It certainly takes a lot of dedication to photograph surfers in the frigid waters of Rhode Island, but photographer Cate Brown with a whole heap of dedication and determination is combining her love of photography and the ocean to create stunning images. We learn more about Cate's work and photography here in our latest Her Stories Interview.
Life In Rhode Island
My name is Cate Brown; I'm a photographer born and raised in Rhode Island in the northeast US, currently photographing oceanic fine art and outdoor lifestyle for commercial clients. Aside from a few years at college, I've always lived in coastal Rhode Island and have been engaged in ocean sports or activities. When I was younger, that entailed sailing as a kid and through high school, and now as an adult, it involves professional photography in yachting, sailing, and surfing.
My Photography Journey
I've been interested in photography since I was very young. My mom showed me how to use an old Canon AE-1 film camera when I was about 13 years old, and I loved it! From there, I took whatever photography classes I could in high school and decided to go to college for photography as well. Of course, not everyone ends up in their chosen field after college, but I was lucky to have the family and support network I did and have been able to build and grow my photography business from the ground up.
The Ocean. It seems rather cliche at times, but simply the water inspires my photography. Whether it's the way the light dances across it, the variety of textures and moods it creates, the joy we feel from being around it, in it, or engaged with it in any way. It has an energy and force like nothing else I've ever experienced and will always continue to inspire what I shoot and what spurs my creativity.
And good friends! I love trying to capture the energy and happiness of my friends, and they continue to support me by being both in front of and behind my camera.
Hard Lessons and Overcoming Obstacles
Learning to self-promote has been a journey. Growing up, I was always a bit more reserved and quiet, so I didn't find a way to talk about myself or my work for a long time. Humility is still important to me. I still don't like talking too much about accomplishments or achievements because I feel like I'm still learning; everything is an experience you can learn from! But part of being a creative is you have to learn how to promote yourself, your work, pitch ideas, explore new growth opportunities... and build a thick skin to not take critiques about your work personally because you get a lot more "No"s than "Yes"s
'Achievement' can mean so many different things... Surf photography is one of my relatively newer disciplines of work, so many of my achievements come from my initial work in sail and yacht photography if achievement metrics are based on magazine covers or landing large commercial clients.
One of my favorite achievements thus far has been placing fourth in the NYSea Cold Shot photo challenge in 2020. Cold Shot focuses on winter surf photography here on the east coast. I was one of only two women to make the semis and the only woman to make it to the finals. Just to have a photo recognized, as a lesser-known female surf photographer in a big pool of predominantly male talent, with a longboarding photo from Rhode Island taking fourth place (since a lot of the NY/NJ short boarding images tend to garner the most attention), and being on the same zoom call as Taylor Steele, Sachi Cunningham, and Carissa Moore who were all judges that cycle (virtual awards ceremony thanks to covid)... it was pretty amazing! I didn't even win the top prize, but it was an achieving moment for sure.
The best and worst of it
There's a lot of uncertainty. Finding and retaining quality clients you enjoy working with is an ongoing challenge for just about any photographer. Not having a regular paycheck, not having employer benefits like paid family leave if I want to start a family or disability or if I get injured... there's a lot you have to learn to navigate in order to be successful as a creative person maintaining a small business. Being your own boss, doing your own marketing, accounting, business planning... it's hard to be accountable to only yourself.
But freedom is also one of the greatest things about being a photographer! If you build the right client base or portfolio, you can shoot what you ENJOY capturing the most. You can set your own schedule. You get to decide what's most important to you and how you feel is best to pursue your goals.
Work Life Balance
I definitely struggle with it at times, but I've been pretty lucky that I can manage a good work/life balance. Maybe that's the Libra in me. I know I'm lacking balance if I'm in a creative rut if I've got a whole long list of things to do, and not one of them is something I'm excited to get working on. If I'm not terribly motivated to get up for a sunrise session, if I'm not having bursts of inspiration... then something is probably a bit out of whack. Those are the times I try to just do something besides work, whether it's going to the rock gym, yoga, gardening, spending time with family, seeing friends... those simple things in life that are still important. If I make time to do them and feel fulfilled in those small ways, then usually, the creative juices will come back shortly thereafter. A lot will come in cycles, there will be big peaks of work, and there will be big lows with nothing to do, so making time for life during those in-between moments can help make those peaks feel manageable and remind me the lows won't last forever either.
Tips for a budding photographer...
Read the manual. Or at least watch a few youtube videos. Learn to use the tools you already have first, to the best of your ability, and it will make you a stronger photographer in the end. The more you familiarize yourself with your camera, learn about it, how it works, how to clean it and take care of it, and the new features or functions it might have... the easier it will be when you're ready to take photos with it. It can be hard to explore different subject matter if you don't know how to best use your camera first.
What the future holds
I've been working for a few seasons on documenting the cold water women's surf culture here in New England, so I plan on continuing that body of work, cold adventures, and perhaps expanding into more motion work to complement my still photography.
Valuable advice for upcoming photographers
Find what you enjoy shooting! Everyone's got an opinion about how to go about being a photographer or what you 'should' do, but the simplest thing is just to use whatever camera you have at your disposal, explore a variety of different shooting subjects or environments, and pursue the one that intrigues you the most. It'll help you find your unique perspective, your visual aesthetic, and your own style. Everyone likes to call themself a photographer these days, but knowing what excites you the most and sets you apart tends to be the most rewarding.
Explore Cate's work and support her creative journey
My work lives largely online at www.catebrownphoto.com and www.catebrown.art
I post regularly on instagram @catebrownphoto , and I have a monthly email newsletter with new work, sales, photo adventures, and event info for my exhibitions or summer art festivals in New England. Anyone interested in subscribing can sign up here: https://dm-mailinglist.com/subscribe?f=dc8e5c4e
Hidden Talent? Cooking
I'm actually a pretty good cook! I was diagnosed as a Celiac when I was 20 and have been gluten-free ever since, so to stay healthy and self-sufficient, I had to teach myself how to cook. I think I've developed a pretty good skill set from that!
One thing you can't live without? Seasons and cheese
Other than the ocean? I don't think I could live without the seasons we experience in the northeast. It brings a whole new level of appreciation to time outdoors, sunshine, waves... That, and I'm not sure I could live without cheese. I already gave up gluten, can't give up cheese too.
Current song on repeat? Koffee "Toast"
Oh, my tastes are eclectic and change with the seasons! Lots of Alabama Shakes and Tyler Childers in the winter months usually. Lots of reggae classics in the summer! Lately, I've been loving the young Jamaican artist Koffee, I'll put her work on repeat all the time, and she has a new album dropping soon.
Scared of? Injury
Injury that prevents me from doing what I love. I've been lucky to not have any serious problems or incidents, only small instances when I needed to listen to my body and pull back a bit before making anything worse... getting older and now being in my 30s hasn't always been the greatest. But the nature of my work isn't the absolute safest, and I know it's a long road ahead. So I want to make sure that I can stay healthy and functioning so I can do what I do for as long as I can possibly do it!
Quote to live by? Nelson Mandela
There are two quotes that I continue coming back to: one magically captures my sense of inspiration for my work; the other reminds me how to live life as a whole, fuelling optimism when my realism starts to lean toward cynicism.
"The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever." -- Jacques Cousteau
"May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears." -- Nelson Mandela
Additional Photo Credit: Chelsea Mandes