She Surreal: Paula Boggust

She Surreal: Paula Boggust
Medium Magazine (February 2003)
By Wendy Townley

Silently she sits, seated among pockets of weekend revelers sipping their gourmet coffees and swapping stories of vacations and everyday life. Paula Boggust is among them, her auburn hair hastily pulled back in a low ponytail. A loose fitting aqua runner’s shirt stops where black jeans begin. Accessories are minimal: she wears a small gold signet ring on her right pinky; slimly surrounding her left ring finger is a thin platinum band. Her sleeves pushed up, a silver-toned watch ticks away the seconds on this particular Saturday morning. A quick glance at the clock determines how much time remains between this moment and her son’s haircut appointment a few doors down.

Those who first see Boggust could easily assume this Omaha native is simply another Soccer Mom, driving her two children around in an SUV and chatting on her cell phone.

What matters here is not how others see Boggust, but rather, how she sees them: through the lens of her camera.

Picture taking and picturing making are nothing new to Boggust, whose clients today include American Express, BMX Bicycles, TV Guide, US West and Merck Pharmaceuticals. A graduate of Omaha’s Westside High School, she took an interest in photography around age 16. She worked for a local photographer at the time: “I just really liked the film and the way it looked on the light table. The colors and black and white.”

As her passion for the printed image continued upward, so did her grades: “I had great grades at Westside,” Boggust says when she’s not sipping caramel colored cappuccino from an oversized ceramic mug. “I was way up there in the class rank and everything.”

Then came college. Her first semester at the University of Colorado at Boulder came crashing down: “I absolutely hated it. I really did not want to stay in college.” She went from taking advanced placement classes at Westside to another type of AP – academic probation – at Boulder. Boggust says she became lost those first few months away from home. Joining a sorority – which could have eased the transition between high school and college – didn’t help, either. “I’m just not a person who can be told, ‘You have to be at a meeting every Monday night.’” Rather than joining her sorority sisters, Boggust, now aware of her passion, opted to work on her photography or take night classes to expedite this seemingly endless college experience.

While at Boulder, Boggust studied with a New York City photographer at a weeklong workshop in Maine. After shooting a handful of models at the workshop, Boggust showed her prints to her college professor back at Boulder. “He was appalled by it,” she says. “He told me that anybody could make a picture in a studio with light. And what school was about was sitting out and waiting for the moment that something took place. I never showed any commercial-looking stuff again at Boulder.”

Critics and professors notwithstanding, Boggust gritted her teeth through college, steadfast on her photography. Her last year at Boulder, Boggust worked with a local photographer for free, filing slides. “I was happiest then,” she recalls. “As long as I was involved in that regard (with photography), I was fine.”

In 1989, Boggust broke free from Boulder, graduating with a degree in Fine Arts and confident in her move towards commercial photography. She moved back to Omaha for a few months, practicing shooting and working part-time in the Old Market. Her sister was living in Chicago at the time, so Boggust, with not much keeping her in Nebraska, traveled east for an internship interview. “My parents tried to pick out a business suit, but I kept staying, ‘That’s not the way you go to these interviews.’” Unfortunately, the interview never took place.

Once again, Boggust returned to Omaha. A few months later, Boggust spent time in England, shooting models for free through local agencies just for practice. “We’d go out and shoot pictures and it was called testing. I didn’t pay the models and they didn’t really pay me.”

Realizing she couldn’t make a living sans a paycheck, Boggust came home to Omaha and began working a commercial job through a real estate agency. “They gave me a job and I got paid a lot of money to shoot for a couple of hours.” While Boggust may have been earning good money for little work, it’s not what she wanted to do.

For the next five years, Boggust worked as a photographer for the now-defunct children’s magazine, “Kids, Kids, Kids,” earning a measly $7.50 per shot. As more photo opportunities arrived as a result of the publication, Boggust was careful to keep her ego in check: “When I started getting other commercial business, I thought, ‘I’m never going to dump the first thing I got. I don’t ever want to be too big for them.’”

As with any profession, the time for Boggust to move on arrived. Since beginning in photography at 16, Boggust always knew she wanted to open her own studio. “I always wanted to have one thing that I was really excited about that was just mine,” she says. “I find a lot of self-gratification in my work.” The opportunity to ultimate independence came in 1990.

Unsure of her success as an independent photographer, Boggust searched for a landlord who would agree to only a one-year lease. She found one who rented her space next to Frankie Pane’s hall along Douglas Street in downtown Omaha, but Boggust stayed for much longer than one year as her studio business, Paula Friedland Studio, took off.

Up until this point in her career, much of Boggust’s work had a still-life look. It wasn’t until she purchased an 5,000-square-foot empty fire station in 1995 just doors down from her previous studio that Boggust’s eye for unique photographs came into focus. Bringing together images shot at individual settings, Boggust has created a unique and entertaining way of making images. One such image – which Boggust quickly earmarks as her favorite – features two elderly women seated in front of a cotton candy stand at a local carnival at dusk. A quick eye will notice that the gray hairs atop these two heads has been strategically replaced with bright pink swirls of cotton candy. This image was later sold to American Express.

Another sample of Boggust’s work shows an open field below a cloudy blue sky. A red tractor drives by what appears at first to be bails of hay – but what actually are chocolate-and-cream filled Ho Hos.

Creating these unique (and delicious looking) works is no easy task. Boggust begins by shooting the image’s backdrop, whether it be a skyline or sunset. By doing so, Boggust has more control over the final product.

Next, she takes the transparency of that background, inserts it in the back of her camera and shoots the main subject. In the cotton candy case, it’s the shot of the two seated women. When taking this image, she exposes the backdrop, poses her subjects in front of a white wall and paints the people with light. The end result requires some computer touch-ups to create the silly and seamless image.

This type of photography isn’t always what Boggust had in mind. In her early days, she was as anti-Adobe Photoshop as one could get. “It felt like you were cheating.” But today, after heeding advice from a fellow photographer in San Francisco, Boggust is no longer Photoshop-phobic. “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter how you get there. Just get there.’”

As Boggust continues tweaking this method of photography, she’s become fanatic about perfection: “I mostly never use people anymore. If you breath, you wreck the shot. You can’t be a child. You can’t be an animal.”

Boggust is also a bit of a novelty buff. Many of her works incorporate old toys and icons from the 1950s and 1960s. “I just revisit my childhood all the time with the toys. Thank God for eBay.”

She’s still shooting with film, but doesn’t doubt the potential of digital. “I know it’s (digital) getting to be more affordable, but I’m fighting it because I’m not happy with the way the prints look. I can see the pupils on eyes, but they look kind of fuzzy.”

Her brain doesn’t really rest that much. Boggust is constantly visualizing projects in her mind: “I always think of things. I used to say that I saw things in squares, but I kind of frame stuff up in my head a lot. The way it changes you is that you always think, ‘Damnit, I should have my camera.’”

Boggust is now looking to expand her career into the children’s market. By using her signature style of photography, Boggust has shot and written a book on her black Labrador, Willie, playing Pup Puppleson. She doesn’t yet have a publisher for the book, but she has been knocking on doors looking for one. “I need to find the right person to help me move through it.”