03 Feb 2021

When the human spirit yearns for brighter days, artists answer the challenge

By Kim Henry

Photos David Clifton Strawn, Merrell Thompson

March 2020 brought the world grinding to a halt, and for many, it’s been more than a challenge finding new ways to move forward as we continue to navigate COVID-19. Among the many sad stories of businesses shutting down and out of work artists, there are a few happy tales of success. Meet photographer/entrepreneur, Merrell Thompson, who’s having her own personal renaissance in response to the pandemic, in spite of losing her business. Thompson’s visceral photography has taken on a whole new lease of life, offering us unique perspectives in a time when we need to sharpen this ability more than ever.

Born and raised in Winter Park, FL, Thompson always loved to photograph her surroundings as a child and took every opportunity to learn more about her chosen passion while growing up. Also interested in business, Merrell majored in economics at Vanderbilt University but knew she also wanted to utilize her creativity. She shares a distinct memory from the first day of college, “we were asked to write down exactly what we wanted in life, and I wrote that I’d like to be a photographer entrepreneur.” As with many of us, life soon gathered its own momentum, and Thompson married, had three children and worked at NBC, with photography taking a bit of a back seat. “I did begin doing child portraits when I had my own kids, but honestly, it wasn’t really my thing!” Thompson confesses.

Having an inherent love of both adventure and nature, Thompson spent every family trip taking pictures and continuing to hone her photographic style and skills. Although she settled in Atlanta in 2001, Thompson had spent her childhood summers in the stunning mountains of Cashiers, NC, and continues this tradition with her own family. A major leap in her photography journey came with the arrival of drones. “I was so inspired by this new perspective that I’d never seen before,” says Thompson with her signature enthusiasm.

This led to the development of her own real estate marketing company, which was successful until COVID hit last year, cutting budgets in every sector of life. However, surrendering to the enforced pause, Thompson suddenly had time to explore her photography in new ways and give it more attention. “Having more time, and combining my love of adventure, nature, drones and amazing high res cameras allowed me to reassess what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it,” explains Thompson. Her impressive body of work ranges from compelling close-ups of animals, to whales swimming in the ocean, to stunning bird-eye views of cities. 

“I’m trying to share the emotion of a particular moment in my work. I want people to feel what I felt when I took the shot - when I looked into the eyes of that ram or was able to swim alongside the whale,” shares Thompson, whose striking images have many stories to tell. Most of Thompson’s photos come from her travels and reflect her interests. Unusual angles and startling perspectives are her specialty. Nature and animals are among the repeating themes alongside powerful cityscapes, underwater sea life and starry night skies. The black and white and color photos are a stark reminder of the miraculous and beautiful diversity of our planet and all of its many life forms.

Thompson’s work can be found in a gallery that she shares with painter Laura Moser in Cashiers, where viewings are currently by appointment. Ever energetic, Thompson is also about to open a gallery space in Atlanta. It seems that one of the silver linings of so many businesses being on hold due to COVID is that pop-up spaces are on the rise. Many commercial venues are suddenly available at slashed prices and on a month-to-month basis, empowering artists to be innovative and try out new ideas without having to get locked into a three-year lease and take on huge financial risks.

We know that some of the most pioneering and creative times in history have followed some of the darkest periods. The human spirit yearns for brighter days, and thankfully artists rise to the challenge time and time again. Perhaps adversity is the mother of creativity and although no one in their right mind would welcome a world pandemic, we can all celebrate the inspiring ways in which we humans are powering through.

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