Paul Wellman is a truly gifted photographer. As Exhibit A, just take a look at The Santa Barbara Independent’s Year in Pictures currently on newsstands around town, featuring dozens of his best shots from the past year.
One of the most amazing things about Paul is that he basically learned all of his skills while on the job. He started in the newspaper’s editorial design department back in 2001, with essentially no experience behind a camera. “I had an interest in photography, but I’d never thought anything would come of it,” he confides. “When people would tell me I took a good photo, I thought they were just being nice.”
Eight months into his new job, The Indy’s then-photographer Matt Straka left the paper and Marianne Partridge, our editor-in-chief, eventually offered Paul the position. “Don’t you want a real photographer?” replied Paul, to which Marianne quipped, “There were great photographers long before there was photography school!”
So Paul bought himself a digital SLR camera, and started shooting most every image used by the paper, a routine that’s continued every day ever since. When I ask him what makes him so good, he humbly replies, “Caring about it is the biggest part.”
Take a look at the more than 160 portraits that Paul has taken for this column over the past three years. Every Monday morning when I see the published questionnaire, I’m amazed how he’s able to capture the essence of the person I’ve interviewed. Even more impressive is the fact that he does each portrait very quickly, at most spending about 10 minutes with the subject.
What’s his secret? “I like getting along with people,” he shares with me. “You can always find some common ground. Having confidence also helps. I start talking with them or I’ll make a goofy face.”
Relaxed and easygoing in person, Paul is one of the nicest people I know in Santa Barbara. He’s got so many deadlines: shooting in a courtroom in the morning, dashing to a City Council meeting right after, then covering a sports event and a concert later in the evening. But Paul remains calm. I’ve never seen him frazzled.
“With each assignment you make a connection,” says Paul. “It’s amazing to find about your community taking photos.” Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Paul attended Dos Pueblos High School, where he admits he was not a very devoted student. “I was in a hurry to get a low-paying job at a gas station,” says Paul. Lucky for us, he found his true calling.
Here’s something I’ve never shared with anyone before. Whenever I’m overwhelmed on the red carpet of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (which happens quite often), I always look for Paul. He has a calming effect, and I treasure his friendship.
My first year at the helm, we honored Peter Jackson, and all of these hotshot photographers from Hollywood were taking photos of the Lord of the Rings director against the festival backdrop. After they all left, Paul took off a ring he had on his hand and asked Jackson to look at this camera. He shot a portrait of Peter’s face seen through the ring. “Nobody’s had the imagination to do that!” exclaimed the award-winning auteur. We were all impressed.
The Santa Barbara Independent’s Big Shot Photo Editor answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your current state of mind?
Hungry. Are you going to finish that?
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Wait, we can get that?!? Easy, that would be my life, right now. I have the love and support of an amazing person in my life, family, friends, good health, employment that challenges me and pays the rent, and the fridge is stocked from Trader Joes and the farmers market. Daily news of killings, life-threatening illnesses, and people forced to become refugees are a constant reminder how perfect things are.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Hello __, Please call me when you have a minute and 47 seconds to talk about photos for an upcoming story in the Independent.” I also tend to quote ‘90s Simpsons, Raising Arizona, and Tom Waits.
What do you like most about your job?
The variety of assignments. Courtrooms, concerts, parades, protests, portraits, sports, local government, and breaking news. Locations and people can regularly repeat but each time is a different experience and it adds another connection or three to the community.
What is your greatest fear?
I fear that the movie Idiocracy could be coming true. Political leanings aside, it is startling that a divisive, egomaniac bully with questionable achievements could make absurd claims and name-call his way to a position of great power.
Who do you most admire?
Parents are at the top of the list. They raised me and my siblings with no shortage of sacrifice and continue to be there for us. Our annual Local Hero issues are also a consistent personal source of humility and inspiration.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Travel. It’s ridiculously expensive and easier to let work just consume free time. But in the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to visit some amazing places and the investment pays dividends daily with great memories, a new perspective, and hopes for the next trip.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Prepare to be shocked on this one. I like cool people with a sense of humor.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Take your pick. Rude, inconsiderate, disrespectful. Sometimes you need to cut to the chase and we’ve all have bad days but some people are shockingly entitled and seem to have no clue that they are treating others like crap or, worse, they enjoy it.
What do you most value in friends?
Knowing that I could rely on, and be relied on, for any reason . . . and the ability to forgive my not making more time to just hang out.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Well, I finally had the tail removed and the last of the purple dye from the money bag finally washed off, so I guess it would have to be my collection of flip phones.
Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to communicate fluently with anyone from anywhere.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I could be way more organized and less distractible. My desk, truck, camera gear, the garage, etc., could all use a good . . . hey, let’s go ride bikes.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Does a hole in one at Golf N’ Stuff count?
Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara makes a great home base due to climate, beauty, and variety of activities not to mention family friends and connections (albeit with the ability for copious amounts of the aforementioned travel).
What is your most treasured possession?
In the tangible possessions category, it’s probably photos. In addition to a few boxes of slides and prints there’s currently 12 terabytes (and counting) of digital images from 15 years at the Indy.
Who makes you laugh the most?
More like what doesn’t make me laugh. Growing up I wore out LPs of the Smothers Brothers and Steve Martin, saw Rodney Dangerfield live, and was in awe of Monty Python. SNL was a highpoint in the week. There’s Bill Murray movies and Eddie Murphy stand up. Marx Brothers, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Lily Tomlin Richard Pryor, Steven Wright, Woody Allen, Chris Rock, David Letterman, Mitch Hedberg, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Jim Gaffigan, Amy Poehler, Mike Birbiglia, Hannibal Buress, Louis CK, and of course, the great Tina Fey.
What is your motto?
“Never quote me.”
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
No idea. There’s probably more of a connection with the hysterical figures.
On what occasion do you lie?
When someone asks me, “How do you like my brussels sprout, eggplant, fish stew?”