When she was growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s, no one could’ve guessed young Nancy Lehrer would achieve substantial accomplishment in three very different fields. Lehrer describes herself in the following way: computer scientist by profession, classical musician by history, and photographer by passion.
After high school, Lehrer headed north to San Francisco State University as a classical oboe major. Upon graduation with a B.A. in Music, she went to Boston University for graduate school and studied with Ralph Gomberg, who was the first oboist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the time. “Then, as an incredibly poor, starving graduate student, I finished my Master’s at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst,” she says. While at Emerson, she began taking computer science classes, and ended up with another Master’s, this time in Computer Science, and a new career. All these years later, she is not disappointed by the switch.
Lehrer points to an analogy in photography which summarizes the future she was facing with a classical music career. “Say you want to be a great landscape photographer, and that’s all you ever wanted to do,” she explains. “Then you realize that in order to pay bills you have to do weddings, bar mitzvahs, senior portraits, and stuff like that. In music, to make ends meet, you have to do a lot of part-time gigs in community orchestras in places that don’t really have the high quality of standards you trained yourself to do. Getting into another field where I could be more choosy about what I did in music was actually fun, and it was a very well‑paying field, highly in demand, allowed me to live where I wanted to live.”
All the while Lehrer was studying classical oboe and computer science, something else was constant in her life: photography. In 1978 while in college, she bought her first 35mm SLR, a Canon AE-1 with a 50mm lens. She used it exclusively for the next 20 years, occasionally substituting the 50mm with “a really cheap 100‑millimeter lens,” she says. “That was all I had.”
As her career as a computer scientist accelerated, she stopped photographing anything other than vacations. Eventually, she got a Yashica with a Zeiss lens. As digital technology improved, in 2002 she bought a Canon Digital Rebel XT. “That rekindled everything for me,” she recalls. “That’s when I really got back into photography seriously and started first with Flickr, but then found the local camera clubs and local camera professionals I could hang out with and talk to in order to learn about digital photography and digital processing.”
Shortly after it was announced, she purchased a Canon 5D Mark II. “I have a whole variety of high quality Canon lenses and pretty much have been sucked in,” she laughs.
Digital photography reinvigorated Lehrer’s interest in the art. Her subject matter is vast, but she’s partial to black and white street photography and color landscapes. Lehrer has her own thoughts and terminology on her shooting. “My landscapes aren’t really landscapes. They’re tighter. They’re more like the 50 millimeter view of nature. I’d say those are my two most successful sorts of genres, the street stuff and then the tighter nature kind of thing. Not the big, expansive landscapes. I just haven’t gotten there yet, I just don’t see it yet.”
One of Lehrer’s most interesting series of photographs were done in the Lower Antelope Slot Canyon of Page, Arizona. Lehrer claims a maturity to be able to frame her shots from a tripod just the way she wants. Her tripod of choice is the Induro CT-114. “It’s the carbon fiber and I love it,” she says. “I just put it in a regular backpack. I’ve recently been banging it around Utah and it’s held up just fine. No problems there. Yeah, I’ve been very pleased with it. I know someone else who has a little bit larger model in our club, and he loves his as well. He’s also banging it around. It’s certainly my go-to tripod.”
Recently, Lehrer picked up not one but two First Place awards at the Spirit of the Mountains 2010 Photo Contest, hosted by the National Park Service. “Waiting for Breakfast,” a delicate study of an Argiopes Garden Spider in a dew-soaked web, won Best of Show. “Stand Tall,” a shot looking up at redwoods, won First Place in the Plants category. She also snagged an additional four Fourth Place awards. You can check out the details on her blog.
Her next project may be chronicling her native San Fernando Valley. “It’s where I grew up,” she explains. “It mostly was built in the 50′s, so it’s got this 50′s southern California ranch house style structure to it. The change in the San Fernando Valley has been mostly downward, economically. There’s a lot of Mexican-art influence, so you have these great old 50′s looking, cheap modern-ish buildings that now have these brightly colored signs and fences around them.”
Her days in the San Fernando Valley are rooted in photography. “I was born in ’59, and in the 60′s, I remember everybody had cameras. When I was really little my father had a Brownie camera and I would take pictures with that. I would take it to camp when I was in fourth grade and became the camp photographer. I had an Instamatic later. I always was trying to capture what was going on around me.”
When asked if she still plays the oboe, Lehrer responds she did up until a few years ago. “The oboe is not so easy to play for enjoyment. It’s one of those working-hard instruments. I’ve always needed a creative outlet, so once I got more and more into photography, I found less and less of a kind of creative need to do it through the music.”
Written by Ron Egatz