There is a reluctant beauty to the success Shae Detar has had as an image maker in fashion and the fine arts. During our conversation a relentlessly determined artist emerges, obsessively researched, protective of her vision, and dedicated to creating with the joy of a child. It is a mix that so many aspire to as they begin their career but lose to the pitfalls of commercial clients, the machinations of the art world, and art school critics or comments in an increasingly judgmental public space. Yet Shae has not only held onto her process in this environment, she has thrived in it, turned her back on it, and returned once again to the siren’s call of her roots and the acclaim that seemingly will not let her rest.
As a child Shae was home schooled, musical theater was a social and creative outlet, but as Shae noted, “It was creative, but not visual arts. I always made collages with magazines. I would take, i-D and The Face, and Japanese magazines found in the East Village (New York), cut them up, collage them, and then paint on them. I have no idea why I was getting into these magazines really early on, but I never thought of it as anything but playing.” Fast forward to Milan where Detar is working as a model and her flat mate, who was preparing to go to school in Florence, saw her collage filled journals and asked why she wasn’t going to art school. She promptly introduced Shae to the work of David Carson and the cutting edge indie magazine Ray Gun. Intrigued she enrolled at the School of Visual Arts where Carson taught. Said Shae, “You know, let’s just go,” because I was 19, you know? So, I went for two years, but everything I did I wanted to do by hand. I would make these big paintings that were very collaged. I look back at it now, and they’re terrible, but my mom still puts them up. I’m like, “Please take them down. They’re so awful.” I didn’t like working with text, fonts, and all of the things that you would do as a graphic designer. Clearly, I should have thought then, “Oh, I should go into fine arts.”, but my head just wasn’t in that space. I was just thinking, “Oh, I guess I’m just not a graphic designer.” So, I dropped out, and that was the end of school. Then I got married, and I didn’t know what to do. So, I sold vintage for six or seven years. And then my dog died.”
The trigger for change in our lives often comes from unexpected places and with the death of her dog, Detar quit everything realizing she had to decide what to do with her life. Though neither she nor her husband really know why, he suggested photography, and that was it, she began researching online and learned her craft. This ability to focus her attention and research deeply is a trait that has served her well throughout her career.
Shea was 30, cool, and making work that bloggers, the kings and queens of the internet at the time, loved. Blog agencies asked her to partner and she created campaigns for COACH among others, but deep down inside she didn’t want a career as a blogger nor the accruement that came along with it. Up to this point she had been making self portraits, but realized that she needed to take her work more seriously. Despite her fear of wasting her subject’s time she started photographing other people. The commercial world once again took notice and within a year the fashion company Aritzia asked her to do a billboard with her painted photos. “It was my first job, and I was really scared, because I had no idea how to do that. But I was like, “Alright.”, and that was really it.”
Though her career path sounds extraordinary, as with most it was not quite that simple. It took two and a half years of research, application, and failure to find processes that both satisfied Detar and were archival enough to share with galleries, collectors, and clients. She began working with analog photography, but the traditional path of colorizing photographs with oils placed her work in a historical context. So Shae stopped printing silver gelatin and explored an endless number of paper and paint combinations, looking for a way to paint photographs that was both practical and satisfying. The search was complicated by a desire to work large scale, which presents it’s own problems. Though the grain in a large analog print was beautiful the paint often ate away at the paper losing too much of the image. By comparison digital prints had always been too sharp for her taste, but the right combination of paint and paper followed by a light varnish took away that feel, with the resulting image cinematic in quality. Given her work in digital Photoshop has found a small role, but is hardly the predominant method for creating the final piece. Her technique is far more organic as failure and imperfection are built into Shae’s creative process, “Over the last year I had to accept what people are getting when they want handmade painted photos. They’re getting the imperfections of the whole process. Like, it’s not going to be a factory-made, “this is perfect,” So, I just had to take that pressure off myself.”
If the resulting methodology sounds a bit like her early days collaging magazines in the East Village, it is. “I try to keep this child-like mentality about it. When you watch children making art, they don’t overthink it. They’ll just make something that, “Look at this!” And then they’ll show you, and they’re so proud of it. I really, honestly try to keep that mentality. When I shoot, the planning is in preproduction, “Where’s my location? Who are my models?” That kind of thing. Once I get to the location I don’t want to think about what I’m going to do. I just want to do it. And then when I come home, I just edit through, print out tons of different things so I’m not afraid if I mess up, and that’s it. I try to just be like a little kid.” Given the preponderance of self aware images in art galleries and on Instagram there is a romantic notion to the way Shae creates that is reflected in the final piece. This extends to her model choices as well. Though her locations are well researched, looking for places that are “timeless and epic” but unrecognizable to her friends and colleagues, her casting is less structured as she doesn’t want to be influenced by who she is photographing. Though they are treated with respect her subjects are like a blank canvas as they become part of the set or scene. This allows her freedom to explore, embrace mistakes, and paint as she needs during the final stages of production. She is sure to let her models know this beforehand, “I just want you to know, please be okay with this, that you may end up not having a face. You might be yellow. You could be purple. At this point I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Given this you might be surprised to find her clients included Vogue Italia, Vogue Netherlands, Marie Claire Italia, Interview Magazine, I.D, Vice, Dazed, Grazia, The New Yorker, Elle UK, Marie Claire, NY Magazine, Forbes, Nylon, and Teen Vogue, among others. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally, and her work was included in 'The Female Gaze' exhibit with Vogue Italia in Milan. It was on a panel with Vogue Italia editor Chiara Bardelli Nonino and a handful of other photographers Shae realized she was not a photographer in the sense that many are,
“I’ll say this, for sure. I don’t love the shooting part. Which is one of the reasons that I was thinking about leaving photography to go to painting, I thought, “I’m clearly am not a photographer, because I don’t even enjoy it.” When I come alive is when I think about my influences, the things that I’m reading, poetry, and music, when that’s seeping in—forming the image when I’m in my studio painting the photographs and deciding what to do. In my opinion, that is what sets my work apart from other people’s. If you see my images before they’re painted, they’re probably boring. What makes it interesting is what I do in my studio, recreating the image out of watercolor or charcoal or whatever, and that part of it is very much what I’m reading, what I’m listening to.”
With that realization Shae quit photography turning her back on a career that many people dream of, and though she had never so much as drawn formally she applied to painting school. Convinced she would never go back to photography she sold her cameras and literally begged for one of the 8 spots in the studio, making a video promising to work harder than anyone else at the school. Accepted into the program, Detar stepped into an entirely different world. She admits being the worst student in the class, but they said, “You are literally the hardest-working student at our school.” As Shae recounts, “But I also was the one that was always crying.” It has been just over two years since she left the business, two years of total dedication, struggle, learning the formalities and history of representational painting. Then out of the blue Marie Claire Italia sent an email asking her to shoot seven pages for their fall 2019 issue with an accompanying exhibition in Milan and Der Spiegel. With that Shae was making photographs again, heading the Italy’s Dolomites for Marie Claire Italia and then to Milan to do a project for Grazia. We discussed whether her time at school might affect the way she sees photographically, that remains to be seen, but Shae offered this perspective, “What’s cool is now I’ve had two years—two-plus years off. It’s like, now I’m craving it again.” It is her first formal foray into fashion, and her entree back in to the world photography.
You might think this kind of attention would skew Detar’s perspective, but it is here that her time in painting school and the multiple artist’s biographies that she has read come into play. Shae realizes a many of her favorite painters had little success when alive, with many only enjoying success in their hometowns. She explained, “That really takes the pressure off for me, it’s not even an issue, because I don’t have that kind of thinking, “I have to be a success.” I literally don’t care about that, so that helps. It frees you up to know that you’re just an artist, and that’s sometimes the path of the artists, is not always easy. It’s actually a really crazy decision, to be an artist, don’t you think?” She continues, ”Almost every person that I know that has a real authentic artist spirit, we’re questioning our work all the time. Sometimes you’re in this mania, and you’re like, “I love this! This is amazing! I can’t wait to show people!” And then other times, you feel like, “I hate everything.” Her peace with her personal process is one thing, other people’s doubt regarding her ability deliver is another thing entirely. Said Shae, “I’ve been getting that a lot lately. I just told my husband yesterday, “I love when these magazines don’t believe that I can take a painted photo and turn it into fashion.” I’m like, “You just totally pushed me into this. I’m going to succeed at this because you did that to me.”...”I love proving people wrong.”
It would be a mistake for anyone to underestimate the process of this dedicated, fiercely creative, childlike author of fine art and commercial images. Artist’s like Shae live for their craft, though it may frequently exist in advertisements and galleries, there is a bit of magic in its essence. Perhaps a touch more honest authenticity is exactly what we all need.
You can find Shae’s work at Shaedetar.com
Shae Detar, by Thomas Werner @Thomaswernerprojects