Capturing the essence

Inspired by her dogs, and by the sunlit beaches, rocky coastline and the shady woods of Martha’s Vineyard and New England, she began photographing her “best friends” against this stunning natural backdrop.

Photo of photographer

The art of Debra Marlin

Leafing through the brittle, yellowed pages of Debra Marlin’s childhood photo album speaks as much to her future as it does her past. On page after page, Debra is seen posing, smiling brightly for the camera, with at least one of her father’s prized German shepherds at her side. Spotting a picture of Debra alone is rare.

“I’d never thought about it before,” confesses Debra, an artist and fine art photographer who returned to Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago. “My father loved photographing his dogs. Since I loved his dogs, too, I guess shooting us together seemed like a natural thing for him to do.”

Photo Golden RetrieverDebra can’t remember a time in her life when cameras and dogs…and paints and brushes… weren’t part of it. Growing up in upstate New York, she was the first kid on the block to own a Polaroid Swinger, and used it to photograph her school friends when she could afford film. “Photographing my boyfriend with my Swinger was my first attempt at fine art photography,” laughs Debra. “I’ve stayed in contact with him through the years, and I think it’s funny that he still has those photographs I took.”

When she was 14, fate stepped up to the plate again, opening another door to her future. “I discovered there was a darkroom in the industrial arts department at my school,” she continues. “So I started taking photographs using my father’s cameras. Then I’d sneak into the darkroom after school to process the film. That’s where I first began teaching myself the art of photography.”

Debra recalls that when the shop teacher found out she was using the “boys” darkroom after hours, he “punished” her by making her enter her work in the city’s graphic arts competition. “I was the first female ever to enter, let alone win the competition,” she notes smiling.

Inspired by the emerging fine art photographers of the day, especially females such as Mary Ellen Mark and Sally Mann, Debra’s passion for black and white photography continued to grow. “I believe that black and white work is so deep and evocative,” states Debra. “Any of it that’s good can speak to a person in a very clear and interesting way. It’s such a soulful art form.”

Through her college days and beyond, Debra continued honing her art, entering many of her paintings and black and white photography in competitions. She eventually did a stint at the Maine Photographic Workshop, where she met and was mentored by the great fine art photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, whom Debra greatly admired.

After a long, successful career as an ethnographic jewelry designer, Debra sold her business on Martha’s Vineyard so she could focus on her photography and painting. “A good friend suggested I get a golden retriever after my mixed breed dog, Rudy, died,” she recalls. “That’s when I got Sonny, my first golden. After my other mixed breed dog died, I got my second golden, Lake, who was brought to me by another friend. It seems that everything good that’s ever happened to me in the way of dogs has come through friends.”

Inspired by her dogs, and by the sunlit beaches, rocky coastline and the shady woods of Martha’s Vineyard and New England, she began photographing her “best friends” against this stunning natural backdrop.

Upon the sudden death of Sonny, Debra wrote a compelling text about her experience and combined it with the photographic images of her golden retrievers, creating one of the most enchanting and evocative dog books of the 20th century. In Yellowdog, which was published by Bulfinch Press in 1997, she shares the everyday joys of a dog’s life and captures the distinct personalities of her faithful companions.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News described Yellowdog like this: “A celebration of life that shows, through text and photographs, how special the relationship between dog and owner can be.” The book also caught the attention of the St. Petersburg Times, which wrote: “Marlin’s photos and her heartfelt text resonate with an appreciation only a dog lover knows.”

Because of the success of Yellowdog, Bulfinch Press commissioned Debra’s second fine art photography book, Yellowpup, in 1999. The book features the lives and antics of the author’s golden retriever puppies.

The success of her books, combined with her passion for her dogs soon resulted in the creation of fine art paintings of her beloved “golden boys. “I opened Yellowdog Gallery, my first black and white fine art gallery featuring the photographs from my books,” recalls Ms. Marlin. “One day, I decided to paint a sign for the gallery by interpreting Waterlove, the photograph of Sonny featured on the cover of Yellowdog. I worked a long time on that painting trying to get it right, but just wasn’t happy with it because I felt I’d captured his likeness, but not his electricity.”

But Debra finally did get it right. Using a symphony of colors, her deep affection for her dogs eventually spilled out from her, resulting in a contemporary painting that she believes captured, at last, the true spirit of the breed. “People loved the painting on my sign,” she states. “I finally realized I had to do more paintings of the dogs.”

Soon Debra began adding contemporary paintings of her dogs to her gallery that she created by interpreting the most popular photographs from her books. Today, a number of her original acrylics on canvas are part of private collections throughout the United States.

On many beautiful Charleston mornings, Debra can be spotted on the streets of the city photographing her dogs, or something else of interest to her. Her extensive portfolio of black and white, and sepia photographs include a phenomenal collection of awe-inspiring horse images, as well as a broad array of Charleston-specific shots such as local architecture, sail boats, and Civil War reenactments. “I’ll photograph just about anything that catches my eye,” she admits.

But at the end of the day, her dogs always call her home where Debra submits to her greatest passion of all – photographing and painting them. She is currently working on a series of multi-media luxury books featuring her “golden boys.”

“In my art, I always seek to capture the dogs’ love, grace, strength, beauty, emotion, and compassion,” she says. “I see so many human qualities in their faces, but without the ego.

“I think the phrase I hear most often describing my work is that I ‘capture their essence.’ That’s the best compliment anyone can pay me.”

Copyright © 2019 by Patra Taylor Bucher. All rights reserved

Author: Patra Taylor

A freelance writer for three decades, Patra Taylor is currently a regular columnist and features correspondent for the Charleston Mercury. In that capacity, she has interviewed numerous Charleston celebrities along with a few national figures including FOX News political commentator, Tucker Carlson; Washington, D.C. insider-turned-winemaker, Bear Dyke; and country music singer/songwriter, Philip Claypool. She is also a regular contributor to Charleston Style and Design and the Southeast Film Guide.

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