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Meet Trailblazer Melissa Coulier

Today we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Coulier.

Melissa, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born and raised in Livingston, Montana, a rural, creative town tucked away in the Rocky Mountains. I am one of four kids. My Dad was a lumberjack, and my Mom was an Author and stay-at-home-Mom. Due to the nature of my Father’s line of work, our family of six would spend the summers in the woods. This was where creativity and imagination were forced. My Grandmother gifted me a camera at age 11, and I quickly developed a love for photography. I used my siblings as my subjects for portraiture and tree bark for abstracts.

I was introduced to 4-H shortly after I received my camera. They offered photography. I eagerly submitted the maximum entries each year for fair. Later on, I was fortunate enough to be able to help others channel their passion for photography, mentoring other young 4-H’ers. During my high school years, I took my first photography class, joined yearbook, and started my career. I photographed weddings and senior portraits. A photography career fell into two categories in Livingston: family and wedding photography and wildlife and landscape photography. I loved working with people, so I knew the second option was out. However, the first option didn’t meet my dreams either. I was magazine obsessed and knew that someone was behind the lens of that breathtaking imagery that covered the glossy pages. “How can I get there? How can I do this?” I started asking myself these questions on a daily basis.

I chose to attend Spokane Falls Community College in Washington state based on affordability, and I had heard someone from the SFCC went on to photograph for National Geographic. My exposure to creative success had been next to none. Studying photography made me realize how little I actually knew and how much I needed to learn, in order to get to where I wanted to be. I was driven to put myself in positions to gain more knowledge about the artist industry. The opportunity to study abroad presented itself to me. I worked three jobs and wrote letters to friends and family asking for sponsorship. To my surprise, it worked! I packed my bags, ready for an adventure, and left for Florence, Italy for a semester.

In Italy, I was exposed to an entirely new side of Art, culture, and creativity I never knew I was missing. I felt complete. I shot over 800 slides, 50 rolls of film and even learned to draw (sort of). Soon following my return to the states, I knew if I wanted to be a part of the portrait and advertising industry, I would need to make a move to Los Angeles or New York. I was living in Montana, sending out resumes, when I unexpectedly met my now husband at my then job. Coincidentally, he was an LA- based actor visiting friends, and it just so happened we became connected at first sight. My brother, Kyle, had recently moved to Los Angeles to be an actor, and now this new love interest of mine was in my life. Needless to say, it was pretty clear New York City was out. I boldly packed my belongings and moved to the sunshine state to chase my dreams. However, the first job I landed was anything but a dream. I was a receptionist at a wedding photography company. It paid little to no money, and the work environment was awful.

After months of searching Craigslist for other opportunities, I came across a digital capture company, Industrial Color. Their website was shiny and professional and filled with photographers I admired. After four rounds of interviews and being unqualified by five of their requirements, I was unexpectedly hired! I was beyond thrilled. I started as the Equipment manager packing Tech’s jobs. This job basically entailed picking up and dropping off rental equipment. Soon, I became a Jr. Digital Tech, then Jr. Producer, later Producer, moving into the Director of Operation’s role, all within a five-year span. It was at Industrial Color where I gained on-set experience and skills such as professionalism, leadership, co-collaboration, communications, relations and marketing. When I became Director of Operations, I was one of the youngest employees. The challenges that came with the job felt empowering. I was overall happy, even when exhausted from responsibility and daily chaos. Despite my happiness and creative fulfillment at Industrial Color, I soon learned of an unfortunate circumstance of pay inequality. It was brought to my attention that a few male co-workers working under me (who had been at the company for far less time than I) , were being paid more… significantly more.

With much self-debate and passion to pursue a career as a photographer, I took this as a sign and decided to leave my job. This bold move was a struggle. I naively thought the strong connections I had made at Industrial Color would carry me, but I quickly realized I had not yet earned a seat as a photographer in this ever so competitive industry. I started shooting and building my book. I partnered with Kyle (who had put acting behind him and now was a director and editor), and we created Bring Media. Bring Media was a multi-media company offering photography, video, and editing services. After three very tiring years of our blood, sweat and tears, we started to see profit. During the building years of Bring Media, I did whatever odd-end job to keep the company lights on. We were involved in event production, graduation photography, and even preschool photography. Bring Media was a great company and was finally doing well when I realized I was ready to move on and get back to my ultimate passion: Shooting. I was ready to prove to myself I could be a successful editorial and advertising photographer. My brother did everything in his power to make my goal a reality. Being the hardworking and supportive human he is, he took over the company fully. He began negotiating, assisting, and even teching for me. I mean, everything. I was finally gaining traction, and it was time for us to go our separate ways and focus on our own paths. We had traded tree bark for city lights.

Many events, cold calls, emails, career coaches, and photo festivals later, it started happening. I was seeing the fruits of my labor. Bookings were more regular, and my clients were more prestigious. Over a dinner conversation with friends, I signed with my friend, Jason, to manage and negotiate for me. 14 years in Los Angeles finally brought feelings of accomplishment and a clear path ahead. I’ve been hired for celebrity book covers, celebrity editorials, adverting and commercial work. Through working in this world of portraiture, I found my passion to work with kids and kids’ fashion, my main focus now. A few months ago, my husband purchased land in Michigan to call home someday soon, so we currently reside there. In the meantime, I am traveling back and forth to Los Angeles for work.

My clients include: Harper Collins, Cherokee Global Brands, Sanrio, Vogue Bambini, Tony Hawk Clothing, Point Cove Clothing and DaySpring.

Has it been a smooth road?
The photography industry is a competitive industry. It is similar to driving on unmarked country back roads. There are smooth gravel patches. Overall, it’s learning how to navigate one lane dead ends, pot holes, cliffs and weathered roads. I’ve run into many obstacles, and still do. I’ve had other’s claim my work. I’ve had clients use my images after usage agreements were lapsed. I’ve completed jobs out of pocket to learn they had gone bankrupt and was never paid. The most important lesson I’ve learned is, NEVER start a project without a signed estimate, usage agreement and deposit. Now that females have become a larger force in a male dominated industry, it’s important for you to trust your work, know your worth and fight for equal day rates.

We’d love to hear more about Melissa Coulier Creative.
Colorful, authentic and soulful are a few words I use to describe my work. Before the shoot starts, I like to spend time with my subjects. I want them to feel comfortable and trust me to capture authentic moments.

I specialize in children’s editorial and commercial work. I am proud to have had the same clients for years. I am so grateful for my clients that allow exploration and creative evolution.

My personal projects have been documenting exotic dancers and women’s a domestic violence shelter. Documenting these women their experience of pain and/or freedom has been so rewarding.

There are many photographers that have similar shooting styles. I think what sets me apart is my personal connection with my subjects. I follow the energy between us and use it. Good, bad or indifferent.

Which women have inspired you in your life?
I find inspiration by visiting galleries, museums, book stores and being outdoors. I can spend hours looking at art. Being out in nature is where my mind is allowed to wander and dream, which often times leads to concepts.

There are many female artists who I admire and find inspirational. To name a few, Isabel Snyder, Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz and Ellen Day Hale.

Contact Info:

  • Website: www.melissacoulier.com
  • Email: hello@melissacoulier.com
  • Instagram: @melissacoulier
  • Facebook: @melissacoulier
  • Twitter: @melissabring

Image Credit:
Main photo: Hallie Irvine
All photography Taken by Melissa Coulier

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