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Confederation Bridge, - © Isabelle Levesque

Monday, July 13, 2020

An Interview With Mary Ellen Nealis, MPA

Photographer Mary Ellen Nealis
It is a great pleasure and honour today to continue our feature spotlight of PPOC Atlantic Members. This month our feature is with a highly valued, and long-standing member, Mary Ellen Nealis MPA, PPOCA Fellowship, 8th Masters Bar.

Mary Ellen Nealis joined the PPOC in 1989. She has been a Regional and National Judge many times over, including acting as a Jury Chair, being a PPOC board member, and serving our association several times over the years. She is the first to admit that although she joined in 1989, it wasn’t until 1997 that she started entering print competitions. When I asked her why she waited so long to participate in competition, her response was;

“Fear. Back then, I questioned if I was good enough. I came close to quitting more than once. But there were two or three people that helped to change my mind. I went to a seminar in Boston, where I met up with Kirk Saint. He asked me what I was doing, and if I was going to the seminars, and entering competition. My response at the time was, “No, I am not.” To which he replied, very matter of factly, “if you are not getting anything out of it, it’s your own fault. You have to engage and participate to get something out of it. You get out of it what you put into it.”

With that she decided to participate, and that’s how she became a believer in the PPOC, as it was true for her that the more she participated the more she got out of it.
In talking about entering competition, Mary Ellen shared:

Mind's Eye by Mary Ellen Nealis
Image Above Titled; “Mind’s Eye” by Mary Ellen won a National Award of Excellence, Judge’s Choice Award and is in the Loan Collection

“At first you wear your heart on your sleeve, and it’s true, your prints might not do well. But, to my surprise, when I first entered I was nominated for Photographer of the Year, and after that, I won two years in a row. I was the first woman to win Photographer of the Year (POY) in the Maritimes. Although, I haven’t entered PPOC Atlantic in a long time, I continue to enter every year Nationally since 1997. I haven’t missed a year! Regionally, I moved on to judging and became more service-oriented.”

Mary Ellen continued to share that she noticed over the years, “that if life got busy and I entered “crap”, then that’s what I got.” But, if she took the time to invest in creating competition images, she was rewarded with better results.
“Some years are golden and some aren’t. Babe Ruth, well yes, he hit the most home-runs but he also struck out the most. You won’t know unless you put yourself out there. Some years you do it right, and others you don’t. At the end of the day, it’s just a competition, and it’s all part of having fun with your peers.”

Mary Ellen loves the camaraderie with her peers that the PPOC offers, and it is what has kept her coming back time and time again.

Neuroimaging by Mary Ellen Nealis
Image Above Titled; “Neuroimaging” by Mary Ellen won a National Award of Excel- lence, Judge’s Choice Award and is in the Loan Collection

“It’s amazing that we have this group of people that are so creative. And, I love to see everyone in our association, to see them learn and become their best. I would like to see us all have a good life, and a good living. We deserve it. Photographers work very hard, for the money they bring in the door. I have now been a photographer most of my life, and all of us deserve to be paid ten times what we are paid. It’s not an easy job but it’s the people you meet, and what you get back that far outweighs it all. It’s important to be rewarded financially, as unfortunately, we can’t live on love.”

Mary Ellen looks back in retrospect, she had worked for 14 years with computers and did photography on the side before she made the transition to start her own photography business. It was while attending Fredericton High School that she was introduced to photography through art classes. She explains that photography "was like a fungus that took over my life, until the point I couldn’t turn away from it. I always felt that photography picked me. This is what you should be doing Mary Ellen, and you just have to believe in yourself.”
Mary Ellen, we couldn’t agree with you more that this is definitely your calling. Have you seen her impressive list of awards, and the outstanding creativity of her work? If you haven’t, you will want to visit Mary Ellen’s website here:

Winter Is Coming by Mary Ellen Nealis
Image Above Titled; “Winter is Coming” by Mary Ellen won a National Award of Merit
Read more of her interview:

Question (Q): Mary Ellen, how did you get started in professional photography?

Answer by Mary Ellen (A) - “Peter Grosse, at the College Craft and Design. I met him at a seminar with other locals and had a chance to speak with him. He said, “Well, Mary Ellen, from what you told me you don’t need to come here to make that next step to open your photography studio, but it will give you the confidence to take that next step.” So I started taking classes at the school. After a few years the director George Frye asked me what I planned to do with all of this. I took all the courses and got straight A’s, but was not enrolled full time. I loved black and white photography, and printing, and he said, “Quit your day job, come full time, finish the courses and open your own studio. Education is something no one can take away from you.” So, that’s what I did. I quit my day job and enrolled full-time. The last year I had to do four independent studies, and four courses, (about a year and a half’s work in one year) and that year was the year I got pregnant with my youngest son. I enrolled to start in September and by August found out I was pregnant with my son, and that was a blessing too. It all fell into place.”

Question (Q): What do you enjoy most about being a PPOC member?

Answer (A): “I have met so many interesting people, from clients, and others part of the association. I have travelled across Canada, and have visited almost every province. Saskatchewan is the one and only province I haven’t really been in, and that is hopefully next year. PPOC has had conventions all across Canada. I used to go to all the conventions. It’s not the seminars is much as you can only listen and write so long, and only implement a small percentage of what you take in, but it’s the people at the fun nights, or the people you sit with at lunch, or alongside in the seminars that make it really worth it. You learn so much more from just talking to other people. You are meeting people from across the country who are not concerned about you taking their clients away, and will share openly about their businesses which can help you to learn. 

Painted Orchid by Mary Ellen Nealis
Image Titled; “Painted Orchid” by Mary Ellen was Accepted in the National Image Salon

Today you can learn a lot online, but at the same time sharing with your peers is so important and there is something special that only happens in person. That’s exactly what I would be doing if I was a young and budding photographer. I would pick their brains, and attend seminars of the people I admire. Talk to the ones that you respect what they’re doing, and learn from them.”

Question (Q): You recently received your 8th Master’s bar. Congratulations on your extraordinary accomplishment! Can you give some advice for our newer members what it takes to reach where you are today?

Answer (A): “Not giving up. No matter the outcome. Every competition will have an outcome, you can take something positive, or negative. One year might look like a lemon, but ask yourself what did I learn? I can’t rest on my laurels, slap something in there, and expect to get an excellence. Usually, that doesn't happen. Usually, you have to look at an image, and ask what’s working, and what’s not. You can also ask your peers, and see what they think. Keep going, and don’t give up because that’s how you learn, and you will never know how far you could have gone if you don’t try. If I had given up in 1997 then I wouldn’t have received my CPA, and MPA and any bars. I wouldn’t have met all those wonderful people, and seen most of Canada. Being part of the association has helped me grow as a photographer, and a person. I believe you have to keep trying, it's kinda like when things get tough, I am just going to keep trying and see where it takes me. I have had good years in business and competition, and bad years. You never know what might come through your door. You don’t know how it will all play out, but if you don’t get out of bed and continue on then you have already signed off. When things don’t work out in life put it in an image. Even if it’s not shared with the world there is so much you can let go of just through the creation process. Write notes and burn them, photography can also be that way.”

Q: What are your future PPOC and photography goals?

A: I enjoy what I am doing now, and I will continue with that. I do have some personal artistic projects I will also continue to pursue. I moved my studio into my home in recent years. My old studio was only 500 yards up the road, but now the studio is right there. It is part of enjoying my daily life. I have a friend, who isn’t a member of PPOC. She was never into it. For her, photography is about going out on a Saturday to make money and hang the camera up when she gets home, and there is nothing wrong with that. She looks at it as she provides a service and that’s it, it’s just not me. My friend once said, “if I ever get to the point I am not making money I can hang up my camera, and have no attachment to it whatsoever.” I would say that her and I are on the opposite side of the spectrum. Because, even if I didn’t photograph for a client I would still photograph for myself. I love to capture, whether I have a camera in hand, or not. I am always creating mentally in the mind even when the camera isn’t on me. It’s nice to be paid and love what you do, but at the same time if I retired tomorrow I would still bring my camera along, and still make abstract images, or make a record of what I see. I truly love to create. In the association more and more people are in this genre. It’s wonderful to record a client’s life. I love to do that for people. My mother gave me my first 110 camera when I was a child, and I took pictures of the cat. I was the youngest of seven children, and they all had their children before me so when my husband gave me a 35 mm for Christmas guess what I was photographing? All of them, long before I ever became a professional.....family is my background, and people.”

Q: As a competitor, National and Regional judge, Jury Chair, (Etc), many times over what do you think are the most important “things” for members to consider when submitting images for accreditation and judging, and can you tell us a little about your creative process?

A: “You have to allow your images to take a life of their own, and let them go sideways. Let go of the reins, and your images will be more authentic. In my opinion, that is where the magic comes from. If I can leave one tidbit it would be, don’t try to control the outcome too much. You have your logical side and your creative side, and both are important. Take all of it, but do not allow one part of the brain to control the whole process. Your art won’t get to where it should be. You can control it to the point that you are stifling your creativity, and your art. When submitting an image I try not to wear my heart on my sleeve because it’s just one day in the life of that image with six people looking at it. You can’t take it to heart. Even with being a judge I can listen and understand what the judges think about my images. I can also be in my life, and if I am wounded for five seconds and the bubble bursts I can still love my image after all is said and done regardless of the flaws. I might see the flaws they pointed out, but I can still love my image and be willing to share it with the world. We are, like Freeman Patterson says, pointing the camera at ourselves. For example, some will say, ‘that’s Mary Ellen’s style”, and I am okay with that because it means I have a style. It’s the highest compliment. As your life progresses, you might change your style several times over, and photographers do change over time. If someone imitates you, that is the best form of flattery. It’s an open book, and you make one little drop in the bucket. I like to create images that invoke something in the judges, and if they can’t respond to it, that’s ok. I am not looking for ‘nice’, I would rather them love it, or hate it. I think its better to be noticed for do- ing something bizarre than not being noticed at all. If entering in competition go for broke, and then pull back a little bit. The worst that can happen is you get a “not accepted”. Shoot for stars, and if you fall short you might still land on the moon. Shoot for 100, you might still land at 90, or a little less short, but if you are aiming for 80 or a merit and fall short then you fall to the accepted, or not accepted range. Shoot for excellence every time! Give it your best. Everybody’s different. We are all at different levels. Some days I feel like I am at an excellence level and other days a not-accepted. I look at it as fun, and it does not define who I am as a person. I like to give back, and put something out there people find interesting. And, I think that’s what artists do. I would rather put it out there, and let people judge it and look at it and think whatever they are going to think, than not try. And, if my customers are happy, and I am happy then that’s what really matters.”

Madame Butterfly by Mary Ellen Nealis
Image Above Titled; “Madam Butterfly” by Mary Ellen was Accepted in the National Image Salon

Q: Who is your favourite artist? Or who inspires you most?

A: There are many artists that inspire me. I enjoy the abstract. Whether it’s a painting, or a drawing, or a watercolour, or a photograph, no matter the medium, it has to have something special. I need to be able to look at it, and read something into it. The emotion has to come alive, it has to have its own vibe. I also like vibrant colours. Van Gogh’s work is beautiful, even though his paintings are done on a two- dimensional plane, it makes you feel like it’s three-dimensional. Freeman Patterson says, when we point the camera we are pointing it right back at ourself. I have been to quite a few of his presentations over the years. I do like the abstract, and the bizarre. I am not looking for something so dark that it’s negative, but rather something you can read into, and tells it’s own story, something with depth. There are so many interesting artists out there in all genres. But, I would say I lean less towards the realistic, and more towards the creative, imaginative and surreal art. Those are the artists I will really look at their work, and gravitate towards.”

Q: You mentioned you love colour impact, do you have a favourite colour?

A: “Black, and I know black isn’t a true colour. But, definitely the darker colours. Colour depth is important to me. I enjoy the richness of colour. Dark and rich. Mysterious. Mystical. Images with something to discover. When I like an image I have to look at it several times, and I have to discover it.”

Q: How are you staying optimistic and being creative during this pandemic?

A: “ For me, that is the same philosophy as I mentioned earlier. If I do nothing, then I am pretty sure that nothing will happen. So, if I stay home and cook for my husband, paint the back bedroom again, and don’t respond to my customers then that will be the end of my business. If I make a plan, and remove the fabric chairs in the sitting area, and put up the plexiglass on the front counter, and maintain the social distancing then what’s the worst thing that can happen? No one comes? If I stay in bed nothing happens, if I go to work then there is the possibility of something happening. And life goes on, maybe in a different way, but there are possibilities. The only bit of advice I can give, . . . if you open your life to possibility something surely will show up. But, if you close all possibilities then that’s what will show up. Nothing. Being open to possibilities is the most important thing. Keep faith, and have hope.”

Q: Mary Ellen, do you have a favourite food?

A: Pasta, specifically spaghetti. You could get rid of every food on the planet and I could live off pasta.

Q: What about your favourite music?

A: The Eagles. Hotel California is probably my favourite song. It’s like life, or groundhog day. It’s about going through it, and none of us are getting out of here alive. It’s about all that’s going on in life, and sometimes it’s wonderful and some- times it’s crappy. I feel like the song “American Pie”, is kinda where we are right now. These are the timeless songs I grew up with, songs like “Stairway to Heaven”. But, I would say that I am more of an Eagles fan. I am not big on the Rolling Stones, they are a little too wild for me. I prefer more bizarre, and things that make you think in art, and in music.”

Q: What career accomplishment makes you the most proud?

A: When I received my CPA and MPA. These were the first two accomplishments that I thought I would never achieve. Looking back, achieving my CPA in September 2011, on 911 I was in Edmonton Alberta, and that was the day the twin towers crashed. I woke up and my husband said an airplane flew into the building, and we watched it live. We met up at the breakfast before the convention with fellow member Buffie Boily, and others from the Maritimes. Some people had a hard time to get back home because flights were grounded, and the convention banquet continued but it had to be a watered down version. When I received my MPA I was in Toronto, and my daughter had a kidney that was blocked, and she had to have a major operation. The 20th of August was already booked to receive my MPA, and the nurse said they can do the surgery on the 20th. Receiving both my CPA, and MPA during significant events happening on the same day added to their meaningfulness. We are all six degrees of separation. Being a photographer in 2020 even with what is going on now, if you are doing it full-time you have invested a huge amount already, and you are on a life’s path, and I have nothing but total admiration and respect for the young budding photographers of today. Anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a photographer, but there is a group that takes it to the next level. Most of us have done something else besides photography. As easy as it is to call yourself a photographer the ones who go to the next level, and learn and how to make a business out of it and make it profitable, respectful and develop their own style I can understand where they are coming from. I am a lot older than many in our association, and I realize many have invested so much, and I want nothing but success and a good life for those doing what they truly love doing. There have been photographers who have written me letters, and said something at the most appropriate time that changed my course. I do this for me, not for anyone else, and for the love of photography. I truly love to see what other photographers are doing, and all the wonderful talents in our association. I love to see the creative, and wonderful work people are doing....we don’t ever stop growing.

We become friends with our clients, and those friendships can become life-long friendships. These experiences offer you tidbits of advice along the way. You share, I share. We all learn from each other. I have travelled and visited parts of Canada I would never have seen, and met people I would never have met if it weren’t for PPOC. Being a member enriches your life 100 times over. It inspires you also to go out and do more. It keeps giving back.....and that is why I am still a member. Hopefully someday if I decide to retire I can still keep giving back like the way Bruce Berry does. It is like an umbilical cord, you’re attached, and it’s something you always want to be part of. Membership is money well spent on you. It’s not for your clients, or your partners, or your children, it’s for you! There are things in your life that will pass, but this is something you do for your own personal enjoyment.

As a photographer, you are allowed to share in people’s lives in a way that is very special. People allow you into their life in ways which are very private. Sometimes it's about celebrating life, and you are allowed to be a part of people’s lives that others might not get to be. We are allowed very special privileges with our clients that others don’t get, and we get to see the very best part of humanity. Seeing people’s love for their families, and being able to capture that helps us to be better people. People give you something, and you give back. It's giving back, and it’s not all take, take, take. Sometimes it’s your turn to receive, and sometimes it’s your turn to give back. The greatest artists give back to their peers, and humanity through their work. We touch each other lives, and hopefully in a more positive way than negative.

Q: Do you have any favourite family traditions?

A: Singing Christmas songs with my sisters around the tree. We would go until we would run out of songs to sing. I am the youngest of seven kids, six girls and one boy. There was this one time at a NYE party, we were all doing karaoke, and all laughing and carrying on. We would gather and play games and do things with our kids like play Pictionary and Charades. But, this one year someone brought along a karaoke machine, and my son said “I hope you realize that you are all tone deaf”, but we laughed, and just kept on singing. Sitting around with my sisters singing songs. This is one of my favourite memories.

Q: What is the legacy you wish to leave behind?

A: To touch people’s lives in a more positive than negative way. I don’t want to dwell on the negative. I want to take a look at it, and say “okay, I had that experience, I understand it, and I want to grow from it”, and once you’ve grown you can move forward in a more positive way. At the end of my life, as far as my art, I definitely want people to think of what I create as art that is out of the box. I am not afraid to fail. I want to be known for pushing the boundaries. That is art, and that is what it’s all about. Often people are surprised by what I create, and they don’t expect what they see from me, and I think that’s wonderful. Sometimes people have a perception of what they think of you by looking at you, versus your art.”

“No matter what life has brought you, we all have our own tribe. Like-minded people gravitate towards similar things. If you find a group of people that are your tribe, {like PPOC} you find happiness, and good things come from that. These are the people that help you grow. Find your tribe.”

-Interview with Mary Ellen Nealis by Krista Powers



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