Friday, October 14, 2011

savvy Studio Tours Week~ Day Five

When you travel the world as much as Susann of Susann Saarel Photography has, you rack up a lot of photos and life experiences.  Seeing the world through her camera gave Susann a lot of inspiration when it came time to decorating her studio space.  She has an eclectic mix of modern and heirloom elegance that make her studio space unique to her.  And while she is still working on her space and getting it ready to move in, you can tell from the interview below this is a work of love!  Read Susann’s interview below on how she created a beautiful studio that is all her own.  Thanks for sharing your space with us!

Tell me about you…where do you live? Married?  Kids?
I grew up a California beach girl, but met and fell in love with a man whose lifelong dream was to live on a mountain-top in Montana!  We bought property located at 6,100 ft. with to-die-for views in the Bozeman Pass, equal distant between Bozeman and Livingston.  We were married here at what we named Sky Ranch in June 1997 as two eagles flew overhead.  After our honeymoon, we began construction of our log home.  By the time we moved here full-time from California in May 1999, I was pregnant with twins!  Samuel Sky and Larissa Sage are now 11 and are, of course, a never-ending source of inspiration for me.  My husband Doug is the love of my life and my greatest fan.  I cannot fail to mention that we love animals and share our home and land with many rescues…3 horses, 1 goat, 4 dogs as well as a cockatiel, a tank of fish, two guinea pigs and a feral kitten the twins recently smuggled home…

How did you get started in photography?
I received a Kodak Instamatic from my parents on my 7th birthday and began documenting the world around me, as I had always observed my father do.  By the time I was 11, I was shooting with my grandfather’s Leica, a hand-me-down from my dad.  And by the age of 13, I was developing my images in my bedroom after the sun went down.  Throughout the years and all my travels, I was never without my camera.  

Fast forward to marrying my husband and moving to Montana (which meant quitting my job as a tourism executive in L.A.)…I began to sell my western images at art festivals and exhibited in juried shows, locally and throughout the West.  I was thrilled to be accepted to show my Untamed Spirits series of rodeo images at the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy in 1999.  In March 2000, I received a call from The Frame Garden, a local gallery, offering me my first one-woman show during the upcoming Summer Art Walk.  The owner and curator requested “my new work”.  I accepted this great opportunity, hung up the phone and freaked!  My new work was two babies lying in their crib!  I certainly had not been out photographing in my last months of pregnancy nor my first months as a mom to twins!  I went to all the local galleries (Livingston is known as one of the “100 Best Small Art Towns in America” and has 15 galleries) to see what photography was being exhibited.  It was all landscapes, horses, wildlife and such…similar subject matter to my own.  Knowing I really had an opportunity to make a name for myself, I realized I had to do something different.  Norman Rockwell’s imagery came to mind…regular people doing regular things, so I decided I’d photograph the local people.  I didn’t know a lot of people being new in town, so I asked our neighbor, an artist what she thought of the idea.  Well, she and her husband were my first subjects.  
The project took on a life of its own…I met people serendipitously and photographed them on location…a ranching family, an old woman, a mother and her new baby, a teenager…you name it.  March & April in Montana are not the prettiest with melting snow, brown hills and mud, so I decided to go with it and photograph them all in sepia tone.  My show, “Neighbors & Friends, The Face of Livingston” opened to rave reviews and I was even interviewed on the local radio station, KPRK during their “Talk of the Town” program.  The night of the opening I had a bunch of people ask what I charge to take portraits!  And so, I became a portrait photographer…J

How long have you been in business?
My portraiture business really took off in 2000, so 11 years.

How long have you had your studio space?
One year already on a three year lease.  Boy, it goes by quickly!

How would you describe the look of your studio?
It’s the new me and also matches my brand, which I would describe as modern heirloom elegance.  I’ve formerly always loved and been drawn to antiques, rustica, dark woods and the like, but lately I’m gravitating more toward open airy spaces full of light.  I also love modern pieces.  A few antique and rustic pieces are present in my studio, but in clean fresh colors.  And of course, there are always my beloved chandeliers!  They and the wall sconces in the baby changing ~ nursing area really set a mood.

Was your space renovated for your studio?  If so, what all had to be done to get it ready?
The building which my 1,000 sq. ft. studio is housed dates back to 1906 and has the most wonderful oak hardwood floors and original tin ceiling, not to mention a wide open retail-ready space, office loft and wonderful west and north facing window light.  The “bones” of this space were simple and wonderful.  I had a few minor renovations done, but even those add up!  Painting walls & ceilings throughout, renovating the bathroom, re-carpeting the office loft, adding new light fixtures, storefront signage (to include presenting my proposal at a meeting of the Livingston Historical Commission for approval)…that type of thing.

Did you enlist the help of a designer or did you do it all yourself?
It’s me but with inspiration from whatever catches my eye and heart.  I designed & decorated our log home with zero experience and entered a contest for Log Home Design Ideas Magazine.  We won the Northwest Division and were featured on the magazine cover in May 2000!  You can hire a designer to interpret your ideas and bring them to life or you can do it yourself.  I kept a notebook of my ideas for the studio as I did with designing and decorating our home.  My inspiration and pieces for the studio came from many sources…Pottery Barn, Ballard Designs, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and World Market.  I purchased the bathroom vanity from Lowes.  Much of my lighting comes from Lamps Plus.  But it all began with the display cabinet I found at an antique mall.  I had it refinished and it became the centerpiece for everything else!

How did you find the perfect space for your studio?
After outgrowing my home office, I rented a 300 sq. foot office space in town for client consultations and for showcasing my boutique products, but it all honesty, the space was too small for me the moment I moved in, in 2010…(but being small, the investment was safe!).  Just one year later, I had a choice to make…either renew my lease or move.  As luck would have it, the amazing 1,000 sq. foot space in Livingston’s historic district was available and instantly caught my eye.  It was love at first sight.  I couldn’t get it out of my mind. 

What are the pros in having a studio?
You have to show what you want to sell and my home office at the ranch was only so big and could only show so much.  Packaging orders in the laundry room among the piles of laundry that a pair of active twins can create became an ever-increasing challenge.  Having to clear a space to work, well…you know…not so fun.  Moving into a space solely dedicated to my business was a dream come true in so many ways.  I have a designated space to meet with clients, a place to package orders where everything is neat and tidy, a place to shoot newborns and babies, a place for mommas to nurse and change their babies and eventually…a place where I can work without interruption (that of barking ranch dogs) …my loft office space.  As a working wife and mom with a menagerie of animals to care for, my studio/work space outside of the home is my haven, my special place to create and be creative.  I also hope that it is a sanctuary of sorts for my clients as well.

What are the cons?
I budgeted for the monthly rent….none-the-less, signing a 3 year lease can be a scary thing.  All estimates aside, I was not prepared for the reality of the winter electric bill.  We had an unusually long and cold winter last year.  Yikes!  And there is the housekeeping.

What is your favorite part of your studio?
I’m still working on it and haven’t yet moved in, but I know it will be my new loft office space.  The view from there is uplifting and amazing.  I also love my client meeting space and my packaging space.

What is your favorite thing to shoot in your studio?
I am still for the most part a location photographer, either here at Sky Ranch or at a client’s preferred location.  I am set up to photograph newborns and children up to 2 years at the studio using available window light, vintage props and Savvy Flooring of course.

If you could have one thing in your studio that you currently do not have, what would it be?
Eventually I would love to replace the florescent ceiling lamps with track lighting.  I am also planning to implement a projection system to facilitate in-studio ordering sessions.



  1. Oh my Susann! It is so fun seeing your space!! I hope you are loving it!

  2. Are the baby clothes given out as client gifts? Or do the clients purchase them?

  3. Beautiful studio! I love your branding. So well thought out and positive!

  4. Alisha!...thanks so much...I am loving it!
    Rayleigh...the onesies were a fun display idea created for my recent grand opening. I give them away.
    StudioKay...Thank you so much. It been developing over the years. Means a lot to hear your comments!

  5. This is a beautiful and enchanting studio! The story of Susann's journey through photography and following her dreams, is an inspiration to always believe in yourself, never stop dreaming and look for beauty in any subject!

  6. Woah! I love it so much... beautiful job. This gives me momentum to keep reaching towards a studio :) .

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful space Susann! It is my goal to have a dedicated workspace in the next year or so. Amazing inspiration!