Instagram has changed our lives in many ways, especially when it comes to obsessing over bloggers, their brunches and outfits. But, if this app has proved to be useful for anything, is the ability to showcase work that would not be found otherwise. That is how I stumbled upon Anna Ottum, a 28-year-old photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Having worked with Trunk Archive before branching out as a freelancer, Ottum has acquired the eye and expertise to capture real-life, improvised moments. Her work, which has been commissioned by Urban Outfitters and Mood NYC, reads like a photo diary of cherished memories with friends, nature and art. There is no posing; only raw energy natural faces.
Even though she has been working freelance for only a few months, she seems quite established and confident about the work she has been making. Her work station is minimalistic. A colorful living room brightens the atmosphere as she edits and answers e-mails. She confesses to be a tea lover and to have her boyfriend as her No.1 supporter in this new venture.
Instagram served its purpose: to show me the beautiful work Anna has created. It certainly wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Who knows?
BF: What are you working on right now?
I just finished a product shoot for this makeup line Sonia Kashusk for their Valentine’s Day campaign. So, it’s very bright and eye catching for their Instagram because it’s a giveaway. It’s not just a product shot; it’s part of a whole campaign. Instagram has taken over, so a lot of my jobs, even if they are not specifically for social media, we worry about how it’s going to look for social media. So, I just finished that. In a couple of days, I have another shoot. I shoot for Urban Outfitters pretty regularly. They are one of my main clients.
BF: How did you secure that?
My boyfriend is a curator at Vimeo. They [Urban Outfitters] were featuring him and he asked me to photograph him. I have been a photographer on the side for many years. I studied it in school. I just did it personally. So, he asked me to shoot him. That was my first commercial client for many years. I was working full-time at an agency. I wasn’t photographing for anyone; I just did a lot of personal work. They asked me back to do another shoot. So, it just snowballed. I ended up getting a bunch of work and decided to leave the agency.
BF: Before that, where did you go to college?
I started in Santa Barbara, which was a culture shock. I’m originally from Portland, Oregon and I wanted a change. I went to Santa Barbara to start and the I finished at Washington State University in Seattle. I actually didn’t study photography. I went there with the idea that I would do photography, but they had this general arts program and I got really into printmaking and etching. I tried a bit of everything until I figured out what I wanted to do.
BF: How was your time in Seattle?
Those were the years I barely went out, had a long distance boyfriend and I was constantly in the studio until 3 am. I would go to the studio early in the morning, leave for food, and come back. Etching is a lot of work. There’s a ton of layers involved. It’s a constant affair. Those are really great times. That’s the great thing about school: anything you want to pursue within your major you can get really weird and it’s fine. I did a bunch of landscapes. That was my thing.
BF: How did you end up in New York?
A lot of my family is from New York and Philadelphia and they encouraged it. From a young age, my dream was to be a painter in New York. I wanted to be a working artist in New York. I loved visiting my family here. A lot of them are creatives. Since my parents were in the arts, a lot of their friends were painters and photographers, so I was around a lot of creatives in my life. New York was to me the place to come to do that.
BF: What inspires your work?
When I was in school, I was doing a lot of art history courses. I think I only had one modern art class.I ended up being really inspired by early photographers in landscape photography. My dad is a landscape photographer and my mom is a portrait photographer. I would say I still vibe with that. All my personal work explores my world as I know it and features things that I find visually interesting. A lot of it is small people and big landscapes.
BF: I noticed that in your online portfolio. You seem really inspired by nature.
Part of that is because I grew up in the Northwest. Even with my printmaking work, I kept a really strong humans-nature relationship theme. If someone were to ask me to describe myself, I wouldn’t even describe myself as a nature freak or outdoorsy. I think living in the Northwest- compared to many other kinds around the world- you are forced to be in nature constantly. And Portland is a great place to grow up because you are an hour from the beach, an hour from the desert and the mountain. What was nice was that when I started to take photos, it was beautiful to shoot my friends within our social life. I would also go on adventures to drive out to the beach or the mountain to take pictures.
BF: How do you think New York inspires your work?
Insanely. I think New York inspires every person who lives here. It’s very busy. You are jam packed with many different kinds of people. Culturally, you are constantly stimulated. It really expanded my view of what I found interesting, not just visually but in my day to day. When I first moved here, I read a lot about New York and there was this article that said that New York is like a full-length mirror. It really is. It’s really easy to turn inward with everything that is going on. You think to yourself ‘How do I fit into this? Am I just a rat in a rat race?’. It really makes you realize what you find interesting and what your find important. I always carry a point and shoot [camera] with me because there’s always stuff going on or pretty moments. I guess I just let New York be a different kind of landscape. A lot of my work since living here has been a variation of that [landscape photography].
BF: How do see the panorama for females in photography right now?
It’s a boys’ club. It always has been. I was really intimidated to go into photography because it is such a boys’ club. A lot of the photographers that I helped represent when I was at Trunk Archive were men. But a lot of the photographers that I ended up gravitating towards were women. Not because they were women but because their work spoke to me personally. There are starting to be a lot more women in photography, thankfully. Even pay and equality is an issue, too, in the photography roundtable, which is unfortunate. Women, I have found, tend to be more supportive of my choice to go into photography than my male friends who are in the photo industry. I’m not sure if that’s because they have been taught that you have to go a certain route. I really love Olivia Malone, Petra Collins… I’m really digging this feminist photo movement that is going on. I’m a huge fan, not only of what they are trying to say, but also the photos. I have personally not ran into any issues with photography being a boys’ club. My boyfriend, who is a photographer and filmmaker, is the most supportive person in my life. I don’t want to go down the road of ‘We need to stand by each other’ because I don’t think it’s a gender thing. Creatives, in general, should be supporting each other.
BF: What are some of the challenges of being a photographer in an age when everyone thinks they are photographers?
Everyone can take good photos now. They have iPhones and DSLRs in automatic. Photography is so accessible and I think a lot of photographers get a little uptight or stress that they have to prove a lot in order to be taken seriously, especially with Instagram. I personally love Instagram. I don’t mind it at all. Everyone should be exploring photography. It’s such an accessible, easy art. But, I have been in discussions with other people who are fighting to the nail to be taken seriously because they know how light and set up things. They know how to shoot film. It becomes sort of a pretentiousness about photography because now it’s so accessible.
BF: From a journalistic point of view, I see why photographers would get defensive. For us, it’s hard when everyone wants to be a writer or a blogger. But, I try to remain open because things are not going to stay the same. everything has its benefits.
I’m sure writers felt the same with the whole blog explosion. It’s hard when a 13-year-old girl is sitting front row at a fashion show and killing it online, and you are like ‘I went to grad school for this!’.
BF: But, I mean, Tavi [Gevinson] was doing amazing things. She has become super successful out of all that. But a lot of people hated that she was front-row at a fashion show wearing a huge bow at 13.
But, as soon as you see an interview of her, you understand. I always advise against criticizing social media because it’s another platform for sharing. Why are you closing off your work to a whole other audience? It seems silly. I think that a lot of photographers, who have been in the industry for so long, feel like it degrades their work to put it online. It’s unfortunate. I used to scour the Internet for images that I thought were interesting in college and it would take hours to find one that was good because you have to go to random blogs. With platforms like Instagram, you get to see new creatives constantly and people are able to share and repost. At urban Outfitters, they hire a lot of up and coming photographers and post their photo credit. That is one of the best things about Instagram. So many companies are posting work that we would otherwise have no idea who shot it.
BF: How do you stay focused when you are your own boss?
The simplest way to answer that for most freelancers is if you are working on what you are passionate about you never need someone behind you telling you to keep doing it. I love shooting and I love editing. I have deadlines from my clients, but sometimes clients give me open-ended deadlines. Those can be the tricky ones because I feel like I can put it off until 4 days down the line or do it immediately to have time to do other things. It’s about setting up a schedule. I think when you are freelancing, because you are on the line, nothing is really busy work. Even doing my taxes or sending out mail- anything that I need to do for my own benefit- I win if I do it, so I should just get on it. I also have food rewards for myself or work with friends a lot.
BF: What does ‘badass’ mean to you?
You are in control. You are going to put out the work that you think is the strongest, the most interesting. I think the most badass thing I heard recently- I don’t know if I can quote this properly- but it was Ronda Rousey that said “I’m not a do nothing bitch”. That to me is badass. You are pushing against these gender stereotypes that we all try to say aren’t there. We think we are past it, that women can do whatever they can now, but it’s not true. I think that every woman grapples with her own stereotype of what she thinks she should be. Any girl- or any person- going after what they think is ‘it’ for them, what they think is the most fulfilling, that is very badass to me.