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BEST OF 2014, Denise Retallack
Knoxville, TN
Denise Retallack tells the unique story of each client’s architecture, interior design and landscape architecture projects, bringing an experience of the space to audiences who can’t visit a site in person. Her bright and graphic photographs have also helped many clients win design awards.

© Denise Retallack

© Denise Retallack


“I really value and respect what design firms do. I love hearing about each new project, seeing the renderings, plans and construction photos, and then the real excitement of seeing the built project and walking through these giant pieces of artwork,” Retallack notes. “My clients expect me to use the story of the design process as a guide while allowing the building to inspire me to capture elements and angles that I see while in a space.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Denise Retallack: I’ve had my business for seven years, and I worked as an in-house photographer at a landscape architecture firm for three years prior to that.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP in 2007?

DR: I heard about ASMP while in school at Brooks Institute of Photography. When I started my business I had a lot of questions. I was living in a new area, where I didn’t know any other photographers. I was looking for a photography community and I found ASMP’s SB2 workshop in Atlanta and it was exactly what I needed. I drove three hours to Atlanta and had an amazing experience, gaining both business knowledge and inspiration. I met several board members from ASMP’s Tennessee chapter and they were all very welcoming and helpful.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

DR: The knowledge and support I’ve gained to successfully run my business; the people I’ve met; the inspiration I’ve gotten from workshops, events, and other photographers; a sense of community and support from others who do what I do. I’ve enjoyed serving on the Tennessee chapter board and am currently serving on the South Carolina chapter board. This has given me the opportunity to really get to know some of the other photographers in my area, share ideas for what we need as a community, help out in hosting events and be a part of something bigger.

ASMP: Do you have a favorite ASMP-related story to share?

DR: Through ASMP, I’ve learned to really put a value on my work and fully understand how to price my photography. I’m still learning and growing in this area, as it seems to be the most confusing and important area of the business. I met Jim Cavanaugh through one of ASMP’s national events in South Carolina and he has been open to sharing information about his pricing and practices that has been very helpful. It’s made a difference in my business and financial success especially when relicensing my images and placing value on them. Thank you, Jim!

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?

DR: The business resources on ASMP.org have been very helpful with usage license wording, terms and conditions, questions to ask when quoting a job, pricing guides and copyright information.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

DR: Architecture, landscape architecture and interior design.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

DR: There are too many to list, but here are a few: my eyes, my creativity, my education and my vision. How I see the world. Of course, I can’t leave out my camera; without this tool I couldn’t convey my vision to others.

ASMP: What is unique about your style or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

DR: As an architectural photographer, I take a very natural approach to my work and use mostly natural and existing light to show what the space really looks and feels like. I was trained in a very traditional style, using a lot of tungsten lighting and shooting with 4x5 film at dusk or dawn. As I transitioned to digital, I began to develop this natural approach and style to my work rather than lighting heavily. I find it creates a more accurate representation of the architect’s work.

My clients appreciate the fact I can move through the space quickly without setting up tons of lighting and spending several hours on a single image. My background in fine art has grounded me in placing a lot emphasis on composition within my images as I strive to create and highlight a certain graphic look to my work. This helps to create depth within the image and draw one’s eye through the scene. I also believe that the simple fact that I specialize in architecture and landscape architecture alone sets me apart from other photographers in my area. I have a deep understanding of how to capture and tell the story of their work through my images.

ASMP: You studied fine art and graphic design in college. What drew you to architectural photography?

DR: I did an internship with a commercial photographer while earning a Bachelor of Arts in fine art at Towson University, and that's when I knew in my heart I wanted to be a photographer. I didn’t have enough knowledge or experience with photography when I graduated, so I worked as a graphic designer for two years. I then decided to go back to school and earned a second BA in Photography from Brooks Institute of Photography. During school, I discovered architectural photography in one of the elective classes I took and just fell in love. I’ve always been drawn to architecture and interior design since I was a young kid. It all just fell into place from there.

ASMP: When you were beginning your career, did you have a mentor who influenced you to pursue architectural photography?

DR: My architectural photography teacher at Brooks, Russ McConnell, was a great mentor and assisted me in doing an internship with Resorts and Great Hotels. From there, he inspired and supported me in doing an independent study where I photographed Bed & Breakfast Inns in exchange for a place to stay and shoot. I travelled through central and northern California by myself for three-and-a-half weeks and photographed five or six Bed & Breakfasts. My car was packed with hot lights and my 4x5 camera. I learned so much on that trip, while applying lighting skills I had learned on my internship with Resorts and Great Hotels. All of the instructors at Brooks were very supportive and, during my last year, I was able to steer most of my assignments towards architecture.

ASMP: When did you make the transition from graphics to photography and how long did it take to start bringing in assignment work?

DR: It happened when I decided to go back to school for photography. This three-and-a-half year transition during school really prepared me beyond anything I could have imagined. Right out of school, I began working full-time as an in-house photographer for an internationally known landscape architectural firm, SWA Group, where I worked for three years. This prepared me to work as an architectural photographer by introducing me to the entire design process, and I gained an understanding of how to tell the story of a project through my photography. I moved from California a little more than seven years ago to start my business in Knoxville, Tennessee. I received some assignment work right away from contacts I already had in place. It took about six months or so to start getting new assignment work, though. I supplemented my income with some graphic design work for about the first year-and-a-half, until I had steady assignment work.

ASMP: Female architectural photographers (as well as female architects) seem to be in the minority. Please discuss the challenges and benefits to being a woman in such a heavily male dominated marketplace.

DR: I know several other female architectural photographers and I also work with several female architecture clients. We may be in the minority, but it’s not an issue we focus on. I believe it’s a benefit because we’re unique in what we do and may have a different perspective to offer.

ASMP: Your work is very bright, colorful and graphic. Clearly these are qualities that must draw your clients to you. The spaces you shoot all seem to be bright and colorful as well. Is this a reality within the spaces overall, or do you focus on those aspects of a space to create your vibrant images?

DR: Yes, some of the spaces I photograph are light, bright and colorful. My style and vision is created in any space though. My tendency is to push the highlights and shadows of a space to get the look I want and feel is right for the space. It’s based on the feeling I get when I’m in the space; I want to share that feeling with others through the style of my photography.

ASMP: What type of support team do you work with in terms of assistants, stylists, producers, location scouts and so on? Do you employee any fulltime staff or work only with freelancers?

DR: Up until last summer, I worked alone with some support and guidance from my uncle on the business management side and my financial advisor. Last summer my soon-to-be husband joined me as a full-time business manager who handles finances, marketing, assisting and overall support in everything I do. He’s also a great cook. His background in business management and customer service is the perfect match for my creativity.

ASMP: What type of equipment do you shoot and light with? Do you do your own postproduction work or do you outsource that?

DR: I shoot with a Canon 5D mark III and the following lenses: 17-40mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. I do all of my own postproduction work; it’s part of my vision and how I make the images my own.

ASMP: Approximately how much time do you spend photographing each structure? How much time do you dedicate to scouting to learn about the buildings?

DR: It depends on the size of the project. I spend a little time talking with my clients about the project, get plans marked up with potential angles they want, and figure out what direction, when and where the sun will hit. I like to do a walk-through or scout the project with my client if we can, and this usually happens the day of the shoot.

ASMP: You mention in your artist statement that you like light, bright airy spaces and that is definitely reflected in your work. Please describe any lighting techniques you use to create a light and natural feel.

DR: I use natural light and capture the correct exposures for different areas of the scene and how I want them to look, and then I merge the exposures in Photoshop using layer masks and curves. This mimics the techniques I learned at Brooks while taking the Zone System class where I learned how to control any lighting situation to get the exact highlights, shadows and every tonal range in between with black & white film and traditional darkroom printing. It’s very important for me to capture the feeling I have in a space rather than just what I see. I relate to this quote by Ansel Adams, “In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular… sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.” He knew how to expose the film and his vision really came out in the prints. It was explained by John Sexton in a lecture I attended, that the film was like sheet music and the print is like the musical performance. Photoshop is my darkroom and where I get my vision to really pop.

ASMP: Before you shoot a structure, is it important for you to learn about and understand the design and background of the building and the architect, or is your primary inspiration the structure’s design, light and graphics? Please talk about your creative process.

DR: My creative process involves both talking to the architect and being inspired by the structure’s design once I’m in the space. It’s very important to my clients for me to understand the key elements of the project and their design ideas. It’s fascinating to learn the design process and goals of each project. My clients expect me to use the story of the design process as a guide, while allowing the building to inspire me to capture elements and angles that I see while in a space.

ASMP: Do you have a favorite type of building or structure you prefer to photograph, such as, residential, corporate, commercial, municipal and so on, or does photographing landscape architecture top your list?

DR: I love photographing a variety of projects. Among my favorites are residential, landscape architecture, education, interior design, hotels and projects with a modern design. This has been the first year since about 2009 (the recession) that I have almost half of my income for the year from landscape architectural clients. This is very exciting and I am rediscovering my love of being in nature and photographing some truly amazing projects. I love seeing, feeling and experiencing any space for the first time.

ASMP: What are the most important factors you take into account when estimating for various jobs? How do you respond when a client comes back saying your estimate is too high? Do you have any negotiating tips to share?

DR: I try to get an accurate estimate of how much time it will take to photograph the project, approximately how many images the client is looking to get, any special requirements, how long I’ll spend on post production and any expenses. My pricing is pretty standard for all my clients, so once they work with me they know the ballpark cost and don’t question it. I have a lot of repeat clients. With new prospective clients, I have lost jobs because they think my fees are too high, but I’ve also had clients that come back to me to reshoot a project or shoot future work after going with a lower-cost photographer. If they think my fees are too high, I’ll ask them if any builders, contractors, interior designers etc. would want to share some of the production costs. This works quite well for everyone, since I gain additional clients and the client’s overall fee is reduced.

ASMP: From your perspective, what is most essential in maintaining a profitable photography business? Given that you photograph many different types of architecture for a wide range of clients, what aspect of your business is most lucrative?

DR: Staying true to what I do and being firm with pricing has been most essential. Also, valuing my work, delivering high quality images and understanding how I’m helping my clients and what value my work brings to them. I provide a way for my clients to show their work by bringing the experience of each project to those who can’t see them in person.

ASMP: What is your favorite project you’ve shot to date and what made it special?

DR: This is a really tough question; I have so many favorites. What makes each project unique and special is the design team behind it. I really value and respect what design firms do. I love hearing about each new project, seeing the renderings, plans, construction photos, and then the real excitement of seeing the built project and walking through these giant pieces of artwork. It amazes me how structures come to be in existence from an idea on paper to physical structures you can walk through.

ASMP: With the help of your photography, many of the structures you shoot have won design awards. Your Web site mentions that you are part of the submittal process. What is your involvement in that?

DR: When architects and landscape architects submit their projects for design awards with AIA or ASLA, for example, they include plans, drawings, renderings, write-ups and photographs to represent exactly how the project turned out. The photos help tell the story in how successful the projects were in the design process to completion.

ASMP: Your clients comprise a wide range of disciplines, from architects and designers to developers, engineers, lighting companies, restaurants and hotels. Do you do much business in licensing your images to third parties that had a stake in the project being photographed? Do you have any strategies in place for attracting or soliciting this kind of business?

DR: Yes, that is very common. Sometimes third parties will go in together to share some of the production costs. Other times, I relicense images to third parties who contact me to purchase images. My most successful strategy has been to fully educate my clients on copyright, licensing and usage rights of the photos by third parties, which prompts them to direct third parties to license the photos from me for their use.

ASMP: You currently live in Tennessee, while you originally hail from New England. What brought you to the south? Are your assignments based mainly within that region or do you travel nationwide?

DR: After going to school and working as a full-time in-house photographer in California, I wanted to move closer to my sister and her family in Tennessee and start my own business. My intention was to move to Asheville, North Carolina, a beautiful mountain town with a west coast vibe I had fallen in love with. Little did I know, during my time in Knoxville with my sister and her family, that the architecture school at the University of Tennessee is well respected and most graduates stay in Knoxville and work at the many architecture firms in town. As a result, I’ve stayed in Knoxville, and my assignments are either local or within a six-hour driving radius in all directions, although some assignments do take me nationwide.

ASMP: How long have you lived in Tennessee? How would you describe the local creative community? Do you find it to be a lucrative place for an architectural photographer to be based?

DR: I’ve lived in Tennessee, on and off, for the past seven years. I travelled extensively for two years during this time on a contract assignment photographing hotels. I also moved to Charleston, South Carolina for a year-and-a-half, during which I was returning to Knoxville for a couple of weeks at a time, three to four times a year, to photograph projects. All the work from the Knoxville area prompted me to move back. It has been a lucrative area for me with some travel and clients extending to other regions of Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. It’s interesting for such a small city to have so many architecture firms and so much new build. I never thought I would live in this area and I’ve found benefits in this smaller community and challenges. There is a small local creative community in Knoxville that’s very active. The creative group of my friends and clients really make Knoxville a great home base for me. Yet, there are limited resources in the area for me as a professional photographer, which makes it challenging and a bit isolating at times.

ASMP: Do you have a preference between social networking channels or traditional marketing methods? Are there specific channels that have been more effective than for you others in generating attention and response?

DR: The most effective marketing strategies have been my Web site, promotional e-mailers, word of mouth, cold calling, referrals from clients, repeat clients and targeting the right firms and designers that need what I do.

ASMP: Do you also pursue personal photography projects?

DR: This is an area that I’m working on, but I haven’t made the time for this on a regular basis. I have a few ideas and a couple of projects I’ve been working on over time. These involve industrial or abandoned buildings, fine art nature and motion-blur abstract photos. I’ve really had fun with my iPhone and Instagram in the past couple of years. I even have a portfolio on my Web site that features photos taken with my iPhone and edited in Instagram, which shows more of my personal style in what I experience when seeing the world on a daily basis or when I travel. It’s been a great tool for sparking my creativity and to have fun with photography in a more carefree, different way than what I do for my clients.

ASMP: Have you explored motion, video or other hybrid forms of imaging among your business offerings or creative output?

DR: At the moment, I have no interest to incorporate motion or video in my business. I’m open to whatever transpires in the future, though. For now, I feel there will always be a need for what I do.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

DR: Don’t do everything yourself. Let others who specialize in what you don’t do well do it for you. There are so many aspects of a photography business. We’re creative people trying to do finances, business management, marketing, legal contracts, etc. Get help from people you know, or hire professionals to help take your business to the next level. The instructors at Brooks, other photographers with their own businesses and ASMP seminars prepared me for this. It took me a while after getting burned out to really pay attention to this advice and, now that I have help, I know it’s best for me and my business to have someone to work with in the areas I’m not very good at or don’t have time to deal with.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

DR: Staying true to what I do and really valuing my time and work. I never lowered my pricing during the recession and this is now paying off. Also, working with a business partner who handles all the finances, marketing efforts, assists on shoots and just gives me so much support in what I do.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

DR: You must be passionate about photography and feel in your heart that this is what you’re meant to do. I believe this passion is the driving force in my success. It’s not always easy and there are many long days and non-stop work when you own a business, although since it’s what I love to do it doesn’t feel like work. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and know you will be successful no matter what. There are highs and lows, just like life. Not everyone will like your work or will be a good fit for either of you. You need to search out the people who really connect with your work and need what you do. Work smarter, not harder. Stay true to your vision and what you do. Join ASMP and get involved with your local photography communities.