Stefanie Santana

Promotional images taken for singer-songwriter Stefanie Bannister, who also goes by the name Stefanie Santana. One of these images ran in Charleston City Paper.


Photos were taken at the site of a car dealership that had gone out of business. We had fun experimenting with lines and reflections.



To see the fireflies

It occurred to me all of a sudden that I wasn’t going to last outside all night. My husband was feeding a fire with branches he found on the ground. Our son shadowed him, really getting into it. I had been hiding inside the tent from the constant assault of flying insects since we got to the campsite.

Reality began to settle in the very way I could not atop three feeble layers of nylon and down that cushioned the ground upon which I was lying.  I got grouchy. I won’t make any fans of the naturalists with this confession…

I knew I wanted to go home (probably ten minutes after my husband had already figured it out.)

“Have you ever heard of Ralph Waldo Emmerson,” my husband said, totally shaming me…breaking branches over his knees…in his element. I have a beautiful poster containing this quote in our daughter’s bedroom:

Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air –Ralph Waldo Emmerson

We had roasted hot dogs and toasted marshmallows on real sticks. We saw a frog. Had we not lived deep and sucked the marrow out of life, yet? When my beloved Thoreau hiked out to Walden Pond, I hope he had packed a healthy supply of citronella candles.

I love nature. I just don’t want to sleep in it. Try me again when autumn comes.

I really wanted to be a positive example to my daughter. My son was already in love with the experience, having unbuttoned his collared plaid shirt and rubbed himself with ash from the burned wood. He was running perfectly amok in the pines like one of Peter Pan’s lost boys.

The girl would not be persuaded. She saw her mother giving up. She started giving up. Heavy. So, I was determined to stay (hoping it wouldn’t make us all miserable.)

The sun had set. We followed the beams from our flashlights down the dirt path to the camp bathrooms. Headlights burned through the sylvan curtain of forest growth. A truck engine hummed. We were still the only campers at the Longleaf Campground. The park ranger at the wheel saw a glum version of the family he had greeted in the daytime. “The parking lot is filling up fast,” he said.

Wait a minute, we thought. Hadn’t we just been poking the mesh window inside our tent with excitement as we counted fireflies? There were so many.

He explained that the synchronous wonder we were here to see was actually happening at another location within the park. We would have to drive to the visitor center.

With the push of a button, we had all the cold air we wanted, and familiar music on the stereo. Our spirits lifted!

The parking lot was full. A lighted path led us onto the wooden boardwalk by the visitor’s center where we joined an assembly of people in the dark. A respectful murmur of voices. A fizzly green light here and there in the trees.

We went deeper into the crowd, looking for open spots against the wood railing. A cell phone screen would light the path occasionally. Several photographers had tripods set up for long exposures. Everyone seemed eager to preserve the peace, to share the wonder.  A synchronized display of blinking natural light surrounded us.

“It doesn’t look like fireflies,” my daughter remarked.

“What does it look like?” I asked.


We fell silent, enchanted by the green flashes of light all around.

There is something so nostalgic about fireflies, something so harmonious with childhood. My favorite photo of this is Keith Carter’s Fireflies.

“Fireflies in the Garden
By Robert Frost 1874–1963 

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies, 
And here on earth come emulating flies, 
That though they never equal stars in size, 
(And they were never really stars at heart) 
Achieve at times a very star-like start. 
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.” 
― Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost

Our fate was sealed once we blasted the air conditioning in the car. We were ruined for the hot night ahead. We were going home, redeemed though, because we saw what we came for and we tried something new.

I really believed I was camping for a couple hours and that is indeed something. So, I can’t be an example of rugged resolve. I will let my kids know that some changes happen gradually and, if you want to take mommy camping, you should probably bring an air mattress.

*From Wikipedia: “In the United States, one of the most famous sightings of fireflies blinking in unison occurs annually near Elkmont, Tennessee in the Great Smokey Mountains during the first weeks of June. Congaree National Park in South Carolina is another host to this phenomenon.”

It isn’t all Barbados, bikinis and body shots

I really didn’t even feel weird about having no plans for Spring Break. It’s never ranked high on my list of holidays. When I go to the beach, I prefer the sound of surf to a noisy house band in a joint with sticky floors. I wear one-pieces. I take library books.

On our last day of class before the break, my professor asked what our plans were. The majority of undergrads had been starving for weeks to be ready for the swimsuit demands of the cruises and tropical destinations ahead of them. Besides me, my professor and that one guy, every one of them was leaving South Carolina for some place that sounded like a song by Sammy Hagar.

My final undergraduate Spring Break suddenly seemed like an opportunity squandered.  In my imagination, I could feel the warm sand on my bare feet, smell the salt in the air, taste the daiquiris. That night, I filled divided melamine trays with macaroni-and-cheese and fish sticks for the kids while I imagined buckets piled high with steamed oysters and crab legs.

The life of a mother in college is not often glamorous. If I have money, I spend it on dance lessons. If I have time, I sleep more. I don’t mind doing things differently than other people or that my predominant efforts to socialize have lately been spent binge-watching Lost with my husband and a box of wine.

It’s a good life and it’s mine.

The ocean is a wonderful and powerful thing, though, and that is why I decided to take the kids to Folly Beach before the coffee was cold in my cup on my first day of break. It couldn’t have been simpler, I thought. We all had the day out of school. The portable DVD players were charged. It was such a perfect day to be outside.

The packing and peeing demands of a toddler are absurd. The amount of times you have to turn off the car and run back into the house defy reason. Kids bicker. One might pull off his shoe and yell at you when you won’t stop the car to put it back on. You can not possibly bring enough changes of clothes.

A milkshake from Burger King is nothing at all like a keg stand in Cozumel but it may still lead to someone barfing on the upholstery before the sun sets on Spring Break.

How does the sound and smell of the ocean just wipe it all clean and make every minute of the crazy car trip worth it?


It is nature at its most extraordinary.

It is rejuvenation, a centering force, and all you have to do to harness it is to lay back and relax.

Making Tintypes: Magic and Science

The smell of ether is sharp, sweetish, acidic and strangely sensual. The darkroom had been improvised from a closet  at the Morris Museum of Art. Since the process is not as sensitive as conventional methods, the room wasn’t completely light tight. I pulled the dark curtain across the cracks of light escaping through the door frame and flipped off the “white light.”

“It’s like magic,” the woman said. We watched the chemicals spread across the aluminum plate. An image began to materialize.

“…or science.” said Keliy. The tintype lay across her gloved palm. She rotated her wrist to coat the plate evenly with developer. When she was satisfied, she tilted it until a corner of the tintype rested inside the mouth of a glass bottle and then poured the excess liquid off.

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Anderson-Staley’s 8×10 Deardorff view camera

The dreamy alchemy, the deft ritual and the strange chemical smells were spellbinding.

Wet plate collodion, which dates back to the  1800’s, has been experiencing a revival in the last few decades as a boutique historical photographic process. I was assisting one of the preeminent artists using this method.

The entire process must be started and completed with a wet plate within ten minutes so agility is required. In the 19th century, where it began, the sitter had to remain as still as possible for an excruciating long exposure.

Now you know why people looked so grumpy in those old-timey photographs.

On this day, Keliy was exposing at a ten-twelve second average.

University of South Carolina Adjunct Professor Eliot Dudik sits for his portrait with Keliy Anderson-Staley
Meg Griffiths, a photography professor at USC, sits for her portrait.

A tintype is a positive image that is made right on the metal plate.

A little fussier than Instagram, sure, but the uniqueness and craft of that singular image is a handmade, one-of-a-kind artist’s original. The very existence of the tintypes today physically connects us to a rich photographic history.

Even though I wore my gloves like I was instructed, the silver nitrate left a zizag across my pinkie nail; a little bronze lightning bolt. An initiation.

Observing Kiley Anderson-Staley, I would have to say that an artist of this measure must be equipped with many things; not the least of which is, generosity.

She instructed, informed, posed models, and squeezed people in to a packed schedule with grace and patience.

There is some kind of magic in that, too. WP_006540 (1)

Think you might like this? Give it a whirl! Here are two kits to get you started.

Living Room Sessions

The Living Room Sessions was an early collaboration with Stylist Ashley Gunter. We were building a body of work and honing our skills using modest resources and shooting in our friends’ homes. I’m still proud of our resourcefulness and creativity.


This was our first session

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This shoot was inspired by B-movies.

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*Cross-stitching images from Sublime Stitching designs.

Stinson Beach

As we were leaving San Francisco, the sojourn was impossible to prevent.

This is the one part of my trip I stood up for. I knew my husband didn’t understand why it was such a big deal and I was going to disappoint my mom when we showed up late to her place. My sister and I are two hopeless beach freaks. We were spiraling up the ocean cliffs buzzing with excitement like two teenagers out past curfew.

I loved Stinson Beach as a teenager. The monstrous surf had become almost magical in my memory after twenty years away.

The hottest days couldn’t warm the water enough to swim comfortably but the sun always found every freckle on my face. We would drive that serpentine road late at night in cars full of kids singing, arguing, making out…until that stunning ocean vista just appeared like an eternity of undulating twilight, illuminated by the moon.

I would simultaneously feel powerful and small, looking at the edge of the world.

This return to the edge of the world is one of my best memories from our trip.


 The magic is still there.


It was New Year’s Day.

I took this with the window down in my sister’s car. We were almost at mom’s house and still sandy from the beach. The sun was setting. We were gonna be in trouble.

Stacey and Jenny


I was flattered to be asked to document the sweet friendship between two bohemian Americans who met in India while studying Ayurveda. Not many people can cause me to feel boring. This reunited duo had my inner goddess all revved up and ready to ride elephants!


I love the junior photobomber. I would have cropped her out if she didn’t make me giggle every time I saw her. tee hee hee!


It was an Indian celebration. Some wore Saris. Some came in their salwar kameez. And there were other interpretations…


Stacey O knows how to be herself.


I enjoyed this shoot so much because it was fluid and fun, just like her.

Giddy from the spirit of friendship and feminine bonding and juice boxes and desserts, these little girls at the party bring to mind a favorite quote……while they remind me how easily new friendships are begun.

“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.” -Margaret Atwood

In this moment of little-girlness I am reminded of the work of one of my favorite photographers, Lauren Greenfield (with none of the gravity; with innocence intact.) Her book, “Girl Culture” has been a continual source of inspiration. Here, an emblem of adolescence and American pop culture pouts from the bedroom wall, wholesome as white bread. The missing teeth and the silver mirror remind me how special this time is in a girl’s life and how rapidly it changes. Another tug on my heartstrings because one of those little women belongs to me.




Namaste, y’all!

My Year in Pictures: 2012-2013

I have been going through my work from the past year in preparation for the SCNPA (South Carolina News Photographers Association) Pictures of the Year Contest and enjoying the exercise. Self-critique is important and it is always a good practice to have your recent best ready.

My five-year-old artistic director has been helping. Her advice is enormously helpful. One shot was cut because she thought, “it is boring without people in it.” She is right on par with my first photojournalism professor.

Taken while I was documenting the closing of a toy shop in Columbia, SC.
Taken while I was documenting the closing of a toy shop in Columbia, SC.

However, I chose to keep the one that was, “just weird puppets,” because I really like it (even though I suspect she is right about that one, too.)

The best advice I have for preparing artistic work to be reviewed goes a little something like this (and I try to apply this to resumes, competitions, critiques, etc.):

  1. If it speaks to you, listen. Pick the work you like the best. Don’t think about what someone else may want to see. Your point of view is what you have to offer. The photos of mine that are the most well-received are almost always the ones I doubted. I doubt them because they are the most unique and personal; because they don’t look like everything else.
  2. Don’t take criticism personally. A collegue I deeply respect told me recently that rejection is a big part of being an artist, a “cruel joke” played on us sensitive types. “Get used to it,” he told me. There are a myriad of reasons why a judge may or may not choose your work. Enter as many types of competitions as you can. Learn from critiques. If they don’t give them, ask! Take the initiative and use this as an opportunity to grow. At the very least, you will become a part of the creative community and have cool, talented friends.
  3. Show what you want to shoot. This is gospel. If you don’t want to take event photos, don’t show people awesome event photos. They will want you to take more event photos.

Students and professional can enter the SCNPA contest. There are prizes! And snacks! Contest deadline is March 15th so get on it! There is no entry fee; just a membership with SCNPA, which is thirty-five bones. For more info, email Grace at Good luck!

Here is the rough package I am preparing. At this time, they represent my favorite work this year. While they don’t seem POY worthy, I can see I have grown and I have taken more risks this year. I can also articulate my vision better and sometimes even express it. That’s exciting! Critique away.

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We were encouraged to visit the Basilica first. Mass was about to start.

The broom and dog represent his humility and belief in the sacredness of every task. It is said that he didn't eat meat and was very kind to animals.

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Meat, laundry and tourists. That’s what I saw the most of in Chinatown.

This is the second in my photo series from my California trip. I was a sightseer in San Francisco for three days before resting in my sister’s bed in Suisun City. This was the peak of  my frenzy of tourism. My sister claimed me the next morning. She got me to a strip mall for my morning coffee, sang old metal songs in the car with me, and just generally brought me closer to things familiar. Such a welcome feeling after so many days as a stranger!

Mission San Francisco de Asis

I am going to be posting a series of photos taken in California in December. I am starting with images from a morning spent touring Mission San Francisco de Asis, popularly called Mission Dolores.

We toured it on our first morning in the city. It is conveniently located right down the street from the place where we were enjoying our morning coffee: Maxfield’s House of Caffeine.

Some of the cars parked on Dolores Street had flyers on them. My friend told me it was illegal. I was happy for the welcoming gesture, San Francisco.

“2013: The Year of the Papi,” the flyer slickly predicted. I was footsteps away from a very historic religious building in one of the funkiest neighborhoods in America. This convergence of culture is not insignificant to the very thing that makes San Francisco magical and it was a thrilling match for my esthetic!

I have been fascinated by religious architecture for as long as I can remember and have been taken with the Mexican/ Spanish style since discovering this book many years ago.

It is a style rich in drama and color.

The buildings of the mission were steeped in light from stained glass, high arched windows and doorways, and mosaic tile.

A creature of comfort, I easily derive fulfillment from the things happening right inside my house every day. An act of great motivation is sometimes needed to banish my yoga pants and compel me on an adventure. Frequent flyer miles inspired this recent journey to northern California after sixteen years away from the state where I came of age.

Travel is an extraordinary tutor. You have to leave your comfort zone to see what you are made of. Encountering the strange is the key to learning about yourself.

I discovered little nooks in San Francisco where I felt at home as well as a probable fear of heights on “one of the most scenic highways in the nation.” Old bonds were tested; some proved frail and others pure. A new batch of people were surprised by my obsession for photographing everything. I surprised myself when I discovered just how profound my passion for my family is.

“You need to do this for yourself,” my husband kept advising, even though I had to travel the bay area at breakneck speed to keep myself from thinking about how much I missed my kids. I spent nearly all of my pocket money buying them souvenirs in Chinatown.

Would you believe I have never filled the memory card on my camera before? I am pretty expedient about importing photos. Image 1,000 was captured as we approached a toll bridge, ten minutes away from San Francisco International Airport on our return to South Carolina.

I will continue to post the photos I took on the trip so I hope you are looking forward to seeing what me and my Canon saw of Chinatown, Pier 39, Stinson Beach, and all kinds of other touristy goodness.


We walked in to Photobooth from Valencia Street. It was a simple gallery-type setting. The clean white walls and podiums were covered in photo art and retail. On display were plastic fish-eye cameras, cameras on keychains, refurbished Polaroid Land cameras. It was a candy store and I was the proverbial kid. I wanted to supermarket sweep the whole place.

I came to see the process and I was not disappointed. To our left, there was a live portrait session going. Straight ahead, a woman was finishing some plates. “We need music,” someone said. Cue music.

Michael Schindler is keeping alive a photographic process that dates somewhere from the 1850’s. He creates wet-collodian tintypes. The photo is created from his camera right onto an aluminum plate.

But, it is more than that.

Antiquated, dead, obsolete? You only have to walk inside the shop or, better yet, take a look at one of the tintypes to see why we still value this. You are looking at a singular moment, crystallized. One unique expression of yourself. Never to be duplicated. Living like a breath. Bathed in silver. Corporeal. Spectral.

“I realized right away, ‘Ah, this is what I’ve been looking for,’ ” Shindler, 40, says. “With a tintype, there is no negative, and you can’t reproduce the image. The plate gets changed by the light coming off the person. It’s direct physical evidence that the plate and the person were in the room together, like a thumbprint.”

Read more:

The tintype marked a time in history when photography was accessible to the working class. The previous Daguerreotype being affordable only to the wealthy. From the method to the storefront, Photobooth gives equitable access. Well done.

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy

I have spent so much time in school learning how to use equipment. That was the first really big goal. Getting to know my F-stop, shutter speed, ISO. Manual focus vs. auto. Aperture priority or program mode.

Then I was learning about chemicals in the darkroom. What to leave in and for how long varies depending on paper type, brand of film and temperature of the developer…among other things!

Once I felt pretty confident about all that, I turned my attention toward other details. What is the best way to photoshop out an “exit” sign? How on earth do you pose a model? Where did I put my lens cap this time!?

Then, I was searching for the light…

Golden Hour

Blue Hour

Blue Hour

Happy Hour
Happy Hour

A hallmark of photography is that you are constantly learning. If you think you have plateaued, it is really just your brain taking a break from the Sisyphean pursuit of achievement.  You have probably just produced something really great looking, something you are really proud of. Congratulations, my erudite friend, but get back under that boulder because there is always more work to do!

I am constantly thinking about my work. When I am not shooting, I am often planning. Lately, I have been thinking more about what I am saying and, more importantly, what I want to say with my work. When I am more in control of the message I feel I will have accomplished the next big thing.

Recognizing that you have a long way to go can be a very frustrating thing.  It also means you have come pretty far.  Mastering all those other skills gives you the freedom to be an artist. At least, this is what I tell myself every time I look at someone else’s wonderful photo and know I am not quite there…yet.

I have spent some time pondering a sneaky collaborator: the influence.  Sometimes I seek it out and sometimes it pops up on me in ways I never expected.  More insidious than the artists you admire are the pieces of popular culture that actually creep into your aesthetic. I grew up in America in the 80’s. Popular culture was the aesthetic. Try as I might, I can’t “take the mall out of the girl.”

As an homage to my precarious perch on the next great foothold on this dang mountain (…to belabor the metaphor, a.k.a., The Myth of Sisyphus), I am linking you to a youtube video that is an amusing amalgamation of my influences. Before he was spit-shined into a reality star, Ozzy was just a simple Rock God in a leopard-print robe, serving up breakfast for his family and a documentary film maker. At the intersection of rock-and-roll and domesticity. Suburban artist. Complete failure at normal. Scrambling eggs.

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