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About the Simple Photograph that Launched My Photography Career and Changed My Life

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Weld Boathouse at Harvard, a black and white photograph by Keith Dotson.

In this episode, I’ll talk about the simple photograph that totally changed my life, and started my career as a photographer

Full podcast episode transcript

Hey everybody, Keith Dotson here welcoming you to another episode of the Fine Art Photography podcast.

Like many of you, I didn’t start out my life to become a photographer. In fact, I was once a devoted and passionate graphic designer — an art director who got a thrill from the shapes of serifs on a well designed font. I would work all day making advertising or brochure layouts, and on evenings and weekends I would make fine art — for me it was mostly watercolors and pencil drawings.

Now I had learned the basics of photography, beginning in junior high, where I learned ( or sorta learned) how to use a Rolleiflex TLR at school. In high school, I learned how to work in a black and white darkroom, how to process and print 35mm film. My parents gave me a 35mm camera, a Canon, that I loved dearly. My friend and I would photograph sporting events and campus activities for the yearbook, seeing it through from snapping the shutter, to developing the film, to making the prints, and even drawing the crop marks on the prints so the old school printers would know how to crop the print on the yearbook page. Yeah, this was a while ago — pre-digital and pre-desktop publishing. Photoshop wasn’t a thing yet — in fact, Adobe didn’t even exist yet.

But for years, photography was not my thing. It simply served a purpose in other facets of my creative life. As a graphic designer, I often worked with photographers and used photographs in my page layouts. But my own photographs were snapshots for remembering family occasions, or they were for making portraits of my kids, and quite often photographs I took were for use as reference materials for making the other art. I would take a photo of a great looking tree, get the prints made at Walgreen’s or wherever, and then use the print as my source material for drawing the tree.

Looking back on those early photographs, I can see that my eye was lazy, my compositions very poorly designed. I knew a lot about layout and design, but it’s as if putting the camera to my eye caused me to forget all that. Certainly nothing I shot would be anything I’d call art.

In late 2005, after an extended period of turmoil in my life — the aftermath of divorce, custody battles, and a whole lot of other yucky stuff — I scraped together enough money to take a vacation to Boston, a city I’d always wanted to visit but had never seen.

It was the holidays and I spent them there — a welcome change of scenery from Texas, where I lived at the time.

Boston did not disappoint. I saw a lot of historic sites. I looked at art. I enjoyed delicious meals. It snowed. And I took a lot of photographs.

But, again, this was before I considered myself any kind of photographer. I did have a fancy, newfangled 8 megapixel digital camera though. And I did love that camera. Can you believe we were at 8 megapixels 15 years ago? Now we are up to 100.

Anyways, I found myself spending a lot of time walking in the snow, shooting scenes near Harvard, along the very black and very still Charles River. The landscape was white and the river was like black glass, and the scenery lent itself to black and white because all the color was out of it already.

One of the photographs I made that day was a straight-on view of the river side facade of the Weld Boathouse that sits on the bank of the Charles River near the Harvard campus. It’s a two or maybe three story building, very symmetrical in its design, with two peaks, four chimneys, and a row of arched windows and doors along the bottom floor. Two big ramps slope from the building to the river.

Weld Boathouse at Harvard, a black and white photograph by Keith Dotson.
Weld Boathouse at Harvard, a black and white photograph by Keith Dotson.

The light was lead gray, smooth and soft — and I realized in recently looking at this photograph anew, that the light captured in this photograph set the stage for my preference of this kind of light all the way down to this very day. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you, I go on and on ad nauseum about wanting this kind of soft gray light for photography.

Anyways, back to the photograph — as I said, the river was black and smooth, and the building, with its snowy white roof peaks and ramps, shone mirror-like in the dark river below.

This black and white photograph of Weld Boathouse, taken on News Years Day 2006, marked a turning point. The beautiful range of tones, the composition, the reflection, the silence, the mood. . . it all spoke to me. When I looked at this finished photograph, I saw it not as source material for making a watercolor or drawing — I saw the photograph as THE ART. It was a life-changing revelation.

I had a lot to learn and a long way to go before I really came to see myself as a photographer, but after this trip to Boston, and especially this photograph, the page had turned. Eventually, I stopped pursuing other kinds of art altogether. Photography became my sole artistic pursuit.

When a friend suggested I join Etsy in 2007, I was still making color and black and white images. Over time, I made the conscious commitment to concentrate on black and white photography, forgoing color images altogether.

15 years later, I’m still making black and white photographs. And, I’m still learning about photography.

But in the years since that trip to Boston, so much has happened as a result of that photograph. I’ve had work accepted into art galleries and exhibitions. I’ve had photographs appear as wall art in television shows and movies. My work has been collected by hotel chains, major universities, medical facilities, corporations, and all kinds of other organizations. I’ve been interviewed by magazines. Photography students in the UK have studied my work for class projects. I’ve shipped prints to collectors in Europe, Australia, Dubai, Canada, and all across the US. Looking back over the past 15 years, it seems head-spinning and unexpected. And it flew by!

This was a direction I never expected my life to take, but photography has become a lifestyle and a passion. Coming when it did after a pretty dark and bruising part of my life — I might even say that photography turned my life around.

It’s something I still want to do every single day. I always want to know more about the history of photography as the latest technologies and techniques. And I still love making prints.

All of this stems from that one simple photograph of a snow-covered boathouse on the Charles River in Cambridge.

I hope the next 15 years will bring as much fun, adventure, and photographic opportunities as the past 15!

View of Weld Boathouse on the Charles River, taken on New Years Day, 2006.
View of Weld Boathouse on the Charles River, taken on New Years Day, 2006.

Now, before I wrap this up, let me tell you a little bit about Weld Boathouse.

Weld Boathouse was built in 1906, which means it was having its centennial the year I photographed it. Of course it’s 115 years old now.

It was named after George Walker Weld, who donated the funding to build the boathouse, and actually a previous one that sat on the same location before this one

When you look at the boathouse from the opposite shore, you’re standing on the Boston side of the Charles River and looking at Harvard on the Cambridge side of the river. In fact, the building belongs to Harvard University and is currently home to Harvard’s women’s varsity rowing crews, as well as some sculling crews and other teams.

Weld is one of many boathouses along this stretch of the Charles River. According to the Harvard University website — and I’m quoting, “with 29 miles of rowable river and a six-lane 2000-meter race course, the Charles is an outstanding body of water for rowing, and is home to many of the nation’s finest collegiate rowing programs.” end quote.

Well that’s all I’ve got for this episode — thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you again real soon.

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Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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