match your intention when you shot the picture, and what do you think it says to the viewer?

A: I am at this beach at least once, if not twice a week, in all kinds of weather. On this day, there were so many people. I had never seen this many people there, but it was an unusually hot day especially for a Bay Area beach. So I went to the opposite end from where I usually am because it was so crowded. And as I was sitting, watching, it was like a freeway of people walking down the beach going into and out of the fog. I wanted the image to feel like the people were going in and out of a dream; so keeping the foreground people clear and defined and letting them disappear into the unknown. The backlighting and fog worked to create that along with a shallow depth of field.

Q: This image with the dog in the foreground and the family group in the center with the man’s arms around his kids is a strong emotional statement. Were the people aware they were being photographed? Do you think that matters? And how do you think the foggy misty quality of the lighting and background help to make this a memorable image?

A: They were not aware of being photographed. The man in the center is my friend. He has been a friend for almost 30 years. He and his partner were visiting for the weekend and I brought them to the beach along with my daughter and dog. It was totally foggy and cold. It was amazing. Everyone was exploring and I had wandered off with my camera. When I came back to find them they were all walking close together, ahead of me, and it felt emotional so I waited, as to not intrude and to see what was going to happen, and then my friend put his arms around the others as they walked on and the dog stopped. I think my dog was watching over them yet at the same time hanging back to wait for me. I framed it so the dog would be in the foreground looking at them to help create that emotion.

I feel like when people know they are being photographed it changes something. I like to let the natural things happen. To wait for that special moment that you can’t contrive. You have to be that fly on the wall and have the patience to wait for them to relax and forget you are there.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, the next few years and do you plan to explore any other subjects, genres, or beaches in the near future? Have you considered acquiring any other lenses or experimenting with color?

A: Over the next few years I see my photographic style becoming more refined. I would like to develop a clearer vision of where I want to go with it. I am definitely planning on exploring some other beaches. I am trying to plan where I would like to go and how that can happen. I have some ideas for a series with people and also some abstract color ideas. As far as equipment, I am so content, I could not be more thankful for what I have. On a wish list? Maybe a 50 mm or 75 mm for the M9-P and a studio or workspace instead of my garage.

Thank you for your time, Natalie!

- Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Natalie on her website, Facebook and Twitter.