By Leslie Dinaberg
Despite her lifelong fascination with light, shapes and colors—not to mention an impressive list of awards and exhibitions, both internationally and closer to her hometown of Santa Barbara—photographer Patricia Houghton Clarke has only been focused on photography for a short time.
“I’ve been photographing all along, but really only started taking it seriously about ten years ago, where I was producing bodies of work and starting to show my work,” says Clarke, whose ready smile and approachable style surely does wonders to put her subjects at ease.
Not to say she didn’t have a camera in hand before that.
“During a Trans-Africa trip in 1974, I had this little Kodak Instamatic and I remember just looking around me and thinking, ‘I wish I could get my eyes to be transmitting.’ It was such a strong thought. ‘I wish I could transmit this. How would I transmit this?’ This was 1974. So years later when I’m looking at my body of work I’m thinking it was the camera. It was always the camera.”
She smiles, “It’s so funny … as it’s turned out that’s exactly what that is for me. It’s my way of transmitting either what I’m seeing or feeling about what I’m experiencing.… When I finally got really serious with my photographic work, it was like wow, then turning around and finding out that your best friend was really your love—it was like okay, you’re the one.
“It wasn’t painting, it wasn’t drawing; it was this. But it took those steps.
“I had this amazing aha moment. … I always knew that my grandfather was an amateur photographer but I never saw his work.… When I started showing my work, my dad told me that his father had been a photographer and (my dad) had also been a photographer. I didn’t know that.”
When she finally saw her grandfather’s work, it was jarring. “There were so many photographs that I literally had shot the same shot. The perspective was the same; the way the light worked was the same.”
In fact, in 2008, when curator Brett Leigh Dicks (also an accomplished photographer in his own right) put together “Sentimento: immagini d’Italia/Homage to my Grandfather” at Art Resources gallery, Clarke displayed her grandfather Herbert Houghton Clarke’s work alongside her own.
“I always think, is that cellular? Isn’t that weird? I’m the third in the line and I didn’t even know it. It wasn’t like I was raised with photography and so I did it,” she says.
In terms of subject matter, Clarke’s interests run the gamut from turning her sensitive lens to the outwardly dazzling (her 2011 show “Erasing Lines,” at Wall Space Gallery showcased the transgender drag community and was also a benefit for Pacific Pride Foundation) to the quietly reflective (“On the Question of Wonder,” a 2012 show at Santa Barbara Tennis Club, explored the quiet places inside each of us). Travel is also a constant: the 2011 exhibition “Comunione,” on the Piazza della Repubblica in Martignano, Italy, explores just one of Clarke’s many adventures abroad with her camera.
That camera, by the way, is often a $15 toy Holga, which was the case with her photo feature for the summer issue of SEASONS, exploring A New View of Old Spanish Days: Through the Lens of Patricia Houghton Clarke.
Those magical—and refreshingly unique—images of one of Santa Barbara’s most photographed festivals were partly a result of Clarke’s concentrated effort to document not just her travels but the joys and traditions here in the town that’s been her home since she was a teenager.
“I’m really committed to photographing my own culture and sort of seeing it the way I would see a culture that I am foreign to,” says Clarke.
A vegetarian since she was 17, she admits that her first foray to the rodeo took some getting used to.
“I’m watching the rodeo thinking, wow this is tough to watch, and then I thought you know you can’t ever judge what you’re looking at when you’re photographing it. You have to be just completely nonjudgmental … or you’re not just an open channel to the images. … I was watching the rodeo and feeling uncomfortable about it and I thought just let it go—and it actually really affected my photography,” says Clarke.
“I remember the moment really well. It was like you’ve got to let that go, you can’t put your own filter on top of whatever you’re looking at. It’s been that way for me all the time when I shoot. It was one of those kind of aha kind of moments, because I shoot foreign cultures a lot—so it was cool to put it in this context.”
In addition to her artistic work—which if forced to categorize it, she labels fine art documentary photography—Clarke also recently started a small side business of portrait photography called Your Best Shot .
That business came from years of looking at people’s pictures online, she says, and just thinking, “it’s so sad people don’t have much opportunity to get a good picture. So I’m doing that right now because I love portraiture and it’s kind of a fun way to connect with people.”
At a recent portrait session with her good friend and fellow photographer Jesse Alexander, Clarke says he saw a different side of her. “He and I are really good friends, and I’ve been wanting to take his portrait for a long time. … I started working and he sort of went ‘whoa, you get really serious,'” she laughs.
“I guess I do. You just click into a different thing … if you’re shooting a wedding or something, you’re not participating, you’re in another world. Your mind is in more of an alpha state, so you can’t really communicate.”
She continues, “Now that I look back, I realize that all of my memories, my really strong memories, are associated with light. I was just talking to my mom about this the other day, that if something really significant happened I could tell you where the light was coming in the room and how it lit things and stuff. So it’s just how I’ve been seeing all my life but I didn’t really put that together until now.”
For more information about Patricia Houghton Clarke and her current work on exhibition, visit her website, patriciahoughtonclarke.com. To view her current story in Santa Barbara SEASONS, click here. In addition, her work is permanently on view at the restaurant Cadiz (509 State St., 805/770-2760, cadizsb.com), where there will be an artist’s reception with a portion of the proceeds to benefit Old Spanish Days on June 4 from 5:30–7:30 p.m.