Sitting on the dock, feet in the water and feeling the gentle roll of Lake Washington along the hull of Walela, her home for just over a year, Jennifer Richard, Mount Madonna School (MMS) class of ’99, reflected on her career and the journey of her life over the last several years.
“During these crazy times of the pandemic, turbulence and stress, I’ve been wanting to share more of myself with people, reach out more, connect more, spread more joy, art and happiness,” said Richard. “To say that my life has shifted dramatically in recent months and years seems a little cliché in this time of wild upheaval, but it is still absolutely true,” Jennifer shared. “In the last two years I have moved out of my apartment of 14 years, bought and built out the delightful, dainty boat that is now my home, and fallen in love all over again with a new kind of portraiture.
“About five years ago I hit an artistic energy wall,” she continued. “Like most art, photography can deliver a real emotional beating if you’re not properly braced for its demands, and I was, frankly, getting pummeled. I had my roots buried deep in my lofty little apartment in Fremont, Seattle, but my head and heart were restless and unsettled, caught in the boom and bust tide of the life of a professional artist. The sort of work that provided the most financial stability and success lacked the creative spirit that made me love and pursue photography. I let my dream rest for a while, traveled, found work in less turbulent fields, danced a lot (became a bit obsessive about Argentine Tango), and allowed life to grow me into a person with a stronger foundation.”
When COVID-19 hit Washington hard in early 2020, Richard, like so many, found herself without an income and with seemingly endless time on her hands. As she sat on the dock one morning, watching her houseboat rock gently in the lake’s smooth dark water, she asked herself, “What would I do if I could do anything at all? For her the answer remained – enthusiastically – photography.
That reconfirmation has prompted her to step back into the wonderful struggle of professional artistry, and to narrow the focus of her work. She’s beginning to create a new style that synthesizes her love of human connection with her personal desire to build beautiful creative images.
“I have been a professional people photographer for 14 years and, in many ways, have been quite successful: I have made a living off of my work, taken on plenty of projects that have been artistically fulfilling, and made some great connections,” she said. “Three years ago I would have said that I photographed ‘portraits, weddings, and events.’ Yet, for me, now, there’s something disheartening about that description.
“Instead, the shoots I want to explore are a form of storytelling,” she continued. “I think of this new style of portraiture as building a dream rather than just capturing a face. I want to spend time with my clients and get to know how they imagine themselves. I want to make storyboards and Pinterest pages and find the exact right locations for the scenes we’re creating. I want to build dreams out of borrowed books and draped cloths, out of dramatic costumes, discovered spaces, and people’s stories and imaginations. I want the location and the props and the wardrobe to come together to say something more than the sum of their parts. Call me a romantic, but I believe that a really good photo, aside from making you adore the photographer, should make you adore, or be intrigued by, the subject. Taking a client into a park will get a good headshot but it will never get a story. I want to specialize and get really good at this niche. I want to do work that I’m always excited about.”
From her mooring on Lake Washington, Richard has found a profound gratitude for her situation and her world, surrounded by wildlife and nature. “Walela (‘hummingbird in Cherokee) is pretty stationary, so if I want to go anywhere on the lake, I go via my standup paddleboard. Living here I have a life outdoors. It’s like I live on an aquarium; I see fish and turtles every day. I got attacked by a jealous mama goose last spring. We often see bald eagles flying overhead, a mated pair of osprey, and even a family of beavers with a new tiny beaver baby this year! I’m always outside.”
It’s been quite a journey to get to boat life.
“I bought Walela, in the early spring of 2019 after years of searching, months of agonizing, a fair amount of stress crying, and one timely intervention by the universe,” Richard shared. “Officially choosing Walela was terrifying; in handing Eddie-the-salty-boat-guy a check finalizing the purchase, I was committing to moving out of my apartment of 14 years and into a home that was still only a vague impression in my mind, but that I myself would have to physically construct. I was actively turning the page to the next chapter of my life.
“Walela was moored on the Skagit River close to La Conner, and that spring my partner and I made that long drive up to work on her every weekend for about two months,” she continued. “These months were an experience as beautiful and scary as jumping into the ice melt of the Skagit, something we did routinely after days of gutting questionable building materials, fighting with engine equipment, and making endless dump runs that left us gritty in the subcutaneous pores of our skin. Jumping in cold water, as your feet leave the earth and the gemstone water rushes up to meet you, you think for the split second you have before you hit, ‘What have I done?’ Then, exhilaration and terror as the rushing water closes over your head, your ears fill, and every inch of you is forced into the immediate present. Next, awe and strength as you feel the world sharpen around you and the reality of your own aliveness comes into full focus. After when you’re wrapped in clean clothes and inhaling burgers and beer from the local joint nearby, it’s so easy to live in gratitude, to feel a sense of kinship, love, and ownership for the people and places sharing this concentrated dose of growth with you, in all its beauty and pain.
“Walela brought a magical combination of adventure, movement, and, somewhat to my surprise, stability into my life,” she shared. “Through this messy, wonderful process I found that I had both the support and the ability to complete this massive project, even though I went into it not knowing what a Phillips head screwdriver looked like. In creating my home I went from being someone who said, ‘I don’t know how to do this, so I probably shouldn’t try,’ to someone who says, ‘I don’t know how to do this, but I bet I can figure it out.’ That shift has been incredible for me, and I’m working on applying this new courage to my art and my business.
“Mount Madonna School started me on a path exploring what it means to live a good life, to be a responsible person, to do good in the world,” acknowledged Richard. “It gave me the foundation of the way that I move through the world, interact with people and my environment. It helped me to be proud of myself and allowed me to shape values that I try to live by.
“My career continues to be a work in progress; my photography, my art, still feels like a direct measure of my creativity and capability – and therefore can be a bit scary to share,” she said. “Now, however, I’m able to approach with confidence the wilder and more fanciful projects of which I’ve always dreamed.”
Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,