This article was originally featured in Coulture Magazine’s Spring 2018 print issue.
Shadows cast by a glass plane, women cloaked in grace and landscapes that unveil the history of now and then. When Sadie Culberson practices photography, she makes her values clear: make peace with the everyday, assess how you feel in the moment and always be present. Her values are equally visible in her photos – evidence that these principles can lead to an inspired, genuine way of life.
Culberson, a 26-year-old fine arts photographer located in Asheville, North Carolina, embraces beauty in mundane, everyday life. Her photographs can be described as calm, simple and abstract, acting as an extension of her curiosity. They express who she is the moment she takes the photo. Whether it is the reflection of light on glass, the ornamental trim of an old building or the interaction between man and the man-made, Culberson’s attention to detail elevates her photographs and allows the viewer to relish in the scenes captured.
Culberson’s passion and talent in the arts has been apparent since a young age. “I couldn’t find a single thing that made me as happy as I am when I’m creating things,” said Culberson. “I took that as a sign that I need to just go for it and see what happens if I trust myself a little bit more.” While doubt and fear of inadequacy kept her from pursuing a fine arts degree, she later began to believe in herself and became a self-taught photographer.
Growing up in Northern California as the oldest of four, Culberson cultivated her creativity by dressing up her two younger sisters and staging mini photo shoots. She borrowed her mother’s point-and-shoot camera and edited the images in iPhoto. For Culberson, it was a fun and simple way to connect and spend time with her sisters. As she entered adolescence, the design and layout of photos displayed on Myspace intrigued and inspired her. For a few years, Myspace became a platform for Culberson to explore photography and design. She now publishes her photos on her self titled online portfolio.
She saved money to purchase her first digital camera when she moved to North Carolina as a first-year student at UNC-Asheville. Upon entering college, Culberson discovered an interest in documenting the daily life of university students.
As her work improved, she unearthed a love for exploring the little things that fascinated her but usually went unnoticed by others. Photography provided an opportunity for Culberson to examine and reflect on where she was in life and dissect her many interests at that moment. For her, photography became a space for self-discovery and an opportunity to explore the extension of self, instead of just self-expression.
Culberson’s husband, Nathan, a musician, is often the sounding board for her projects. He tries not to get involved during the early stages of her work so that she feels free to try different ideas without judgement. According to Nathan, Culberson usually takes over a space in the house for a few days where she surrounds herself with different objects, props and vision boards and just plays around until an idea sparks. He says that once an idea for a project has been sketched and mocked up, he provides honest feedback and suggestions. To him Culberson’s work is simple, calm and illuminating, creating a sense of visual harmony that translates not only in her photographs but also in her way of life.
“Within her work, her friendships, the spaces she creates, and her approach to living, she has this awareness that every small detail can affect the larger scope of what’s going on,” he said. “I think it’s most easily seen in her still-life photo work, but the idea that every piece can visually resonate with the rest of the environment to create this experience seems to extend well beyond her various art forms and reveal something about her deeper nature.”
Culberson’s perceptions of beauty broadened and changed over the course of her career, with attention shifting to more natural and realistic scenes with neutral colors such as clay, beige and mossy green. These more grounded images are difficult to create compared to her earlier works, which featured more dramatic colors and edits. Culberson does not necessarily aim to share a deeper message within her work; she is more concerned with figuring out whether her images represent or communicate her curiosity and desire to discover who she is as a person.
A typical work day for Culberson begins with waking up and taking quiet time in the morning to drink tea and journal. She then responds to emails and schedules her shoots. She catalogs what she has planned and gathers what she needs. Most shoots are organized days or weeks in advance in order to avoid any unnecessary last-minute stress. Even projects done at home require a lot of attention and thought: What will the weather be like? Will the shoot be inside or outside?
What props are needed? Culberson never goes to shoots without a piece paper full of sketches and ideas – especially if she is photographing with people because she can freeze in the moment if her feels that her photo subjects are waiting on her. Culberson gives herself space to interact with the subjects, examining light, testing placements and observing shapes. Before taking out her professional camera, she captures practice shots with her phone to test angles and composition. It is nearly impossible to predict the results of each shoot. Even after the photos have been taken, there is no telling what they will look like until the editing process. She shoots in 100 percent natural light, so there is always mystery and chance behind every photo.
Even with all of the planning, some days just are not as productive as others. When this happens, Culberson takes a day or two off to freshen her mind. She will go for walks to help her reflect and gather her thoughts, and she said her best ideas emerge when she is by herself. To get her creative juices flowing, she will rearrange furniture, dance or sing; all activities where there are no wrong answers. As a self-professed people pleaser, Culberson finds it hard to ignore everyone’s voices in her head telling her what to do in order to succeed. “I feel like those are all on repeat nonstop and it gives me anxiety and I kind of lose sight of what I’m doing,” she said. “But when I turn my phone off and just go arrange in my house and turn music on, it makes life a lot more simple again.”
Life as a professional artist can be a little erratic. “It’s not very easy or consistent,” Culberson confesses. “You have to be pretty self-motivated and organized. But I enjoy those things; every day is different.” She enjoys the spontaneity and newness that each day and each project brings. However, balancing different jobs and wearing many different
hats such as therapist, artist and camera technician, as she said, is a requirement. Working as a freelance artist, as with many freelance professions, depends on the schedule and lifestyle of the person working. Since she lives simply, she can photograph full-time; however, she warns that might not work for everyone. Culberson suggests that each person must determine the kind of artist they want to be and run a business catered to their own style.
Clients range from a sustainable clothing line such as Two Fold Clothing – based in Charlotte – to a dentist’s office. Culberson is able to translate people’s visions into photos that both the client and she enjoys. This is the characteristic she said is most helpful when collaborating for weddings and other photoshoots.
Culberson said it can be difficult to create images that both satisfy what her clients want and still resonate with her own artistic vision. Luckily, Culberson receives many of her commissions through social media, so most of her clients already know and love her photos and often share the same aesthetic ideals. This allows her to create stronger relationships with the people she collaborates with, many of whom she now considers her friends.
Securing work through social media can be difficult for someone in their 20s. It is easy to look at social media and assume that every 26-year-old has their life figured out. Culberson is not necessarily honest on social media. “I have a hard time knowing how honest to be on platforms like that,” she said.
She stays grounded by reminding herself that it is okay not to have all the answers. She allows herself to be content with where she is now. She believes that worrying about lining up with society’s expectations of where she should be in life prevents her from learning and discovering her passions.
Culberson’s motivators are her art teachers because they were incredibly supportive and encouraging. They reminded her of her talent and ability as an artist. One high school teacher bought Culberson’s first piece of art. They were the ones who helped her believe she could be successful as an artist.
The biggest inspiration in Culberson’s life, however, is her grandmother, a fiber artist who recently relocated from California to Asheville. She travels the country to teach spinning, knitting and felting. She taught Culberson that it is never too late to change careers and passions. Culberson’s grandmother encourages her to follow her curiosity and accept her ever-changing future. “There is nothing you have to have figured out within a certain age,” said Culberson, who learns from her grandmother’s life. “You can do what you need to do.” It is important to Culberson that no matter what she does, she is enjoying it. “She has fun with what she does,” she said. “I like that you can be really good at something and also not take it too seriously.” Culberson does not feel confined to one craft, and she predicts a career change at some point in her life. Whether that be to graphic or interior design, she plans to continue channeling her creative energy.