Creativity & Conservation - Interview with Photo-Artist Judi Lapsley Miller

Judi, what's your background?


Judi Lapsley Miller, photo credit: Hannah Shand

My volunteer work in wildlife conservation is what started my creative journey as I developed a compelling need to share wildlife stories and photos to advocate for the species and spaces I was helping restore.


I loved art and photography as a kid, but due to various life events I did not come back to either seriously until 2014 when a friend encouraged me to accompany her on a photography trip to the Galapagos with the incredible wildlife photographer Tui de Roy.


At that time, four-thirds cameras were able to bridge the gap between limited point-and-shoot cameras and pro gear that was too heavy for me. I set off with a Panasonic GX7 and 100-300mm lens and had a wild time! That was the catalyst to becoming engrossed with wildlife photography and then, when I found that too limiting, photo-artistry.


I ventured into photo-artistry first by doing a workshop with Shona Jaray, and then I came across Sebastian Michael’s “Fine Art Grunge Composition” online course as well as Adobe evangelist Julienne Kost’s many courses and tutorials. What I immediately found was that I could create compelling artistic images that were simply not possible from a single photo and which were different from the sorts of images my contemporaries were taking. I then signed up for Michael’s year-long professional photo-artistry course “AWAKE” (and its follow-on “KAIZEN”) and although I originally had no intention of doing art professionally, towards the end of the course I realized I’d inadvertently gained the skills to take that next step.


In 2017, I began tentatively entering art exhibitions, helped by photographer Simon Woolf’s encouragement and wise advice to follow an artistic path rather than doing photography exhibitions. It was terrifying at first because the art world was completely new to me I didn’t have a network of artistic friends for advice and support. So, I just took my best guess and did what seemed to make sense at the time; made mistakes and learned lots. Once I had a little bit of exhibition experience, I took the plunge and arranged to do a solo exhibition at Zealandia EcoSanctuary. From there, things just took off and the past couple of years have been a whirlwind of new experiences, new opportunities and many wonderful new friends.


How do you describe your photography and artistic style? What techniques and subjects are you drawn towards?


"The Big Idea" by Judi Lapsley Miller


In terms of photography, I consider myself very much an amateur photographer. As a photo-artist, the photos are merely the starting point or building blocks, so I need to draw on multiple techniques and approaches, from landscapes through to macro, to source the images that will go into a composite.


For those times when the photo is the end result, I’m drawn to either exquisite detail or shallow depth of field with lots of blur and bokeh, or ideally both at the same time. And if I’m going to take a photo of anything it will be of a bird – I especially like bird portraits, but that’s mainly because I’m still getting the hang of birds-in-flight!


My artistic style on the other hand is more developed. My pictures tend to the dark and moody, often heavily textured and grungy, and with a good dose of the surreal and unexpected. I love portraying stories and emotion, especially with wildlife but also through still-life.


Tell us about your passion for wildlife – how did it start and where had it led you?


Growing up I wasn’t particularly interested in the outdoors after some bad school camping experiences, so it wasn’t until we were living in a semi-rural area of the USA that I started getting curious about all the critters visiting our yard. From skunks to woodpeckers to the most adorable wrens. We’d spend hours every evening just observing the critters and spent a lot of time visiting local nature preserves learning about our new wilderness.


Then, in 2003, we returned to New Zealand and my Uncle encouraged me to get involved with Zealandia. Knowing nothing about NZ wildlife, I started helping out with their website. I figured if I read everything that I posted online, eventually I’d learn about our native wildlife. That interest quickly turned into more and more opportunities to volunteer on the conservation side of things and eventually I was tasked with running the kākā nestbox monitoring program.


For over a decade now, I’ve been intimately involved with the day-to-day lives of the kākā, spending hours observing them and watching them raise their young. Kākā are one of the most intelligent birds in the world and have complex social lives and are often just as interested in observing their nest monitors as we are in observing them. Hours of monitoring also gives ample opportunity to daydream and create stories about what I perceive to be their outlook on life.


I wanted to share these observations with others and with the advent of social media, I had the opportunity to help Zealandia tell stories about what was happening, and did this through both photography and writing. I formed a volunteer team of writers, photographers, designers, and editors (the “Storytellers”) to help harness wider creative power. The team does regular exhibitions of photo essays, blogs, fund-raising calendars, social media, and the like. Photography forms the core of what we do, and over the years I’ve grown to realize how important a compelling image is in getting across a wildlife advocacy message.


"After Midnight (kiwi pukupuku)" by Judi Lapsley Miller

A lot of time must go into your photo-art, can you walk us through your creative editing process?


Sometimes I have a specific idea in mind and sometimes a source photo will inspire a train of thought and I just let the picture develop accordingly. Regardless, I usually start with a main subject, which is usually a photo of a bird.


From there I take a “sandwich” approach, dividing up my layer stack into Background, Elements behind the Main Subject, the Main Subject, Elements in front of the Main Subject, Special effects, and then Post Processing where everything from the colour balance, LUTs, dodging and burning, and painterly effects might be used.

"Over the Moon (red-tailed black cockatoo)" by Judi Lapsley Miller

When building the image, I often go straight to the post processing step so I can get a sense of what the final image might look like, to visualize my goal. I’ll then quickly mask each element and start building the composition. I’m a big fan of Photoshop Smart Objects to allow each step to be re-edited even after using filters and effects. Only once I’m happy do I then go back in and refine the masking of each element. From there, it’s a lot of painstaking crafting to blend each element in with realistic lighting, shadows, and colour toning.


I have a huge repository of elements to draw from, many that I’ve photographed or scanned myself but also many that I’ve either purchased or obtained through professional photo-artistry courses; all with commercial-use licences, which is important for pieces I intend to sell. Because I don’t tend to participate in photography exhibitions, I don’t worry too much if the resulting art is all my own content or not. Sometimes it is but often it isn’t. Especially when you’re starting out, it takes a long time to build up a library of images and it’s more important to just get into it and start creating.

"It's About Time (kākā)" by Judi Lapsley Miller

In the photography world, especially in competitions, it’s often required that each element in the composite is your own – that’s understandable because the emphasis is more on the photography (it also means you need to read the rules very, very carefully and enquire if it’s not clear). In the art world, what’s more important is the creative vision and that the composite image is your own creative effort even if some of the elements were made by others. In that sense, photo-art is a lot like mixed-media or collaged artwork. In fact, some photo-artists never even take their own photos but rely solely on purchased creative assets. But because I came to photo-art through wildlife photography, it is more satisfying to me to use my own content. Often, I know the bird as an individual and that gives the artwork so much more meaning, even if only to me.


There can be a lot of false starts and experimentation. But what I love most about digital photo-artistry is the ability to delete and try again. I’m in awe of artists who can put down permanent ink and paint assuredly. Due to chronic problems with my hands, my fine-motor skills are not nearly good enough. The digital approach was a game-changer for me, and I wouldn’t be without my Wacom tablet.


For software, my go-to tools are Photoshop CC and Lightroom Classic. I also use Topaz Studio extensively, especially Impression, AI Clear, Restyle, and ReMask. I use a lot of digital brushes to give a more painterly feel, sometimes making the brushes myself. I have a large collection of Lightroom Presets (I especially love the Kim Klassen still-life presets), which can now be used in Photoshop CC via the Camera Raw Filter allowing you to dial-in the degree of the effect (pro tip!).

On the gear side, when I’m feeling strong or have a Sherpa, I shoot with a Sony α9 or a α7r3 depending on whether I’m after more speed or more pixels otherwise, it’s a Panasonic GX8 or my Pixel 2 cell phone. I adore the fine detail in feathering I can achieve with a full-frame camera, but the weight is an issue for me even with the slightly lighter mirrorless kit.


As a digital artist, the Giclee print is the primary way of realizing that artwork in a tangible form. I have recently made the move to bring more traditional artistic approaches into my work so that each print has unique qualities, making it more like an original piece of art. This includes wax encaustic mixed-media, tiny bookmaking, creative framing, and augmenting Giclee prints with inks and pastels. And then sometimes I scan or photograph the results and it gets warped back into digital form in another piece – in other words, I move in and out of the virtual and physical world.


"The Collector (tui)" by Judi Lapsley Miller


How about some insight into giving up a day job to become an artist/photographer?


Tempting as it may be to become a full-time artist, the reality is that it is incredibly difficult to make a living full time without also relying on another income stream, so I am a part-time artist and a part-time scientist. Although this leaves less time for art, this security does give me more options and more flexibility.


It’s a big decision to try and make a living from your art, either full or part-time. It most definitely is not about doing art all day! You need to also love being a small business owner. You need to love developing a brand, developing and maintaining happy and engaged customers, keeping records, packaging and shipping, marketing, building and participating in communities and professional relationships, and dare I say it, at least tolerate an increase in the complexity of your tax return.


Fortunately, other than the taxes, I do love the other aspects too and have been able to tap into experiences gained elsewhere in the workplace and through volunteering, but there is still a lot to learn. Having supportive family is incredibly helpful and I wouldn’t be able to do nearly as much without my husband’s efforts.


You run 'Art of Birding' photo challenges, tell us about that...


In 2017, I did a weekly photography challenge and when 2018 came around I decided I’d like to continue to do something like that but with a wildlife and nature emphasis. I also wanted to challenge my volunteer group (as well as myself) to expand on their photography skills.

I couldn’t find anything suitable, so I decided to make my own weekly challenge and put it out there for anyone in the world to join in. We now have participants not just from New Zealand but Australia, the USA, Pakistan, Brazil, and the UK.


Where I can, I try to find opportunities for participants to promote their stories further, from magazine articles, sharing on social media, to exhibiting photo essays.


The underlying theme throughout all the challenges is building storytelling, creative, and technical skills to enable people to better use their photos for wildlife advocacy. People can join in any time and do whatever challenges they like – it’s a personal journey.


"Portrait of a Tui" by Judi Lapsley Miller

What else should we know about you and your work?


What I do is primarily “for the birds”. If I can evoke in you some of the love and passion I have for our feathered dinosaurs, then I’m happy. If I can get you to consider and empathize with the inner lives of birds by making them relatable, even better. If you are then inspired to do something to help wildlife and wild spaces, then I’m overjoyed.


I do like to provide deeper layers in my art, though they are first and foremost created to be enjoyed at face value. I’m hoping it’s pretty obvious what most of my pieces are about: climate change, adaptation, evolution, intelligence, surviving in urban and human-changed environments, post-human worlds and post-apocalyptic worlds, but usually with a sense of hope and joy.


I’m also mindful of how much wildlife conservation costs, so anytime I’m sourcing photos of endangered critters, I donate 10% of my proceeds back to organizations who are working to conserve and protect them. This also gives me another opportunity to promote these wonderful organizations and the amazing work they do.

"A Quick Study (toutouwai)" by Judi Lapsley Miller

What final thought can you leave us with?


On the wildlife front, I hope to continue with the message that we as a species need to realize that we can no longer act as if we are apart from the ecosystems we live in and that if we save the birds, we might just save ourselves.

Judi Lapsley Miller at her latest exhibition at Zealandia EcoSanctuary, photo credit: Linton Miller

Judi's solo exhibition at Zealandia entitled 'The Big Idea' is running until 31st August 2019. Missed the exhibition, don't worry – You can enjoy Judi's photo-art any time of the day or night with the Excio app displaying a rotation of her work, and other's, on your phone screen.

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