Thursday, February 9, 2012

Artist Focus: Sheila Rodgers, Photographer

Back in July, 2011, Blast Furnace announced that it would begin to include a quarterly focus of artists/photographers as a result of readers' poll votes. Our first artist feature is Sheila Rodgers.

Sheila Rodgers is a photographer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her photography primarily focuses on botanical subjects and location portraiture. She's been creating photographs for over four decades, and in Spring 2011, received her Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from Chatham University in Visual Arts: Photography Concentration.

The artist has published her photographs in Good Weed Bad Weed: Who's Who, What to Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance (All You Need to Know About the Weeds in Your Yard) with author Nancy Gift, PhD,  which sold over 5,000 copies within its first year of being published (including sales in Canada).

Sheila has held photography exhibits at Chatham, < c > space: collective, and at the Arboretum at the State Botanical Garden, University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Blast Furnace recently caught up with the photographer and conducted the following interview via email. [Click on any of the photographic images below to enlarge them]

How did you become interested in photography, and who are your influences? Whose work do you admire?

I’ve been taking pictures since my childhood, I was interested initially because my father had a 35-millimeter black&white Kodak camera and his mother had a Kodak box camera before that. I was interested in the captured moments from their earlier lives, and I wanted to be able to do that as well. I had inexpensive instamatic cameras through my teens and did not get to explore shooting and developing my own 35mm B&W photos until my early college years when I first majored in Industrial Arts. I didn’t finish that degree, but went on many years later to pursue a Visual Arts degree with a concentration in Photography. So personally, my early influences were my father and grandmother, then professionally, Dr. Robert Cooley at Chatham [University], who really taught me all I know now about both B&W and digital photography. His work has always been a source of admiration for me as we both were interested in many same areas of subject matter. On the level of professional photographers, most of the work that I admire was produced by three famous West Coast photographers: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston who formed Group f64.

Cirque du Soleil tents: f5.6, 1/2 sec. exposure, ISO-100, 26mm focal length, 6/4/11 in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before dawn on my 56th birthday. I was meeting a friend to shoot some pre-dawn photos, and we came upon these festive tents with no activity around them, quite the opposite of what one thinks of when they see circus tents. - SR
Typically, what are your subjects of interest? Is there a specific subject you would like to pursue in your photos that you haven't yet?

Like the Group f64 photographers, I am drawn to nature photography primarily, both landscape and macro images. My portraiture work tends to be shot in natural settings as well to draw upon natural light. I am not a big fan of studio portraiture, as I find the equipment gets in the way of interacting comfortably with my subjects. I haven’t considered other subject matter for awhile, as I am enjoying what I am doing enough right now—there is so much to see in the natural world.

Imagine at Strawberry Fields: f5, 1/100 sec. exposure, ISO-200, 32mm focal length, 5/28/11, Central Park, New York City, New York. This was my first trip to New York and although it was a short stay, I was hoping to see as many varied sights as possible. This was serendipitous, as we took a walk through Central Park, and came across this homage to John Lennon. - SR
Talk about your experience in the darkroom.

I first learned some rudimentary skills in my late teens/early twenties but never really had the time then to get really skilled in the darkroom. Once I began working with Dr. Cooley, he gave us as much access to the darkroom as we wished, and we often worked in self-formed groups to support each other's developing skills. Being able to successfully develop B&W film takes a blend of exacting science and also the willingness to push the envelope to get more out of out images. Sometimes it was exhilarating to see what formed on the paper, and sometimes it was sheer frustration, but always a great learning experience. I do wish we had had more time to pursue our darkroom skills. Sadly, with Dr. Cooley’s passing, I no longer have access to the darkroom.

Discarded wing: f13, 1 sec. exposure, ISO-100, 55mm focal length, 8/10/10. I walked out on my front porch at 7 [o'clock] one morning and found this laying in the still air, just as it is positioned here. I quickly gathered my camera and tripod to record this, as I knew the scene would not last. When I returned a brief time later, I found this was true, the wing was gone, it had flown away! - SR
Do you have a favorite photograph by another artist? Do you have a favorite book on the topic of photography, or a favorite book of photographs that you recommend to others?

I have at least eight books on Imogen Cunningham’s photography; I love her work in particular. I go back to them periodically to study what she was able to capture in her plant photographs. I have also read Beaumont Newhall's The History of Photography thoroughly just to learn about all of the marvelous predecessors in the field. Compared to today’s digital photographers, many of them faced extraordinary obstacles in terms of bulky equipment, limited darkroom access, fragile glass negatives, corrosive chemicals, travel restrictions, etc., that we take for granted today.

Iris and dew: f5.6, 1/200 sec. exposure, ISO-400, 200mm focal length, 5/28/10. Another early morning shot, as the dew clung to the petals of this white iris in my front garden. The wide aperture kept my depth of field shallow and using a zoom lens enabled me to really hone in on the details of the flower's structure. - SR
What kind of camera(s) do you use? What is your "go-to" lens for most shots, and do you ever use filters?

My primary camera is a Nikon D40x which has served me well for five years so far. The standard 18-55mm kit lens is the one I use most, although I sometimes use a 55-200mm zoom lens for close-up plant shots. The only filter I use regularly is a polarizing filter for outdoor work. If I still had regular access to the darkroom, I would still like to use the older Nikon and Minolta 35mm cameras that I have.

Japanese maple raindrop: f5.3, 1/60 sec. exposure, ISO-200, 155mm focal length, 7/21/08. This was shot at dusk after an early evening summer shower, and like the Iris and dew image, I like these compositions that include rainwater recorded with a shallow depth of field and a zoom lens. They create miniature magnifications, which I find delightful. - SR
Do you prefer digital or roll film? For digital, what's your camera resolution setting? Where do you print your digital photos and on what kind of paper?

I would have to say I prefer digital over film; it just lends itself to more versatility. The instantaneous results allow me to make adjustments on the spot, and the quality of the images is astounding at times. My D40x resolution is 10.2 megapixels. Dr. Cooley taught us that the human eye cannot really discern the difference once you get over 6 megapixels, so it is certainly enough digital information from my point of view. I print both at home on a Canon photo printer from a Mac computer, and I also use commercial services from Costco for larger images, up to poster sizes. I have used both glossy and matte papers, depending on the subject matter and where I will be displaying my images.

Church at dawn: f4.8, 1/160 sec. exposure, ISO-200, 95mm focal length, 6/4/11 in the Strip District, Pittsburgh before dawn. On this same photo shoot, as the sun began to rise, the light began changing rapidly and I found this scene at my back from the circus tents setting. Both were great birthday presents to myself! - SR
What advice do you have for amateur photographers who want to improve?

The same thing that I was taught—shoot, shoot, shoot. Take your camera everywhere and shoot what appeals to you. Bracket your shots to get a range of light and shadows. For me, the best thing I have incorporated in my work is using a tripod and a remote release because I get the sharpest images that way, both with nature photography and portraiture. Nothing can save an out-of-focus image regardless of your aperture, speed and ISO settings.

See more of Sheila's work on the web at


  1. Beautiful! Wonderful idea. I love the mission statement of Blast Furnace and find your collaborations very rich. Plus I love Pittsburgh

  2. Enjoyed the interview and visual delight.

  3. Thank you for your kind words of encouragement. BF appreciates your interest, enthusiasm & support!

  4. Nice.

    Just wondering about print size. I print a lot of material at 13X19 as that is the largest size I can print in my office/lab. How large do you go? When you go to larger sizes, where do you exhibit the prints? What is the viewing distance for those prints?

  5. David, following is the response to your comment/question from Sheila Rodgers:

    "So far I've printed 20x30 posters using a commercial service, any prints I do myself are no larger than 9x12. These images were shot with a 10 megapixel camera that will allow even larger prints than that if necessary. I've displayed these larger 20x30 prints in residences and office situations."

  6. Loved the Pittsburgh feeling of these beautiful photos and was reminded of another Pittsburgh photographer, Kristi Jan Hoover.
    Christine Wolfe