For as long as Katherine Neville can remember, she could “draw whatever she saw.” As a child, she was reprimanded in school for coloring outside the lines of her coloring book:
“I was supposed to color in between the lines to make a rabbit. I was very teeny, and I’d never seen a rabbit. But I’d seen a parrot in a Walt Disney movie, so instead of filling in a rabbit between the lines, I colored a parrot in green, blue, yellow and red! I was reprimanded and a note was sent home to my mother. I guess I was already into freedom of expression. The teacher was definitely into following the rules.”
In Neville’s book A Calculated Risk her protagonist, Verity Banks, makes everyone’s favorite statement about “Following the Rules”:
“Some people say that rules are made to be broken, but I’ve never thought so.
Rules are like flagpoles in a slalom race: you observe their presence religiously, skirt around them as closely as possible, and never let them cut your speed.”
Katherine had little formal training in art, but she had posed as a model for sketching classes when young, and she’d picked up skills such as cross hatching, sculpting bone structure and facial musculature, and working with charcoal and trois crayons–materials and techniques that she later learned had been used by masters since antiquity. Modeling for art classes also helped her overcome being self-conscious about posing for long sessions, in front of dozens of people she didn’t know.
Later, to help earn extra income in various cities, Neville would sign up with professional modeling agencies. She posed for “flat work” (newspaper and magazine ads for products and stores) as opposed to “ramp work,” or fashion shows of high-end designer collections.
In her years posing before a camera–working with a variety of sports, product, and fashion photographers, Neville says she learned “composition, color, contours, and lighting”–which changed her way of looking at the world.
When Katherine Neville found herself without a job in Colorado, she realized that she had another untapped circle of ‘connections’ she’d developed over the years: she already knew and had worked with the two top modeling agencies, all of their models, and most of the commercial photographers. For a time, she had also worked as an assistant and all-around ‘factotum’ (scouting locations, cleaning lenses, lugging equipment, styling shots) for filmmaker H.M. “Bart” Edwards, and the noted portrait and early Playboy photographer, Nicholas DeSciose.
With the advice and support of these photographers, Neville decided to start her own photography business, as the only (and perhaps the first!) woman commercial photographer in Colorado.
“With my Nikon F, my cavalcade of lenses, my portable light stands with high intensity ‘barn-door’ lights and silvered umbrellas, I was able to throw everything into one carrying case, throw it over my shoulder, and travel all over the mountains to shoot my jobs,” she says. “My first job was shooting the very first ‘Colorado Calendar’ for a start-up publisher.”
The calendar included one of the rare early photos of Mesa Verde, and of the last wild buffalo herd in Colorado. Neville started filling in her portfolio with exotic images from her years in Algeria. But she felt that it looked like she was ‘trying out for National Geographic‘–she had nothing to show that looked slick or commercial.
“So I treated all the top female models of my acquaintance to a champagne luncheon in an upscale restaurant,” Neville says. “When we’d all drunk enough to let our hair down, I asked each of them which male model she would fantasize about being photographed with, in a glamorous fashion shoot. I would set up and style the shots myself, and give each model high quality prints for her own portfolio–called a ‘trade-out.'”
Neville went on to garner commissions to shoot ads for a top-end spa, beauty salon, and jeweler, as well as the premiere catalogue for the classic store, Gorsuch of Vail. She was official program photographer for the Denver Civic Ballet, including individual portraits of all the company members.