For my first jaunt into the art world, I summoned up all the bravery I could muster and reached out to one of my absolute favorite local artists, Cat Palmer. She is a photographer who chooses to use her art to focus on human empowerment, especially focusing on women. She has been working and living in Salt Lake City but her work is much more far reaching than that. Her work has always resonated with me because she is always able to capture what looks to me like the raw essence of humanity. Her photo projects and even just her personal selfies always give me an amazing sense of confidence and strength in myself.
I sat down with Cat at Zest in Downtown SLC to talk about her photography and what makes her who she is. She was amazingly open and her candor was incredibly refreshing, almost as refreshing as the fresh cocktails at the restaurant. She talks with an insatiable passion (especially about feminism) and talking with her would leave anyone excited to create and inspire.
*All photos used in this post used with permission from Cat Palmer and can be found on her website. (Minus the selfie we took together)
How would you describe your photography?
There are two sides to the business. There is the commission side where I take photos of people naked (PS her boudoir shoots are the stuff of dreams), weddings, families; that’s the bulk of my income. That’s what makes it so I can eat fancy food all the time. Then there is the art I do for me. That’s mainly mixed media. Photography on metal with an urban fine art feel. It always has a very industrial feel to it. Most of what I’ve done for the past 11 years has had a message or political message. I stopped taking pretty pictures for the sake of pretty pictures in about 2006. I won’t do those anymore. It has to have some sort of meaning for me.
Not only that, art is also very therapeutic for me. I’m always working through something when I do art. Bush gave me a lot of material when he was in office. I was also focused on women for a long time. I think women are more beautiful than men. Women inspire me more and I don’t know if it’s because I am a woman and I deal with those issues.
I’ve noticed through your Instagram and Facebook that you have quite the addiction to gas masks. What’s got you so hooked on them?
I’ve always really liked really industrial looking, metal stuff. When people see flowers, it’s aesthetically pleasing to those people and it pleases those people. When I see gas masks I think they are aesthetically pleasing and they are like flowers to me. I would rather get gas masks than flowers any day.
|I Am Human Series, 2008|
What sparked your interest in photography?
I had to sign up for an elective in High School when I was 15 and most girls were taking home economics and that never really interested me and I didn’t want to do mechanics. Photography caught my attention most and my grandparents used to have a dark room in their house and we had a lot of cameras. We already owned all of the equipment and I signed up on a whim. And then my teacher M, he taught us on a college level. The stuff he did with us… I don’t know if another High School teacher would do this with their classes. He would take us to LA or Venice Beach and let us loose for hours just shooting us on the streets. By my senior year I was in his classroom about four hours a day. For one of my classes, he let me write my own curriculum and that was the first time I shot nudes. he said as long as it was tasteful I could do what I want. I mean, these were underaged kids after all.
He was amazing and he was the one who told me I reminded him of Diane Arbus. I was 15 and didn’t know who that was. So I went to the library and checked out a huge book of her and fell in love. She photographs people in society that society deemed unworthy and she saw the beauty in them and I couldn’t believe that he would breathe my name in the same sentence with her. She’s where my passion for people came from so I started shooting homeless people on the streets of LA in the mid 90s. I took a video camera around with me everywhere and interviewed everyone. Drug dealers, prostitutes. I don’t know how I didn’t fucking die. Like, I was a teenage girl interviewing homeless people on the streets. I was missing the fear chip.
|Super Hero Series, 2012|
Are you a full time artist?
Yes. I’ve been shooting for 20 years but shooting professionally for 11. For 6 years I’ve been doing it full time. It was a lot of fucking work to get to this point. It did not happen overnight. I also would not encourage people to do this full time. For five years, I had a real job where I was making a decent living with health and vacation time and during all of that I was building my clients so that when I left my job I had built up my clients to a point where I could survive. My sons say they want to be artists and I say yes, that’s a great idea but you have to stay safe and get an education, take care of yourself. With art you have to be prolific and talented and I am neither of those things. I have lucked out because I have gotten enough attention with the local media. I am really good at marketing myself so I’m just kind of faking it until I make it type thing.
When did you know you wanted to use your photography as a platform for women and empowerment?
It stared with the ‘I Am Human’ series. It gave me that platform and that boost that people were paying attention to. I thought no one was going to care about this or hang it in their living room but I sold out of that series. I started reflecting on my own issues and what I was going through and I think I was projecting that into the series. It directly had to do with what I was working through at the time. Most of the series I have done for selfish reasons and it turns out that a lot of people related to them. Like my ‘Keep Politicians Out of Our Vaginas’ series. They were saying awful things and at some point I realized the media was picking up on that and my art and I knew I couldn’t waste this platform. for another project I had 14 women shave their heads. I was so sick of women being told how to do themselves and their hair so I had the women shave their heads. That was five years ago. I would approach women and ask them if they wanted to shave their heads for this project. That was also the third time I shaved my head.
|You Don’t OWN Me/ Keep The Politicians out of our Vaginas, 2012|
What is it about a shaved head that gets you?
It’s fucking liberating. I was doing this project on loving myself more and I wanted to get more familiar with my face and to start loving myself on that level. And I started to keep this daily journal and I wanted to come from this space of not being able to look at a photo of myself without crying. Now I can see the beauty in myself and in other people. It’s liberating and you can’t hide with a shaved head. Your eyes pop, your lips pop, your features come out in a way that you would never realize. I also find it so raw and beautiful. God, it so fucking beautiful.
|Age of Aesthetics, 2010|
How do you think of the themes for your collections?
They usually come to me in the shower. The shower is my quiet meditative time. It’s when you are in your most raw form and at that time I have visions of what I want to do. I usually have a very clear vision of what I want to accomplish. Or if something is really pissing me off (ie, republicans) that will be it. Things I overhear inspire me. I thought once you were a teenager all of this ‘hating yourself’ thing would stop but then I realized it was women of all ages. I think if we say positive things about ourselves we thing we are bragging but we aren’t. I want to help people, especially women, realize that so I think a lot of my ideas stem from that.
Describe your creative process.
Usually I work with big groups so i have to organize it, so sometimes it takes months. So I plan it out, swear them to secrecy, shoot it, edit it, print them, putting them on metal and working with that whole process. It usually takes about six months from start to finish.
What was the thought behind your Star Wars Femme Fatale shoot? (One of my favorites)
Literally that was in the middle of the night and I have a thing for women and Star Wars. At 2AM I post on Facebook “I want to do a shoot and I want hot women to wear these helmets.” I was like “If you have a hot body contact me.” In the middle of that night this shoot was planned in an hour. All of these women have insomnia and are online in the middle of the night. They are so hot, so fucking beautiful and I put masks on them! So that was my own fantasy in the middle of the night.
|Femme Fatale Series, 2013|
Do you usually photograph professional models or just normal people?
I prefer just people. A lot of times I prefer real people.I don’t know if it’s because I’m a photographer but I feel like I can see their beauty better than they can see it themselves. When I become friends with people I just want them to see themselves like I do. They have no fucking clue how beautiful they are but I think a lot of people are that way. I also like real people. I also have really pretty friends.
You use yourself as the subject of many of your collections and photos. What is the reasoning behind that?
Self esteem struggles. When I left my husband, I really believed nobody would ever find me attractive but I would rather be alone than in this miserable marriage. Luckily I had a best friend who believed in me and saw me and encouraged me to keep these daily pictures of myself and I would take really bad photos of myself because I wanted to be very ok with myself and not just the flattering photos. I did a series of myself when I wanted to start feeling better. My son took 3 photos of me with no makeup, everyday makeup, and full makeup. I wrote down everything anyone had ever said to my face. I had all of the negative things coming into my ears with full makeup on. The no makeup was the same idea but with the nice things people have said. It was super therapeutic to realize that it was everyone else’s issues they were projecting onto me and not my own.
I lost fifty pounds, but even if I don’t lose anymore, I feel good about myself. Women want validation from strangers on dating sites and I don’t need that. I don’t want the validation from strangers because they don’t know my true beauty. I did some soul work with meditation. It was two years of a lot of fucking work to get where I am now. I am a champion of the selfie because I know how long it took me to become comfortable looking at myself. I can see it in other people when they have to start loving themselves.
|“My son shooting my image”- To Love One’s Self Series, 2014|
|My Path, To Love One’s Self Series, 2014|
What do you think is the hardest thing facing females and/or female artists?
I feel like generally, Salt Lake is more liberal as far as arts go. But I feel like a lot of people have taken me less seriously than they should have but I haven’t really noticed because I’m in my own world. I’ve had to deal with a lot of sexual harassment that men don’t have to deal with. I get comments that men probably don’t. I fucking hate the comments. But that’s those people and that’s all they talk about. The sexual harassment and the stalking. People wanting to touch you and thinking it’s ok because it ‘The Art World.’
In general though, women are facing fucking everything. The wage gap. People thing it’s not a really thing but it is. People are legit qualified and making 30% less because they are women. When we are assertive, we are bossy but a guy is a powerful leader. We are not bossy, we are getting shit done. The word feminist, also, needs to not be looked at as a bad word. The true feminist is an equalist who also loves men. We fight for men as well as women.
Blaming. Rape culture. Rape culture is being taught in all major religions right now. Fucking teach your boys not to have bad thoughts about women. Period. Gender discrimination, women having their place; I’m still hearing that to this day. The misogynistic issues are everywhere. We have to fight it together.
What other artists/photographers inspire you?
Generally photographers who do people or gritty work. I’m not into landscapes. I can appreciate what they can accomplish but the have never done it for me. Inanimate objects don’t inspire me. I love photos of real people. Their photos are so raw and perfect and up close on peoples’ faces. I love seeing the dirt and wrinkles on faces. I love street artist like Swoon. Urban art is more what I’m into that photography.
What was the switch to digital photography like?
Ha, joining the dark side as I call it. I joined the dark side in 2006 because that’s when I felt like the technology was finally there. I miss the dark room. I had a love affair with the dark room for son long and I fucking miss that. It is cheaper and easier for me to do digital. I don’t know which to say I prefer because I use both for different reasons. But I do miss the texture and graininess of the film Sometimes the technology is too clean for me.
|Learn how to Merge, 2004|
How do you find inspiration when your muse has left you?
That just happened. I’m coming out of a four year funk. I don’t create when I’m at my least happy point. I only create when I do have that inspiration again. I don’t force it. I let it come to me. When it feels right, it feels right. Sometimes, all artists will have dry spells. That’s hard. Take showers. Clear your head. Try to get away. Unplug.
Do you have a favorite book?
I used to read so much. My favorite book is The Little Prince. Metaphorically speaking, it is spot on. Every adult should read it because we lose touch with our inner child and we need to rediscover that. I love Ray Bradbury as well. To Kill a Mockingbird. Roald Dahl is not really known for his short stories but he has over 300. I own that compilation and I love it.
How do yo feel about the intersection of social media and art?
It’s a huge part of my income, honestly. Without social media, I don’t know how I would get word out about what I do. I rely heavily on it. People share my stuff and it gets my stuff out there more than if I didn’t have it. It does make everyone feel like they are a photographer but I don’t feel very threatened by it. I found my own niche and I don’t feel threatened by anyone else. There’s room for everyone.
What is your advice to young artists?
Be prolific. Create create create create create. Each year you are going to grow and get better. Find a mentore who can answer your questions and take you under their wing. Don’t let the downers get you down. You have to have a thick skin. I know we are all wounded artists but some people aren’t going to like you rwork. Not everyone likes everthing; I know I’m doing something right when people don’t like my work. You’ve gotta have that attitude.
You need a network and to get out there. Market your work on social media. A lot of artist are scared to talk about themselves but you have to learn how to do it. Learn how to write a press release. Know the ins and outs of your city and the galleries or places you want to apply to.
There’s so much. But creating and being prolific is huge. Mostly, just never stop.
|Who Will Be Our Hero, 2006|
|Me and the lovely Cat Palmer. Clearly, not taken by the professional.|
I think we all have that muse. Art has that chain reaction of inspiration.
This girl is an example of how persistent artists have to be with their work.
How willing an artist is to network themselves is dependent on whether the artist wants to be known. I think the artistic experience and the experience of recognition are different.
Btw, I really dug this post because you introduced all of us readers to this really cool artist who seems to focus heavily on feminism
I love these! Such powerful work!
very, very cool and inspiring work… i love that you are so graciously sharing this with us.
" I know I'm doing something right when people don't like my work. "
This was INCREDIBLE! Thank you for doing this, Emma. I got so much out of it.
Yes, true art always offends someone. I used to think that anyone with a camera would be a photographer. I don't anymore.
this was great! i'm excited for the next one. it's so cool that you do this 🙂