Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week I interviewed Henry McCoy, photographer and owner of the Fine Line, art supply store and print lab. This interview has been edited for length.

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This is Q&Art. I'm Russell Pirkle, and this week I am interviewing Henry McCoy, photographer and owner of the Fine Line Art Supply Store and Print Lab here in downtown Ruston.

How long have you been a photographer?   I started probably in high school. I started taking photography classes then, got interested because of my dad. And then studied that here at Tech, and then finished at Southeastern, in Hammond, Louisiana. And then started a photography business as I was finishing up school.

Was your father a photographer as well?

He wasn't a photographer per se. He just liked to take landscape photos on our trips to Colorado and around the country.

Is your wife a photographer as well?

No, she's not a photographer as well. She wouldn't know the first thing. She studied interior design and architecture here at Tech.

And what does she do now?

Right now she's the visual manager at Dillards in Monroe. She's in charge of all the displays and mannequins and signage, things like that.

Tell me about your work as a photographer.

For the past several years I've just been shooting weddings, portraiture, a little bit of commercial stuff. I'm trying to slowly migrate out of wedding photography and get back into fine art commercial work. I enjoy shooting weddings. I kind of want to get back to stuff I really enjoy doing, that really motivates me to get up at two o'clock in the morning and go find a good spot, stay out there to get a good shot. And that's what I'm working on now. I'm working on an additional fine art website for my stuff to sell prints. My first three prints entered into a show next March at the 102 A Bistro with NCLAC.

Spending so much of your time here running this business, how do you find the time to also be a photographer?

I don't. Haha. I do my photography business as well here, so I'm running two businesses and then trying to do my own stuff as far as my portfolio building. I basically just don't have a social life. I work all the time.

Tell me about the Fine Line. What services and products do you offer?

Right now, we cater a lot to the students at Tech. After Barnes and Noble moved in and did away with a lot of their art supplies, we found it crucial to be here. My wife and I, we were students here, and we knew it was difficult to get supplies so it just happened that we came back at the right time. But right now, yeah, most of our customers are students. We were really surprised by how many local artists were in town. They were knocking on the door before we even opened up. But yeah, we do a lot of art supplies and then large format printing art pieces, just general use posters, things like that.

What are your hopes and plans for the future of the Fine Line?

Eventually I'd like to continue to grow and be a major supplier for Tech and the surrounding community. Right now our shelves are full with the supplies that are on the supply lists for the teachers for their classes. And we'd like to stock the entire store full of just all types of art supplies, for the elementary, middle school and high school students here in town too. I'd like to eventually hire some students to start working, and give me time to go do other stuff.

I understand you're planning to sort of merge spaces with Stitchville, could you tell me about that?

Yeah, Allie over at Stitchville, we've been talking a little bit, and she was looking for more space. We just happened to have a lot of space here, so she's moving in in the next couple of weeks, taking over part of the store up front so she can offer her fabrics and yarns and things like that. I think it'd be a good merger for both of us, being in an arts and crafts industry.

Tell me about your experience of learning how to run a business.

I worked at a place called Baton Rouge Blue Print in Baton Rouge for about seven years. It was a mom and pop store. I was pretty much the only employee at that location that I was working at, and I just kind of picked it up and kept going. Plus doing my photography business. I kind of learned a lot just kind of feeling my way through it. I also took a few business classes while I was in college. Most of those were marketing, things like that. Not so much running and managing a business. A lot of it's just a lot of help from friends and family, and peers that also have businesses. I get guidance from them.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of owning and running the Fine Line?

Challenges? We started this on a lot of prayers. We both left our jobs in Baton Rouge, moved up here. Didn't even have a store front. We found a house, moved here, the place we wanted it's actually still in construction. So we had to search quickly, and you know, work with the teachers to try to figure out what to stock. We've been open for almost a year now, and I haven't drawn a paycheck yet. Everything stays in the business. We're trying to get it to grow before anything happens. Rewards, it's just getting to see all the students and all their artwork that their producing at Tech and Grambling. I started in photography, that's pretty much all I can do. I can't draw or paint to save my life. And when I get to see some of that, it just blows my mind that people can do that kind of stuff.

Let's talk a little bit more about your photography. What are your favorite subjects to photograph?

Mostly, it's probably like every other photographer, you know, old run down places. I haven't really photographed too many of those lately. I'm working on a new project now, it's mostly abstract work. Just trying to think outside the box. I have a couple projects that I've had on my mind for a while, and like I said, I want to get away from the old decrepit places. I did that for my senior portfolio and had a good show of that, but I want to try to explore some of the abstract. And with digital I think it kind of lends itself to that because you can see instant results and figure out what you need to tweak here and there. And then sometimes it's complete chaos, and it doesn't matter what you tweak. There's not a direct outcome that you're looking for. It's just seeing what you can create by doing just letting things happen. And I'm also getting back into film a little bit. That's how I started was film. I started shooting weddings that way, so I'm accustomed to that. I've been experimenting with older cameras, medium format, 35mm film, just trying to feel my way around that again and experiment. That lends itself to a lot of abstract too because you have no clue what you're going to get until you develop the roll. And if I'm hand developing, then you really don't know what you're going to get until you let it dry out and see what happens.

Which do you prefer, film or digital?

Right now, probably digital just because I already have all the equipment. It's cheaper. Aesthetic-wise, I love film. There's just something to it that seems timeless. A good black and white from a film camera . . . You can get a good black and white from digital, but there's just a feeling to it that you know it was shot with film and it has that look to it.

How do you develop your film? Do you do it at your house or do you send it off?

Some stuff, I develop at my house. I can do 35mm medium format at my house. If I have a lot or when I start playing with color, I send that off. If it's something important and I don't want to screw it up . . . I haven't developed film in almost ten years. The rolls I'm testing and just experimenting with, I'll develop myself. If I know I have something good on a roll I may send that off just to make sure it comes back good.

What are your favorite parts of the experience of being a photographer?

The discovery. Every time a new camera comes out or new technology, you're continually learning, experimenting, growing, just finding new tricks, new ways of doing things. I'm not too familiar with painting and drawing, I just know that I don't think much has changed in that industry. I think it kind of levels out after a while, plateaus, but photography is always changing. Like I said, I was shooting film, and then all of a sudden it became digital. And I had to make that transition, learning a whole new format basically. I like that. I like learning stuff and tinkering.

What themes or subjects do you deal with in your fine art photography? What sort of things are you trying to say?

The project I'm working on now, I don't know that it's so much what I want to say, it's what I want people to think whenever they view it. I want them to look at it and see what they get out of it. Like I said, I'm going abstract right now. I took the first photograph and I showed it to a photography buddy of mine, and he couldn't figure out what it was. He's like me, he wants to figure out what it is. He came over and dug through my camera bag, and he was trying to figure out how I did it and what it was, and he couldn't. And that's what I like. People don't necessarily know how I did it or anything like that. I want them to think, not just look at it, and be like 'ok that's a pretty landscape,' you know. What am I shooting? What is it? How was it created? What does it say to you? What does it look like? What's your first reaction to it?

What part does the editing process play in the creation of your photographs?

Not much. I'm not a photoshop guy. I don't like to spend hours in photoshop. When it was film, you had to get it right in the camera. There was only so much you could do in the darkroom. So I don't do a lot of post-processing. Maybe a white balance adjustment, contrast, that's about it. I'm not going in and doing fifteen layers of different levels and toning and things like that. When I shoot it, if I die right there on the spot, somebody can take that card out and the print is ready. They can take that and go. I guess I'm a little more of a purist when it comes to photography. And I don't want to manipulate too much on the computer. Then it becomes digital editing. I want it to be a photograph, not a digital work, you know.

Who are some of your favorite photographers?

Right now, in the portrait world, Dan Winters. He does large format film work with pretty much anybody, and his photographs are simple, they're well lit. They draw you in. They're nothing fancy. They may not look fancy, but I've seen his setups and they sometimes can be extravagant on lighting, but it doesn't look that way when you see the final result. Black and white landscape, Michael Leven, he uses a medium format digital to shoot, just ethereal gorgeous black and white landscapes. And they're not just straight on, this is a landscape. You look at it, and it draws you in to figure out what exactly you're looking at. And the abstract, I don't know right now. I'm actually kind of pulling from a few random paintings and stuff I see. There's a series of photos floating around now where they use time lapse photography, and it looks like an oil painting. It's remarkable. I saw that and saw what could be done and kind of branched off from there to my project.

Returning to the Fine Line, I understand that you're soon going to be able to accept Tech Express. Could you tell me how that came about?

As soon as we opened, we called Tech to find out if we could do Tech Express. It wasn't available at the time. Students have continually asked for it. Our work around for the time being was gift cards that parents could call up here and order and put as much money as they wanted on there for their students, and they could reload them whenever they needed to. Louisiana Tech and the Chamber of Commerce, they worked real hard, and they got it to where pretty much anyone in Ruston now can accept Tech Express. So of course we were on the list, and they called us. And I cut the lady off in mid-sales speech and said 'look, I want it, just send me the paperwork.' So we're really looking forward to that. We should be getting set up for that in the next few weeks before school starts. We're really looking forward to that.

Do you have any closing thoughts or anything you'd like to say?

Not too much. We're really appreciative of everyone that's come in, and the support in the community for an art supply store. We'd like to continue to see it grow and ask everyone for their help doing so.

Thank you so much for speaking with me Henry.

Thank you.