On the day I speak with Australian photographer Carla Coulson via Skype, she is greeting a bright early spring morning in Le Marais, the oldest district of Paris where she lives with her Italian husband. There narrow cobblestoned alleys split the compact accommodations of the 3rd Arrondissement which is a magnet
for the creative spirit and where Carla has resided since her move to Paris.
My last interview with Carla was in 2009, the catalyst then was her book Paris Tango. Of that feature article she laughs, “The best headline I’ve ever had – ‘Carla Coulson Conquers Europe’. I love it”.
Today we are talking about her third solo book, Chasing A Dream, which a beautifully-padded and bound edition from Penguin spanning the past decade. The book contains an eclectic mix of photographs and journal-style entries that share Carla’s fashion magazine work as well as her street and travel photography. It is an intimate account that she openly shares with the reader; her honesty and sentimentality is part of her appeal.
Carla took off for Europe 12 years ago, leaving behind a life in Sydney to set up home in Florence – a continent change. There she learned photography, met her husband and carved a reputation as a fashion and travel photographer. Her work appeared in leading titles around the globe. In that time she also shot a number of personal photo essays. In Chasing A Dream she draws on this work as well as new essays on Greece and India.
Of the new work she reveals there was the intention to also shoot on the streets of Paris, but her most recent attempt at street photography in the city ended with a knife being pulled on her.
“In Paris people are very suspicious… very wary of you. Italians all want to be movie stars so, if you have a camera, they come running. It’s a very different, wonderful place to take photos and I’ve always felt good about street photography in Italy. There’s nothing worse than what happened in Paris where photography becomes a negative thing. It’s the only place I’ve really had a weird reaction on the street. And in India people are divine”.
In comparison to the closed ‘vibe’ of Paris, Carla says her experience shooting portraits in Greece was uplifting and reaffirming. “I couldn’t speak Greek and was walking up to people with a piece of paper explaining what I wanted. They were extraordinary people from the islands, and these moments make you feel great about being a photographer. I always try to send anyone who has ever posed for me a photo. And I have all these gorgeous letters of thanks in Greek.”
Carla wanted Chasing A Dream to convey her love of photography. “When you start photographing for others, you can unlearn how you take photographs for you,” she says reflecting on her commercial work. “You stop taking photos the way you used to, full of joy or laughter or movement and where you don’t care if it’s perfectly in focus because you want to capture the energy you feel.
“I went to India just for me, to take photos for this book because I wanted to go back to the beginning of how I took photographs and be me on my own, free to go out every day and take photographs. It was a very liberating thing to do… to remember what I love about photography.”
This resurgence in passion has led to her next venture, shooting timeless, classic portraits of women who are private clients. She explains, “Over the last year I’ve been dabbling in high-end fashion inspired portraits and I’ve done that very privately and quietly to see whether I enjoyed it before putting it out there. It’s been something I totally love. It’s pitched at women and I’ve already had a great response”.
In March, her Website, called Carla Loves Photography, launched with a special section for clients who want to ‘Book a shoot with Carla’ and be a “Parisian Muse” for a day. Carla says the shift in direction is also partly influenced by her desire to have greater balance in life. “Travelling as you get older is harder,” she states recalling long hours on location and then after the day’s shoot, working late in the hotel room on the digital files.
“The first private portrait I did was to celebrate an anniversary. I had such a great day and really enjoyed the experience. The feedback was extraordinary. They were so blown away to get a photo of themselves that they loved. You get feedback from commercial work, but nothing like this. So, for me personally, I got a lot of reward out of it. And, I thought how can I make this something more?”
How? By doing a deal with “…one of the most fabulous French hotels in Paris [which has] beautiful décor. I’m using a suite as a studio where I have control over the light, and I have a hair and make-up artist. I want to create portraits full of emotion, but in a very beautiful atmosphere. I would like the women to walk away from our photo shoot thinking that was an extraordinary French experience. It’s totally different to what I have been doing for the last ten years, but I am actually having lots of fun. I can indulge my love of fashion and draw on all the things I’ve learned shooting fashion, but with real people. And real people are so thankful and so lovely,” she laughs.
To the question about whether this new venture will pay the bills, Carla is positive, but also a realist and will still take magazine assignments if only in the short term.
“People will see the value; I’m photographing them in an extraordinary suite in Paris that costs $3000 a night, plus hair and make-up to create a great experience and a great day out. And you end up with these, hopefully, timeless images.”
Carla is banking on re-igniting the market for classic portraits, “…like our grandmothers and mothers used to have taken. One really great photograph”.
Alison Stieven-Taylor is an author and photographer based in Melbourne. For more information visit
www.realityillusion.com Her book, Rock Chicks, profiles the leading female rock stars from the 1960s.
All photographs by Carla Coulson, copyright 2012.