The Beautiful Botanicals of Beth Galton
From the Majesty of Roots to the Magic of Silver-Lined Clouds
© Beth Galton
In our high-tech, personal-information-saturated age of over sharing, it seems that you can find out just about anything about anyone. Especially someone whose much-lauded commercial work has been featured on screens and magazines, with exceptional fine-art work having been displayed in the toniest of galleries.
Not so for photographer Beth Galton. When asked about her various online platforms—listed below—places where so many of us gush about this or rant about that, Galton sticks to the matter at hand: photography.
“What’s personal about me is what I put into my imagery.”
And her imagery runs the gamut from apple juice to zucchini salad. But her roots, if you will, are roots, and the beautiful botanical splendor they evince.
Five Towns | One Goal
Anyone from or near Long Island, New York, may be familiar with the term “The Five Towns.” It refers to well, five towns just west of Queens on the south shore of “the island” (as many natives refer to the peninsula). Beth was born in Glenn Cove, then lived in Baldwin, Merrick, and Hempstead before settling in New York City. Her parents divorced when she was around ten. She and her mom and sister stayed on the island; her dad moved to the city. Visiting him there opened up her world.
Galton credits her dad with being the guiding light of her life. (More on his inspiring story later.) Having gone to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, himself—Antioch, in Yellow Springs, Ohio—he wanted the same for Beth. Thus she headed to Hiram, Ohio, to attend the eponymous liberal arts college there, with a student-body size of just over a thousand.
At this point, the teenaged Galton didn’t yet have that singular vision that would define her august body of work. Graduating from Hiram with a degree in fine arts, she had indeed fallen in love with photography. But thanks to the broad panoply of courses offered at there, she took many classes in environmental science, which spawned a deep affinity for biology, and her job working on the campus farm. Those two strands—photography and that which comes from the good earth—would eventually entwine much like the classic DNA strands themselves, to form her artistic DNA… but not yet. Upon graduation, the 21-year-old had absolutely no idea what she wanted to do. While that seemingly blank canvas was unsettling for her, it had the benefit of leaving her open and open-minded to pursue her goal: finding work.
Galton’s first job out of school sounds pretty darned good: working as an administrative assistant in the theatre program of New York University. Creativity there abounded. For everyone, that is, except her. “I was bored out of my mind. Everybody was being creative… except for me. I was a terrible typist. I was just terrible.”
But as we all know, many a cloud contains a lining of radiant silver.
We see a 21-year-old Beth, sleeping on her dad’s couch (he had bought a brownstone in the ‘60s). She awakes, pursing her lips at the prospect of yet another day at the office. But this day will be quite special, for she will learn about a weekend workshop in photography.
Cut to the workshop. One of the women there suggests that rather than assisting in the theatre, Beth should try assisting a photographer. Light bulb!
Back at work, another woman, one of Beth’s coworkers, tells her that her husband IS a photographer’s assistant. “Why don’t you got talk to him!” Flash!
We’re now in said photographer’s studio, where he and said assistant spend two hours trying to convince Beth that photography is a dying business, and that she would be wise to walk away.
“They were real characters. I left and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
She quits her job and sets out to claim her place in the world of commercial photography.
The Aforementioned Vision
There is nothing quite so thrilling as discovering your destiny. Knowing in your bones that you have found your yellow brick road. However, getting to Oz ain’t exactly easy; the road can be bumpy. Quite bumpy. We’re talking the mid-70s here. Yes, there were job-placement agencies for photo assistants. But there was a huge moat around Galton’s goal—one that still exists today, albeit to a lesser extent: male chauvinism.
Women Need Not Apply
The people at the agencies laughed at Galton. There were no women assistants then. Certainly no photographers. Wake up and smell the coffee! (And would you make me one, too, doll? Just milk. No sugar.) Remember, this is the commercial world, not the art-gallery scene of Dorothea Lange. It was Phil Marco, Arthur Beck, and Tony Petrucelli. All guys.
“I was offered a job at a catalogue house, but I called the photographer, Phil Koenig, the one who had tried convincing me not to be a photographer. He told me not to take the job (which I did turn down). He invited me to his studio to look at the Black Book for names of people. Then I talked my way in.”
Thing is, she had no experience, and got nowhere fast. So back to Koenig she went. He was in the middle of a huge shoot.
“Want some help?”
“Yeah, sure. Unpack those boxes over there.”
Thus did Galton become Koenig’s second assistant for that weeklong shoot, earning $20 daily. One week led to two, with Galton doing anything and everything—from styling to bookkeeping, magazines to packaging, and most importantly, learning what she wanted to do—and what she didn’t. Through it all, Galton recalls Phil as being so very kind to her.
After working for him, Galton left to freelance for a year. She then landed a full-time job working for the famously talented Michael O’Neal, a big-name in still-life photography. Under his tutelage, Galton says, “I was trained in the real traditional way of photography.”
Galton was O’Neill’s assistant for a year and a half. Sensing it was time to move on, she left with one really good client in hand, for whom she created black-and-white ads. But that’s ONE client. Galton certainly wasn’t averse to continuing as an assistant. Unfortunately, the only person for whom she wanted to work, Irving Penn, never hired women… except in the darkroom. It’s the ‘80s, and we’re still pre-digital and more to the point, pre-the-plethora-of women photographers we have today. “Although I was hesitant to go out on my own as a photographer, I felt that working for Michael had taught me everything I needed to know. Luckily for me, as I became a photographer, art schools were turning out young women art directors expanding their base. At times, male art directors wanted to work with male photographers. But because of the influx of women into the field, there was work to be found.” So she went into the business side, becoming an art designer. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. “Maybe my route to photography isn’t as easy to duplicate today,” she says, “I’m afraid we’re making everybody less creative; by encouraging young people to focus on a career rather than exploring and expanding their horizons, we are limiting their chances to learn how to think creatively.”
© Beth Galton
First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage
…then comes baby in the baby carriage. The ultimate feminist dilemma, today as it was then: how to balance family and work. In the ’80s, when Beth and her husband, Fred Phelps, had their son, Ben, Beth was “…hell-bent on living and working in the same building.” Unlike now, when it seems as though the only expense skyrocketing faster than the price of NYC real estate is that of college, the silver-lined cloud of living in a non-residential, unappealing area was the relatively low cost. “We found a commercial co-op loft building that had nine legal residential spaces on the edge of Chelsea.” It was not a great street at the time, one strewn with “… crack vials, needles, and condoms. Before Ben we had bought a small empty residential loft space and turned into an apartment. After his birth, a commercial space opened up on the 12th floor, which Fred and I bought… with a little help from Dad… for the studio space.”
We're not just our failures. As much as they hurt, we learn from them.
—Peter Parker, aka Batman
Talk about a cloud. At age 50, Beth’s dad, Jim Galton, suffered the career casualty of losing his job when CBS bought Popular Library Books.
Jim spent several months looking for a new job—no easy task in middle age—when a magazine distribution company approached him. Their first task for Jim? Reports Beth: “We own Marvel Comics. We want you to go in and see if our suspicion that the president is pilfering money is accurate. See what’s going on.” After a couple of months’ of going through their books, Galton learned that the president had been stealing. He reported his findings. Beth continues: “‘Thank you so much for figuring this out. We want you to fire the guy and… will you take his job?’”
So my dad became the president of Marvel Comics in 1976. He started when it was on the decline re licensing; everything had pretty much been sold off. He worked really closely with Stan Lee to get a lot of the licensing back. And start an animation company.” Pow!
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
Like her father, Beth turned a liberal-arts education into a platform for expansive thinking, adversity into art.
It is, in fact, her art that is blossoming. Now that her commercial images are all but omnipresent—Galton’s cut-food series earned her a ton of attention and recognition—she is also developing a fine-art side to her business.
Beth has had gallery representation with the Marlborough Gallery, and has had her work shown in various venues such as the Staten Island Museum and the Aperture Summer Show. At the time of this writing, she has work at the Beth Urdang Gallery in Boston.
Why Upset the Apple Cart?
With a thriving commercial presence, why look beyond? “Because I love taking photos. And will do so ’til the day I die. Instead of putting them in boxes, it would be nice if I could get them out there and be selling them.”
In the summer of 2016, Galton went on what turned out to be a life-changing experience. Called The Photography Master Retreat, it is an annual one-week program run in the south of France by fine-art photographer Martine Fougeron. Beth brought both prints (which she had done herself) as well as digital files. “It wasn’t about taking photos, but rather taking stock of your body of work and discussing it. The first thing that Martine said to me was, ‘Your prints can be so much better.’” Enter Gabe Greenberg, of Greenberg Editions in New York. “It’s like light-years’’ different.” Beth decided that unless she wanted to go back to school to learn more about printing, she’d leave her large printing jobs to the experts.
The highlight of the program? Feedback from both the mentors as well as the students. “Having spent the last ten years photographing the series of roots and potatoes both alive as well as dried, I never thought that these images actually worked together as a series. Spending time reflecting with the help of everyone gave me the insight as to how to show them.” What’s more, the encouragement she received to show that body of work was the best fertilizer one could want.
The Lights at the End of Tunnel
No piece on Beth Galton is complete without mentioning her deep understanding of lighting and its dramatic impact on her work. “I learned with strobe. There was a period of time in late ‘80s/early ‘90s, when film companies were courting photographers to be directors.” Galton cites Henry Sandbank, who directed many well-known TV commercials for companies such as Sony, Chanel, and Volkswagen. She was considering joining his company, and as they spoke he told her, “You have to learn to light with tungsten lights. If you want to direct, you have to understand what light does. Once you do, you’ll never go back.”
“It was a real eye opener,” says Galton. I borrowed a couple of Inkies from a friend and then bought some larger tungsten lights. You can see what you’re doing—what you’re getting, what you want the light to do. I shot with them for many years.” Now she uses everything. “It really depends on job—strobe, daylight, tungsten—depends.”
As for the current lay of the land, Beth is optimistic. “I do think it’s better today than when I started. There were only a few women shooting and now there are so many of us in the field. When I have students come for studio tours, at least half if not more are women. It’s not to say that there still are not barriers… you read industry magazines and women are rarely included in their mentions of influential art directors and copywriters.”
But Beth knows that path-blazing women are out there, as do young women just getting their photographic sea legs. “… having women art directors, buyers, and editors has opened up the marketplace for women photographers: to have a voice, as well as jobs.”
Her optimism is tempered, though, by her fears regarding the narrowing focus of today’s higher education, and its effect on young women and men, alike. “I’m afraid we’re making everybody less creative. By encouraging young people to focus on learning a career, rather than exploring and expanding their horizons, we are limiting their chances to learn how to think creatively.”
What’s Your Favorite Piece of Equipment?
It’s a Camera. It’s a Light. No: it’s…
… a camera stand.
“Well, no one’s ever asked me that before. It’s a weird answer, but yes, my camera stand. I love my camera stand. You can put the camera there and lock it down and it doesn’t move. It’s not like a tripod that you can kick. That stability also provides the space and time to contemplate what I want to create.”
Actually, that answer makes perfect sense for someone so deeply rooted to her work—and to the very ground below.