We spoke to Sadie Culberson, a self-taught photographer and art director with a distinct dreamy and hazy aesthetic that shines in all of her work. She talked us through her education, balancing work while being a mom, connecting with brands on a personal level, and how practice makes perfect in everything you do.
I’m originally from Northern California, I come from a small town on the coast. My family moved to North Carolina when I was a junior in high school and I’ve been here since. I moved to Asheville because it felt similar to Northern California. I was there for 8 years but did some moving around, now we’re in the process of finding a more permanent place. I’m staying at my husband’s parents house in the meantime. I’ve wanted to move back to California but I definitely appreciate North Carolina.
I went to school to become a therapist. I would’ve gone to art school but I was too scared and ended up going for psychology instead. I started shooting weddings in college and it became my job. I started a business right when I graduated and kept saying I would go back to school to do therapy but it never felt quite right. I photographed weddings for years and got really burnt out doing that about two years ago. I took those two years as a break. I had my son last August so it was a good time to be invisible, take all my work off the internet and step back to re-evaluate what I wanted to do. Now I’m building my brand photography portfolio, mostly working with clothing labels and small women-owned businesses.
Balancing work with my 10 month old son hasn’t been too difficult. My husband works in music, he tours with bands and they were one of the first industries affected when the pandemic started and they’ll likely be one of the very last to open. We’ve always been freelance makers so we’re used to shifting schedules and an ever changing routine. I get work done while he’s watching Elling and we switch back and forth depending on who has projects due. So far, it works really well and we both get to spend a lot of time with our son.
I'm mostly a photographer but I've never just taken photos. I’m heavily involved in the art directing and styling aspects as well. Because I live in a small town, I had to do all of it. It isn’t like a city where you have a whole team of professionals to collaborate with. Photoshoots have always interested me. In high school, when Flickr was cool, I would go out with my friends and create these ethereal, heavily photoshopped images. I have two younger sisters who loved modeling and letting me dress them up. I made a large photo album to archive all of those shoots and gave it to my mom. It’s so fun to see how weird and clever we were trying to ‘get the shot.’ I like that you can adjust any element to make an image into whatever you want it to be. It’s playful and entirely controllable. It’s also a faster way of making art than painting, which I appreciated. I enjoyed painting but it took way too long to feel good about what I was building. The immediate-gratification obsessed side of me prefers the speed of creating and editing a shoot in a week rather than working on one painting for months.
I like to connect with brands on a friend-level so I tend to work with smaller businesses rather than corporate companies. Most people become longtime clients. When determining if I want to work with a brand, I care most about them sourcing their products ethically.
I like working with other women and I’m naturally drawn to people who care a lot about what they’re making but don’t quite know how to give it a visual voice. One of my favorite clients is a dentist who’s passionately creating an ethical clothing label. My portfolio is so curated at this point that when someone reaches out to me for a project, we often already share common values. This happens easily once you establish yourself in a demographic that feels very natural for you.
I am a self-taught photographer. The first few years were all trial and error, almost to a fault. I was very protective of my work and I didn’t want to learn from other people. It slowed me down a lot. I could be better at this point if I had started learning from other people and listening to ideas early on. I’m different now though. I do want to learn all of the technical aspects of shooting and develop my ability to see things very critically, in a good way. I’ve been taking online classes, reading more, and creating photo shoots just to take notes and practice new ways of seeing my work. COVID-19 has given me time to really play around with it all.
When I started taking photos, I didn’t know any influential photographers. For some reason I didn’t care to know other people’s work. Now I love seeing what other photographers make. Jason Lee Perry is one of my favorites lately. He shoots these beautiful editorials on film that look effortless and have these dreamy soft pastel tones. I also adore the works of Zachary Gray and Stella Berkofsky. I normally go to the library to find inspiration outside of social media. I like getting out of my bubble to find stories of others who are living a totally different way than I am. I admire people who spend all of their time making art in basements and don’t share any of it publicly. People who seem to be in their bodies wrestling with their craft. I have a love-hate relationship with this time of social media as an artist. My livelihood depends on the connections I form through Instagram but then it rewards you for being addicted to it and that addiction makes me feel more insecure, anxious, and I end up creating less original work. I often talk about leaving it entirely to discover if it’s possible to exist in this world I work in without having it. But right now during COVID-19, it’s obviously hard to feel a sense of community without it.
We have slow mornings around here with coffee and breakfast for over an hour, then we start working late-morning. Depending on who has a project that day, we take turns watching Elling. When I have photoshoots, lately people mail me their products and I'll create the shoot from home. I’ll set up a studio in the backyard or in our room and take photos that way. It’s more work but I like being able to take my time. Thankfully work hasn’t changed much because of COVID-19, I'm still taking on quite a few projects. In the evenings, we usually have dinner in the backyard. My husband loves to cook and it’s a special way we all end the day together. I enjoy personal projects at night once Elling goes to sleep. I’ve been reading about typography and graphic design theories for fun then when I crave something more mindless and easy, I’ll read fiction.
Becoming good at photography requires shooting a lot. A whole lot. And that process can be really fun if you don’t pressure yourself into posting all of it. Sharing your photos before you’re ready can take all of the magic out of the work. Find some objects at home that interest you and put them in different light around the room. Using a phone camera is great to start learning how to see the composition and the light in tiny squares next to each other. That small scale is less intimidating and you don’t have to worry about editing. Observe how the different placements make you feel. Practice using what’s around you as inspiration. I’m often asked how I developed my style and that comes very naturally when exploring and building ideas that interest you rather than copying someone else’s work.
I’m a night person. I like the idea of being a morning person but I don’t ever stick to it. I make things at night and then sleep in. My rituals and routines are simple. I care most about high-quality healthy food and natural skincare. I love Everyday Oil for my body and aloe vera for my hair, it’s the only hair product I use. It takes away all of the frizz and makes my hair shiny. I have sensitive skin and find that the more I do to it, the more unhappy it gets so I just use F. Miller skincare. My skin has been nice during quarantine because I'm not wearing makeup. I sleep in Deiji Studios pajamas almost every night. They feel like a vital part of my night routine.
I would say a Negroni which sounds super intense. I like how it has complex and delicate flavors that require a developed palette to appreciate. I would say that’s how I live my life. I’m asking questions, trying again, and acknowledging things that allow me to have a new appreciation each time. Back to the drink, it’s sweet and floral, a lot of things all at once but it can be very pleasant.