“A mad scientist that has a serious hobby problem,” that’s what Washington, D.C.-based photographer Chuck Fletcher describes himself as. Despite always being told he had a gift with photography, he admits he always pushed it away due to being either busy or immature. His background as a geologist took hold of his life before he finally decided it was time to make the switch to become a serious, disciplined photographer. Within the past three years, Chuck has won various awards from National Geographic, FotoDC and Art and Beyond Magazine. Some of the art galleries he’s been found include the Torpedo Factory, Artbot Gallery and more. Below, see what Chuck has to say about his personal goals and what advice he has for new photographers.  

SNAP.: So, tell me a little bit about yourself.

Chuck: My background, I’m a geologist. I got into photography seriously about three years ago, and when I say ‘seriously,’ that means practicing with discipline, critically evaluating the pictures, following the academic part of it. So, that’s serious. I’ve been shooting for a long time, but seriously from a professional standpoint and from an artistic standpoint, about three years ago.

SNAP.: Why’d you make the switch from a geologist to a photographer?                             

Chuck: I had a number of folks tell me unrelated to myself that I had a gift, and I had mostly just ignored it for some time because I do enjoy taking pictures. So, then I took a deep dive, and I just thought I would see how good I could get.

SNAP.: Why did you ignore it for a while?

Chuck: Busy, immaturity, just not sort of being self-aware.

SNAP.: So, have you ever gone to photography school?

Chuck: I have a background in digital image processing for satellite data used in exploration, and it turns out that a lot of the techniques used for satellite data are applicable to digital photography, and I’ve also taken a number of courses on photography, but I don’t have a degree.

SNAP.: Do you have a degree in geology?

Chuck: I have a few degrees in science and geology. So, I’m a mad scientist that has a serious hobby problem.
SNAP.: Where did you go to school then?

Chuck: I did two degrees as East Carolina, makes me a real pirate, and then I did the better part of a Ph.D. at University of South Carolina.

SNAP.: Could you describe your style of photography?

Chuck: My style of photography – it’s interesting. It’s a hybrid. I started off doing street photography because I really love that, but it turns out that there aren’t that many interesting things to shoot in the suburbs, but I found that when I was working with the shots that I did have, I found myself gravitating to the people’s faces. I was always very interested in what they were doing, the nuances of their life, and that migrated into sort of portrait work, and it turns out that what I really do now is sort of lifestyle portraiture with street photography influence. So, it’s great. People love it. There are a lot of really good candid shots I tend to – somehow, I’m able to capture someone revealing something about themselves when they don’t know it, and that really shines through in the photos, but judges tend to hate it because they don’t know what to do with it. It’s sort of like a musician that turns up a song that falls between genres. The people like it, but the radio stations don’t know what to do with it. So, I find myself trying to squeeze myself into fine art or in the street photography, and it doesn't really fit in both.

SNAP.: Who are some photographers that you’re influenced by?

Chuck: When I got serious, I took sort of my own academic study on street photographers, and I can’t name them all, but there are 10 very notable street photographers that I study, but it turns out that social media today is great because you can follow 100 great photographers all over the world and also these sites that aggregate photographers doing all kinds of work. So, every morning I can check these social media feeds and see what people, professionals and amateurs are shooting all over the world, and look at trends, and who’s doing what, and you can understand what’s the latest in street photography, you can understand portraiture and fine art, and I think that’s actually more helpful for seeing what I like rather than to mirror image somebody’s style.

SNAP.: What type of camera do you use?

Chuck: Most of my work is done with a Nikon. It’s a D70100 with a 35 mm prime lens. Most of my work in general is done with prime lenses. So, when you’re a photographer, you sort of know the trade-off with prime lenses and zooms, but I use it for the quality and for the speed. So, most of my work is done in an environment in which I don’t control anything. So, speed and accuracy really is what pays off, and I need to have that level of quality, but I trade off in flexibility. So, if I shoot at an event, I’m moving a lot, whereas other wedding photographers come with the big kits. The other camera I use is a Fuji X20. It’s a very different camera system. I use it for specialty shots, for when the environment’s not going to work for traditional DSLRs.

SNAP.: You have your own gallery, called Rush Street Gallery. What are your goals for your gallery?

Chuck: So, the goals are very modest. Rush Street Gallery is an experiment of mine, and it is an online gallery, which was geared to enable practicing disciplined photographers. These aren’t people with happy snaps or ‘Hey, I got a picture with my cat.’ These are disciplined folks practicing photography that aren’t necessarily in the major leagues, that want a place to exhibit. The other niche it fills is that many times when you compete, you never really understand why the judge or judging panels chose certain pieces over others, and in this case, I choose the pieces, but I will also provide feedback on why the pieces are chosen. What are the driving characteristics of the photo that carries it? And I think that kind of feedback is really important, and it helps the photographers move from this mysterious ‘I don’t know why I got accepted or rejected’ to ‘Oh, here’s the selection criteria.’ So, art and photography are very nebulous as far as why someone likes it or doesn’t like it, but being a scientist, I’d rather have some data.

SNAP.: Do you have any other goals for the future?

Chuck: I’ve been doing some work with Taproot as a volunteer pro bono photographer. So, I could try and make money with photography, but I find it’s much more rewarding – and I have many more opportunities – if I volunteer my services to non-profit organizations that need somebody that can use a camera. Recently – and you can see it in my website under the ‘Special Events 2015’ – I did a job for Taproot on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. and it was 300 project manager volunteers to help 100 non-profits get a project done, and I was able to document that. The Secretary of Commerce showed up, and I was the photographer on site to document her. So, I do a lot of non-profit work, and I think that’s primarily important to myself and what I do, so the impact is there. So, I think my philosophy is that the right photo can have lifetimes of impact, and I do that over and over again in non-profit work. Whereas in paid work, somebody might like the shot and pay for the shot, and then it’s over.

SNAP.: Do you have any advice for new photographers?

Chuck: I do. Don’t buy a lot of expensive gear. A simple kit is better than a fancy kit. Stick to the basics and focus on composition only.

SNAP.: What do you mean that ‘a simple kit is a fancy kit’?

So, I think it’s real easy to see professional photographers with big camera kits, and large telephoto lenses or a lot of different camera gear. It’s easy to get caught up in that. The reality is that a good picture is going to be the good picture because of the ability to be able to recognize the opportunity and the framing. That’s really what it comes down to. No one’s ever asked me what the technical specifications were of the shots that I had. No one’s ever asked me about why do I prefer Nikon over Canon. The art space in Herndon has never asked why they have accepted more photographs from a Fuji X20 than a Nikon. But everybody’s very interested in how the photograph looks and what’s the message. So, I invest in a solid middle-range camera and spend the time taking pictures.

SNAP.: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Chuck: So, the challenge of photography for me, it has many levels. There’s the technical aspect of getting the right picture. There’s the field aspect of trying to take a photo, and then there’s the people aspect. I don’t take landscape photographs. I am in the mix with a person or with a group of people, and when you’re photographing people that aren’t your family, there has to be some implied relationship, and I think developing that skill and being able to have people photograph well for you, I think is a challenge in itself. It’s interesting. I draw a parallel between photography and golf. For me, I’m a terrible golfer. I will swing all day at a ball, and one out of every 100 hits will be perfect, and it will energize you to try to do it again. Every time I get discouraged trying to take a good photograph, I look back, and I might take a winning photograph that will make me energized. I think photography is a great democratic art form. Everybody does it these days, but it really comes down to the photographer and the artist trying to be able to capture a scene that matters, and I think that’s what I do as well as many others like me.

To learn more about Chuck Fletcher or see more of his work, check out his website here.

About Michelle Goldchain

Michelle is a photojournalist who loves to live life by never sitting still. You can find her in art galleries in Dupont Circle, ethnic restaurants in Adams Morgan and comedy clubs in Arlington. In her spare time, when she's not typing away at a computer screen, she's probably listening to moody electronic music, watching cat videos or doodling.
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