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Meet Shannon Howard

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shannon Howard.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?Honestly, my story of how I transitioned into a photography career is a somewhat long one of dreams and timing with quite a few twists and turns. Hopefully it’s worth the read if it inspires someone else who’s also in the middle of a roundabout voyage to finding and pursuing their passion!

I was drawn to photography as a hobby from a young age. I still remember running around my grandparents house at 5 years old with an empty Polaroid, pretending to photograph everyone and everything. I’d spend hours sitting by my grandfather’s bookcase while flipping through his National Geographic collection, completely in awe of the images and of the stories that they told about our world. In my teen years I rarely left the house without a camera. But honestly, it never occurred to me to pursue it as a career at the time. I actually wanted to work for NASA but discovered pretty quickly that math was not my forte and I that I was an artist at heart so I ended up pursing a career in music education. I directed middle/high school choral and musical theatre programs mostly in inner city/low income public districts for 10 years back east where I grew up. I loved it.

My journey into photography as a career really began after we made our first trip out here  to California in 2011. My husband fell in love with the west coast and asked how I felt about trying to relocate. I loved it out here too so we went for it. He was working for a company in Columbus, Ohio at the time that had a division located here in the South Bay so he applied for a transfer and got it. I resigned from my teaching position. However, the company suddenly restructured slightly and the job that he had taken with the LA branch was transferred back to Ohio so we were stalled. He continued applying but it was too late for me to get my teaching job back. I also didn’t want to chance taking a new job and then having to leave mid year if he got a transfer. The process took longer than expected and I love to work so I was going stir crazy.

One morning I picked up our household camera, went on a walk, and started shooting just for fun. But then I found myself doing it again the next day, and the next. Before I knew it, photography became a creative outlet and relief as we played the waiting game with our relocation. I eventually showed my photos to a close friend who suggested trying to sell a few of my images on Etsy. I thanked her for the vote of confidence but brushed it off with the belief that no one would ever buy my work in such a competitive market. Furthermore, I knew nothing at the time about printing, packaging, marketing, etc. She kept encouraging so I finally gave it a try. I did a lot of homework on running a shop, setting up policies, packaging, etc. I found a great local printer, did a lot of marketing, sold in a local art market, and joined The Artisan Group, which really helped with exposure. Much to my surprise it slowly started to take off. I was really grateful. I spent the next year throwing myself into shooting and researching everything I could about photography as well as business.

It took a year and half but we finally made it out here to the South Bay back in 2013. That’s when the real test began. As much as I loved teaching music, I had fallen in love with photography over that past year. I knew in my heart that I really wanted to continue growing as a photographer above all else with the hope of eventually teaching music on the side because I liked to rather than had to. My Etsy shop had taken off fairly substantially in that first year and continuing just felt right…that it was what I was meant to be doing for whatever reason. However, as we all know LA is expensive and I wasn’t at a point where I could just stay home and create. I also had to be real with myself that if I went back to teaching full time, I wouldn’t be able to fully devote myself to either profession at the level I wanted and that my professional and personal lives would both suffer. This meant being willing to work whatever side jobs I had to in order to pursue my dream. I ended up taking a full time contractor job working client relations at  a local automotive company, and later moved down to the technical department. (I actually grew up a bit of a motor-head so it was a fit.)

I still worked on my photography business every chance I had and saw some growth but nothing significant during that time. There were a lot of days filled with self doubt in that phase. At one point, I almost gave up and decided to try and pursue a career with the company. Even though my husband has a great job and is extremely supportive of my goals, I’m stubborn and want to pull my own weight in our household so I was frustrated with not being able to contribute financially as much as I felt I should. I enjoyed the auto industry enough and loved my coworkers there so I applied for a few associate positions but luckily they weren’t a fit. I’m glad that didn’t work out as my business finally made a jump in growth shortly thereafter.

Eventually I reached a point where I couldn’t sustain working 40 hours/week while staying up half the night packaging orders, client communications, marketing, editing, listing, etc. My husband encouraged me to follow my dreams so I took a leap of faith and resigned. I moved into a part time admin job at a local doctor’s office and began teaching a few piano/voice lessons on the side. The reduction in hours afforded me a lot more time to devote to photography and the risk was worth it as my business started growing faster than ever. After two more years I finally hit a point where I was able to leave the doctor’s office as well.

I now spend most of my days working photography although I still teach piano/voice a few days each week to supplement my income and also because I just really love it. I still have so far to go to get to where I want to be in my career but the journey so far has reinforced my belief that everything happens for a reason when it’s supposed to, risk and hard work can pay off, and above all, never ever give up pursuing your dream of doing whatever it is in life that you feel you’re supposed to be doing and that makes you happy.

Please tell us about your art.
As of right now, my photographic work is primarily centered around places and spaces rather than people although I hope to eventually branch out and tell more of the human story as I grow as an artist and in skill. I’ve always loved the beach, traveling, wandering through America’s great cities, and the outdoors so that’s where I started. I have a wine and coffee series as well… two things that I also very much so like, haha. I love Santa Fe Photographer William Clift’s philosophy on how to grow in this art form: “Photograph what you love first, then photograph what you don’t understand, and then photograph what you don’t like. If you photograph what you don’t understand or like, you’re using your medium to understand, which causes a reaction and that reaction gives you and your work energy.” In truth, I’m mostly still in the “photograph what I like” phase but am excited to eventually move beyond that.

I still sometimes don’t know what I’m doing in the moment…I think that’s part of the growing and learning process though and as an artist it’s important to be real about it. Being self-taught, I have a lot of catching up to do on technical knowledge so I frequently work off of intuition. I shoot from the hip and go with my gut a lot, which leads to making some important creative decisions in the review and post-processing sessions. Some of my photographs that I feel are most alive were spontaneously shot out a car window or may have been the result of experimentation or pure accident. Others were planned and intentional. There’s a fair mix of both. In truth, I still end up with a lot of terrible shots but I try to learn from those in hopes of them becoming fewer and farther between.

My goal up to this point has really been to create pieces that uplift people, and that help them to simply feel great in their space. I want the images to feel alive… to capture the energy and unique details of the setting/subject and to evoke a sense of place, mood, and feeling for the viewer that creates a personal connection to the images. There’s so much beauty around us but we often rush through it and miss many of the nuances that make our world magical. I try to slow down and catch these moments, then bring them to life with my lens and through use of color, light, and composition. I don’t think this approach is going to change when it comes to my landscape, travel, and still life work but I’m also starting to take more of an interest in storytelling through photography and evoking different types of feeling through imagery. I’m looking forward to exploring that. Long term, I really want my work to have a positive impact on others in some way. For now that may be by just making them feel good, or by bringing back great memories of a place or time for them. Hopefully I can someday add educating through photography and shining a light on the human condition into the mix. I’m still figuring out what that looks like in the long run though.

As an artist, how do you define success and what quality or characteristic do you feel is essential to success as an artist?
Obviously there is a business and financial component of success reflected in the exposure/sales aspect of the industry and whether your work is actually making it into people’s homes, businesses, etc. No matter how creative you may be, realistically you can’t have an impact on others if no one is seeing your work so you do have to pay attention to that side of it and include it in your measurements of progress if you want to continue creating for a living.

Business aside though, I think my ultimate definition of success an artist in any medium comes down to whether or not we’re moving people in some way. Do we make them feel something—anything—with what we do, be it happy, relaxed, curious, intrigued or whatever? Do we uplift and/or inspire others with our work? Can we as artists take them back to a moment that meant something to them or can we encourage them to learn more about something or even to visit a new place? Do they connect or relate to our art? I measure this by my audience’s reactions to my work. I love it when a customer reaches out and shares why they connected with a piece on a personal level. That’s what it’s all about from my perspective. Of course, web stats, sales, and feedback are also forms of reaction so the business aspect really does go hand in hand with the inspirational side.

I believe that one key to success is never quenching the hunger to proactively grow and learn. For me, it’s making a commitment to consistently attack my art with passion and realizing that if I ever feel like I’ve “arrived” then I’m probably due for a career change. I feel it’s recognizing the importance of striking a balance between humility, confidence, surrender, and faith. That includes putting ourselves out there as artists, being vulnerable, human, and taking constructive criticism, which is scary, but which I feel is essential to growth.

The other key component is a willingness to put in the work. As I said before, I have A LOT to learn. Never hiding that. This often translates to not sleeping as much as I should, lol, although I do believe a work-life balance is also instrumental to progress. But honestly, I knew that I was going to have to do some grinding to get anywhere. There are a lot of late nights/early mornings spent editing and reading photography books/articles/business literature. I hit as many of the city’s fantastic museums, galleries, art shows, and photog exhibits as I can. Studying the work of others is so important to growth. If I’m standing in line at the post office or grocery store or there’s a commercial break in a football game, I’m usually scrolling through Instagram and studying the accounts/images of the many talented photographers that are out there. I also love talking to other artists of all experience levels and hearing their stories… we can learn so much from one another when we really listen to each other. Although I’ve been fortunate to have had small successes up to this point, I have a long road ahead so I’m hoping that these steps are putting me on the right track for the future.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
Currently I’m still selling my art prints exclusively online through Minted, Etsy, and a few on Amazon Handmade. I’m also preparing to launch my own print shop on my personal website by the end of the year. I have one piece that was picked up by Pottery Barn Teen and another available at West Elm as a result of Minted’s partner design challenges. My image galleries can be viewed on my website, which also includes links to my various print shops. I hope to do shows, festivals, and exhibits some day but honestly haven’t pursued that as of yet as I’ve been so focused on learning and growing up to this point. When I apply for an exhibition or set up a booth at a show, I want to do it right and I just don’t feel ready yet. Soon though I think!

My Instagram feed showcases a different body of my work. It’s become a platform for me to experiment photographically and a place of self-expression and storytelling through imagery and words without worrying about whether it will transfer well into print from a technical standpoint. It’s essentially my photo journal but I hope that it inspires others in some way, if only to feel a bit more uplifted for that half second that they see an image before scrolling on. I love connecting with locals as well as with people from all around the globe through IG so I always welcome others to follow along and to reach out!

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Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Patricia M Perman

    August 26, 2018 at 16:19

    Loved reading Shannon’s full story. Great questions and insightful answers. I walked away with two pieces of helpful advice I need to apply 🙂 always appreciate that. This is a cool publication… need to read some more interviews.

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