Award-winning Artist, Photographer, Author and Educator Rosanne Olson: Subtle Stories and Light Form Connections

Posted by: Andrea Hammer

Rosanne Olson believes that art offers a way to form connections. Her photos in This Is Who I Am–our beauty in all shapes and sizes (2008), ABCs of Beautiful Light (2014) and The Art of the Portrait (2016) reveal her ability to celebrate each person’s essence. Through fine art, lighting and portraiture, she communicates each subject’s spirit without words.

“I am very drawn to revealing depth in my subject through light, composition and connection. I am interested in trying to find ways to explore the less obvious aspects of things, the subtle stories created by subtle light, the sidelong glance or the direct gaze. One thing I love about portraiture is that it allows the viewer to look deeply at someone in a way that we never could in person,” Rosanne says.

Here are some of her thoughts about lighting, portraits, women, connections and creativity:

What inspired the idea for your book This Is Who I Am: Our Beauty in All Shapes and Sizes?

Many experiences led to the idea for the book, including working with models and non-models (real people) in commercial photography, observing comments they would make about their bodies, as well as my own body-image issues. But really, it gets down to a single, seminal event, which is documented in my book. I had a client who wanted me to do a portrait of her for her business-coaching website. But first, before the photography, she wanted to lose 35 pounds. She called me just 3 weeks later to say that she had not lost the weight but wanted to move forward with the portrait session anyway because she had just been diagnosed with inflammatory breast disease. At the photo session, she asked if I would also do a nude of her so her boyfriend could remember her as she was. Suddenly the 35 pounds didn’t matter. She was beautiful.

I was deeply moved by the fact that it sometimes takes a radical diagnosis to make us appreciate our bodies––-when confronted with loss (of breasts, of life as we knew it, of life itself). After the work with this client, I started asking friends if they thought a book about women how they feel about their bodies might be useful. In other words, discreet nudes and interviews about body image. If women were enthusiastic, I would ask them if they wanted to participate. So the book started first with friends, then acquaintances, then referrals.

What have you learned during the process of photographing women?

First of all, making the decision to be photographed is an important decision, even for a business portrait. Everyone worries about wrinkles and aging. Almost everyone sees herself or himself as a version of their younger self. Most women who look in the mirror to apply makeup, brush their teeth, etc., do so without glasses. So for women over 40, most of whom wear some kind glasses, their view of themselves is softened by changing eyesight. It can be pretty surprising to see the camera’s view of things, which can be somewhat more clear-eyed than many would wish for.

My job as a photographer is to work with the woman, her story, her goals and her concerns. Then, by using the right kind of light, positioning or gesture, we arrive at something she recognizes as the person she is, and perhaps a portrait that is more than just a picture but one that is a true portrait with a deep and multi-dimensional result.

Working with the nude adds another layer to this process. Both with regular portraits and with nudes, my approach is to listen first and then slowly start the process of letting the clothing fall away. It is a collaborative process, not just me wielding a camera. At some point, in all my portraits, I will share the images I like on the back of the camera to get input from my subject. I don’t want to get all the way through the session to find out later that she didn’t like her smile (or that she is self-conscious about her teeth) or dislikes her stomach, etc. That said, I never show photos I don’t like. I wait until I feel I have found something wonderful and then use that to as a basis for conversation and collaboration. I try to be utterly patient and open to whatever unfolds.

As a female photographer, do you see the world through a different lens and, if so, in what ways?

I think that we photographers and artists are informed by our life experiences–our childhood, parents, siblings, school, teachers, mentors, willingness to take risks and talent. That I am a female photographer might have less bearing on how I see the world than, for example, the influence of my mother (a very compassionate person). Or the influence of my mentors. Thus, my own “lens” is formed as a result of many things, just one of which is a female perspective.

When you collaborate with other designers and art directors, does your perspective as a woman impact these projects in any way?

I think the people who have hired me for some of my best work know that I will bring ideas to the table, that I work well collaboratively and that I have high standards. But I don’t think these are necessarily attributes that arise solely from a woman’s perspective. Male photographers and artists can come to the table with the same assets. Sometimes being female might be an advantage, such as working with sensitive topics such as breast cancer, but I think much of the matter of style and sensitivity gets down to the nature of the artist.

During your 30-year career, what are some of the challenges that you have experienced and addressed as a female photographer?

During my decades as a photographer, most of the competition was from men. Women photographers were in the minority and still are, though maybe a little less so. But even now, as I teach lighting classes to photographers, there are practically no women in that field. I have been fortunate to be able to do what I love, both as a photographer and as an educator. Though it may be a bit more challenging for women in the commercial world, I also think it is possible with hard work and persistence. If I had been a man, would things have been easier? I will never know the answer to that.

Have any other female photographers influenced your work and in what specific ways?
The photographer I most admire is Irving Penn. I love his lighting, his curiosity, his creativity, his portraiture, his still life images and the fact that he was still creating when he died in his 90s. I also love the work of Sarah Moon and, of course, the inimitable Annie Leibovitz.

Could you describe the ways that your photography has offered women a sense of peace?
I think the work I do with women offers a sense of peace because the work is so deep. The time together in the studio is almost like a spiritual experience. There is a vulnerability on the part of the subject and a big responsibility on the part of the photographer. Before the session and during the session we come to know each other well. I call it “phototherapy” because in a way it is like that–leading a person to see her beauty. Some women have written to me about the experience as being transformative.

What types of projects are you working on now or in the near future?
I continue to work as a portraitist and a fine art photographer. I don’t think that will end as long as I am able to hold a camera. Aside from portraits, one of my favorite pastimes is creating still life images. I love the silence of the studio, the beauty of the light and the process of creating a narrative of meaning in the camera. I also play music and write songs. A number of years ago I co-founded a women’s art group that has met monthly for maybe 15 years. The group has led to many new works and projects not just for me but for all of the members.

Any other points that you would like to add?
I teach lighting and portraiture. My portrait and fine art work can be seen at my main website ( My teaching site is I will be teaching a two-week lighting class at Santa Fe Workshops next July 9-21.

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