How We Became Photographers – The Long Story

THE LONG STORY… (narration by Alisha)

OK this is going to be long if you want to know the whole story, so grab a cup of tea, and make yourself comfortable.


I grew up an only child in the King County area of WA with a no-friends-over policy at my mom’s house, weekends and an annual summer road trip alone with my dad and a lot of time to entertain myself. My dad had taken black and white photography in high school and loved to share his photos with me. Although they were not professional, the photos of hiking trips with beautiful landscapes influenced my fascination with photography. On my 9th birthday I received a hot pink Kodak film camera, coincidentally my Chow Chow, Brandy, had puppies the same day. The 1st photos I’ve ever taken was a photoshoot of puppies. Growing up, my mother was obsessed with taking snapshots just as well, but developing the film was months or years later. In an effort to make my mom’s photos better since they tended to turn out blurry of me, I started to learn where to stand and how fast I could move depending on the lighting.


As a young girl I was a dedicated Girl Scout and competed in scholarship pageants. The pageants were focused on poise, education and volunteer work. For a couple years I volunteered every weekend for special olympics bowlers and occasionally at their holiday festivals. These experiences provided me the opportunity to be around a variety of people and to see beauty in all shapes and sizes. In modeling/acting classes I was photographed by professional photographers. This gave me an inside perspective about commercial work and posing models, information I find valuable even today.

A photo I took of my dad when I was 13 in Yellow Stone

A photo I took of my dad when I was 13 in Yellow Stone

In the early 90s my grandma purchased a full frame SLR (film) camera and took hobby photography very serious. Seeing the photos she took of her award winning garden inspired me. I eaves dropped while she would talk about using the camera and when I was bored, I read and admired the photography books that were under her living room coffee table. Summer trips to national parks became practice grounds to learn skills about lighting and composition. There were no controls on the camera unfortunately and because it was film, I would try my best to envision how the photos would turn out. Most photos taken on our trip were of my dad or my shadow/reflection to prove I was there. I learned quickly that friends/family looking at my photos would take a short moment to see landscapes, but when a person was in the image, they were always more interested. I think this is where my love for portraiture really stems from.


Throughout high school (TJHS) I had my mind made up that I was going to be a dance major. My life revolved around dance rehearsals and performance schedules, I took photos all along the way. In college, I majored in dance for the first 2 years. At the time I owned a 2.5 megapixel digital camera and thought I had the world at my finger tips. As an elective, I signed up for a basic photography class, not realizing that my digital camera would not be allowed. Early in the semester I decided to drop the class due to the cost and time involved with film photography. After all, it was just for fun and dance was my future.


It seems that every aspect of my life has emphasized visual skills. I grew up dancing and for 8 years taught competitive jazz, tap, ballet and hiphop at private studios in WA & CA. I coached 2 high school teams in CA and traveled with a company called United Spirit Association teaching high school dance team summer camps in the Western U.S.. The understanding of body placement, symmetry, posing formations, timing, visual story telling and facial expressions can be seen in my photography to this day. At times I taught dance for programs that did not offer professional photography at recitals. My mom and I would stage photo days at dress rehearsal just so we could document the dancers and provided the opportunity to have photos in costumes. I made photo albums from each of my classes and would share them in the waiting room for guests to browse while classes were in session. Although photography was not my passion at the moment, it was always there lingering.


Holland was born in LaJolla, CA and grew up in San Diego & Orange County before moving to Oklahoma in High School. Holland and I met while he was stationed at Ft. Lewis as an Army Ranger Sniper. To this day I think the skills he learned as a sniper benefit his impeccable camera aim and breathing techniques. We were introduced by a mutual friend and knew each other a year before dating while he spent time in the U.S. and Afghanistan. That year I was designated photographer at 2 family member’s weddings with my ‘new technology’ a 3.3 megapixel Canon (It was SO cool at the time). I wasn’t trying to be a professional, or even a photographer, but I felt that someone needed to document the weddings for them since no other photographer was there and my grandma no longer took photos with her SLR due to wrist pain.


We dated for a few months before he proposed. We had a 3 day engagement followed by small wedding in March of 2003. We hired a photographer last minute, who did a fabulous job at our vintage looking mini wedding at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. Photo above by Heather.


One week later Holland was deployed to Iraq and once again I was left with a camera and opportunity to entertain myself. I promised him a daily journal and decided to make it a photo journal so that he would know he was on my mind. At that time I was teaching dance on weekends, working downtown Seattle during the day and going to school with a new major in Sign Language. Every day I took a photo, printed & taped it into the journal with a handwritten entry. Months later when he was allowed to receive mail I was able to send him the journal. I still can’t explain how happy I am that I decided to do this. I think the journal project is what really sparked my interest beyond snapshots.


Once Holland returned from Iraq, we moved to California (2004) and purchases our first Digital SLR. The thrill of holding it made me want to take photos of everything, all day. We purchased an Olympus 7 megapixel camera. Most of the photos were of Holland and our lives in Orange County. After a couple years we got our first puppy, Charlie (fawn Boxer), and as you all know Boxer puppies are adorable and absolutely irresistible as a photo subject. We took many photos of him growing up and I compiled his story onto a free website (before myspace & facebook). This prompted me to take a photoshop course so I could make him a business card.



One day while volunteering at a local shelter I ran into a woman in need of photos and a website to help out homeless Boxers in OC. So it began, Boxer OC Rescue was established. I volunteered to run their website for 2 years, and helped take photos of homeless dogs for their bio or for fundraising announcements. Holland and I volunteered our photography at the big rescue events as a fundraiser. This is when strangers started asking us for a business card, which we did not have yet. It wasn’t until Dec. 2005 when we volunteered to take photos of dogs with Santa that we decided it was time to venture into photography as a business.


I was still teaching dance, but I was babying a physical injury (sciatic nerve damage) and knew that my back couldn’t take the impact of dancing much longer. During the day I continued taking classes for Sign Language, but wasn’t sure if interpreting was right for me and my goal of owning a dance studio for the deaf was no longer my top priority. As a new photography business we began to get recognition as dog photographers. We even won a couple hobbyist photo competitions that were published internationally in a dog magazine. Holland encouraged me to officially get my business license and we were Alisha McGraw Photography…because we didn’t want to have to fill out the paperwork for a fictitious name.

Together we researched online and soaked up as much information as possible. We began to frequent workshops provided by WPPI & NAPP for photography and photoshop. We started our own collection of photography related books and DVDS. We soon realized the complexity of mastering digital photography. Both of us were going to school to get our A.A., we had a long talk and came to the conclusion that photography is something that could be more long term than dance. So, when we graduated with our Associates I left the dance world, or at least the teaching aspect, and moved to Sherman Oaks, CA to attend CSU-Northridge.


L.A. is known for being very cut-throat and it lived up to its expectations in every way. There were so many photographers in the area and we did all we could to just keep afloat while going to school. I was more nervous that it might not work out and really felt that becoming an ASL Interpreter may be the better option for survival. We decided to continue trying, at least until we graduated. We added a new family member, our deaf Boston Terrier Coco, so that Charlie had a friend to play with. Our neighbor was a cinematographer for a big studio in L.A. and although he traveled often he always came back to the quaint apartment next door. He was very influential in our photography business. He was a Hasselblad & Canon enthusiast, with a MA degree in cinematography and a plethora of knowledge about photography. He was in the market for a new camera and made a deal with us, if we bought his Canon 5D with lenses he would provide a couple private tutorials. This was by far the best trade we have made.

215665_7824529854_381_nTaking money from our savings, we purchased the camera with accompanying private lessons from a real technical photographer’s perspective. It opened our eyes to a lot of the photography field. Basically we ate a giant piece of humble pie. Fortunately for us we really like a good challenge and were motivated on a whole new level to take more college courses and workshops to practice and learn more skills. Our personal vintage style was being recognized by others and requests for pin up photography slowly trickled our way.


In June 2007 Holland and I graduated with our B.A. degrees (History for Holland & Deaf Studies for me). Photography was going well, we gained a couple contracts with leading pet calendars and magazines that published us and we felt like things were successful enough to continue with our investment in photography. I was hired for part-time interpreting in San Diego, CA and Holland began his journey for a M.A. Degree in Library Sciences. We moved to San Diego, and I became Nationally Certified for American Sign Language Intepreting and held 2 full time careers for the 6 years we lived in San Diego, CA. At one point we tried to be a foster family for a dog, which did not last long, we are foster failures and adopted Rocket, our second deaf Boston Terrier.


Holland graduated with his Master Degree in 2010 and with perfect timing to help do more for our business. Photography was officially busy for us and I really needed help before I became insane. So, Holland became a full time photographer too. It just so happens we tried our hand at fostering a dog one last time, and once again we ended up adding a new family member instead. We welcomed our 3rd deaf dog, a Boxer we named Dottie. Our house is officially full and over flowing with love from our 4 furry kids. We attend workshops and college classes monthly. I do believe I will be a student for life, always improving skills and learning new tricks. I am actively working towards earning the title Master Photographer from PPA. In 2012 earning 3 titles “Animal Photographer of the Year, in CA/ PPC“, “2012 Heidi M Starlite Award, CA/PPC”  and the “2012 Digital Artist of the Year, San Diego PPSDC“. We were starting to really take off and along came a reminder about the importance of health, don’t worry all is well it was just a scare…which lead to thoughts about our future.   526123_10150645033978034_1762717549_n


After a lot of thought, Holland and I decided to move back to my hometown in WA State, where we met and it all began. We moved back to WA in January of 2013 and after a year of adventures in WA we were weeks away from purchasing our first home when our Boxer Charlie, the fur-kid who started our professional photography adventure, passed away from cancer on April 30th 2014. He missed being in our new home by just a few days, we were devastated, making the rest of the year the most difficult in our lives. We received keys to our new home in Kent WA and are enjoying being home owners. It is our residential-studio, 50/50 home and work space, with plenty of room in the yard for gardening and doggy shenanigans for our 3 dogs who are still with us. We look forward to continuing our photography in the Northwest and know there are amazing people and pets here too. We’ve already fallen in love with WA all over again.

McGraw Family card 2014