A Marriage in Creativity

A collaboration between two artists yields a happy marriage, two successful businesses and the safeguarding of other artists’ rights. C.J. Kent shares how the duo juggles studio time and professional endeavors. Hint: It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.

The creative life often requires various gigs to sustain itself. That has certainly been true for Tiffany Walling McGarity and John McGarity. When the latter was studying painting in graduate school, he did freelance graphic design work. Meanwhile, Walling McGarity’s photography and digital imaging undergraduate degree allowed her to work in a photo lab and do production for a photography agent, who occasionally assigned her commercial work. Back then, all those gigs seemed terrible, but McGarity now recognizes that they “gave us an expanded skill set and much more to offer” — as commercial photographers, artists and business owners.

Tracing Where It All Began

The duo met in the photo lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, when Walling McGarity needed help using the photo press. McGarity showed her the intricate steps of transferring an image to thick toothy paper such as Arches or Reeves. The artists were both taking an alternate printmaking class, but McGarity had used the lab a lot more than Walling McGarity had. He explained to her how to apply the lacquer thinner to the photocopy of the image so that, when pressed, the toner from the original would release into the thick paper. Later, Walling McGarity would confess to McGarity that she’d been wanting to meet him ever since she’d seen his immersive art installation the previous year. No one in college thinks the cute person in the corner seat will be their future spouse, let alone business partner. They both agree that they were lucky.

The couple moved to New York City so McGarity could pursue an MFA from Pratt Institute; shortly thereafter, they got married. Although life wasn’t easy, they found hours here and there for their art. One day, when Walling McGarity wanted to enhance a photo, she asked her partner for his thoughts and suggestions. Although he had turned to painting for his graduate work, McGarity had kept his darkroom skills sharp by taking photography electives to build upon his undergraduate focus. His mixed media works featured acrylic, collage and his own photos. Adding his graphic design sensibility and understanding of texture to her creative skills in style and design made the image a huge success.

Building a Business

Though initially nervous to be collaborating, they discovered an appreciation for each other’s insights and a joy in working together. The couple made a book of their work and launched Walling McGarity Photography, a commercial photography business. Walling McGarity’s experience working for a photo rep had resulted in a lot of contacts, as well as some necessary business skills. The duo found work doing everything from shooting formal portraits of all the partners of a national law firm, for which they traveled around the country for a month, to fashion work that demanded moody, creative designs. Clients have included AMC Network, Elle, Gap, In Style, Swarovski and the Travel Channel.

Over the years, the two have cultivated a wide range of techniques and processes for their work, using everything from vintage tintypes to digital tools. Running a business with all the requisite bookkeeping, phone calls and paperwork had never been their plan, but it enabled a stronger commitment to their creative interests. Walling McGarity snatched time for her photography between commercial shoots while McGarity painted late at night, almost every night.

Launching a Creative Solution

One of the most mundane, yet challenging, aspects of their work is ensuring that clients follow usage contracts. One day, Walling McGarity was perusing a client’s website and saw that an image she and McGarity had produced was displayed, even though the contract had expired two years earlier. The client didn’t respond to offers to extend the contract and eventually ignored emails, calls and texts.

On another occasion, the couple was walking through the lobby of a building when McGarity noticed that a photo they’d sold for use to one magazine was gracing the cover of another.

In yet another instance, a model insisted that his hand be featured in a series of photographs. Walling McGarity and McGarity later discovered that he featured the shots on a website for his jewelry line. Frustrated by the disregard of their creative ownership and the subsequent legal hassles, they were determined to find a solution.

To start, there had to be a way to track images. Digital photography could embed the creator’s identity in the metadata of the image, but that metadata was often stripped once posted on social media sites and wasn’t available if someone took a screenshot of the photo. In one of their late-night conversations, bemoaning another unfortunate misuse of their work, they hit on the possibility of embedding information in the pixel of the image. From that brainstorm came Metapyxl. They had conversations with friends, who knew other friends, who knew technology, who knew about blockchain. In the span of a year, the two had a corporate team and developers creating their vision for how to protect the rights of all photographers, whether novice or professional. In addition, the Metapyxl concept expanded to protect the rights of creators of other media such as digital, video, manuscripts and music.

Managing Personal and Professional Pursuits

Between their commercial work and meetings for Metapyxl, time for their personal projects is even more difficult to find these days. McGarity often will work in his studio until dawn, exhausted the next day but happier for having worked on art for his next show. Walling McGarity has decided to trust that she’ll return to her art photography, but the company business and her health have demanded that she take a sabbatical. A creative life, the pair notes, isn’t simply about the studio life. It’s about solving the problems encountered from learning new things—and recognizing that sometimes what you learn takes you to unexpected places.

C.J. Kent, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of visual culture and an arts writer. For more information about her work and services for artists, go to ckent.art.

A version of this article first appeared int he November/December 2021 edition of Artists Magazine.

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