Woman in Charge

Mollie Crutcher, '09

Mollie Crutcher `09 paints with a California palette in her photos – her images are full of light and color, shot with the wide expanse of sky or a close, intimate shot of two hands entwined. As a wedding and engagement photographer, Crutcher tells stories of love and discovery with each photo. In her fashion editorials, she thrives on visual drama.

Since graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Crutcher has built a successful business based on her talent. In this Alumni Q&A, she shares how she got her start – and a few points on how others can learn from her journey as both an artist and entrepreneur.

Why did you choose UC Santa Barbara?

I chose UCSB first and foremost because of the location – then, I found out it was also a great school. I came to visit with my sister when I was a sophomore in high school in Kentucky -- and I couldn’t believe such a magical place to study existed in the United States. I couldn’t resist applying and hoped for the best. Luckily, I had Gregg Wilson, the head swim coach at UCSB on my side. I was a competitive swimmer at the time.

How did you choose your major?

I came to UCSB undecided about my major. I wanted to take classes in studio art, art history and psychology --  among other majors -- and see if a clear path presented itself. I declared studio art in my second year. There was just nothing that made me happier or more curious than art. I had a hunger to learn everything there was to know about photography and knew it was something that would never bore me. 

Were you always interested in photography?

I fell in love with photography in high school when I took my first official class and learned how to control light and shadow. I got to spend hours in the dark room listening to music, experimenting with different techniques. It was my favorite part of the day.

I had an inspiring teacher who showed us material ranging from big, high fashion names to relatively unknown photojournalists documenting Appalachian mountain people. It was eye-opening for me.

But really, it goes back much further than that. My mom worked as literary manager for a theater company in Kentucky. After school, I would go to rehearsal and watch plays from under the stage manager’s desk. I have vivid memories of that dark desk framing well-lit actors on stage - almost like a giant viewfinder. I wasn’t old enough to understand the material so it was a very visual experience for me.

When we got a little older, my sister and I dressed our pets up and posed them for pictures. We played dress up with our friends and posed each other for pictures in a game we called “modeling” -- but could have easily been called “photographing.” It was, after all, about setting up and getting the perfect shot. We used my dad’s old Pentax and got the film developed at the local CVS.

So really, my whole life has shaped my eye to see the world in pictures.

How did you start your photography business?

I started my business when I moved back to Santa Barbara after a brief time in Los Angeles, feeling kind of lost and unsure of how I could make a career out of this little bit of talent I had.

I assisted for photographers here and there and worked at a paparazzi agency for some stability - which probably seems like an oxymoron. Like most photographers I know, when you’re just starting out, you have to make money so you work a lot of jobs surrounding photography and building your portfolio on the side.

I missed Santa Barbara desperately and knew there was a huge (albeit competitive) wedding market here so I moved back and quietly started a wedding and portrait photography business with a friend. We started in a kind of unconventional way, in that neither of us spent years second shooting for other wedding photographers. Wedding industry professionals will probably cringe if they read this, because learning as you go is generally frowned upon when you hold the keys to someone’s most precious memories in your hands. However, that is essentially the route we took -- and because of that I think the business grew much slower than if we had built our foundation on field experience. We both knew our cameras like our own hands and we were great with people.

I had shot events and second shot a few weddings, but was by no means an expert in the field. Until I moved back to Santa Barbara, I was on a portrait and fashion photography track – which, as it turns out, has come to define my wedding photography style. My business partner and I eventually went our separate ways professionally but I still have the business and my friend. Mollie Crutcher Photography has been growing steadily every year. It’s incredibly rewarding and terrifying at the same time. 

As a business owner, what advice would you give students hoping to start their own business?

I was incredibly naive when I started this business. I am not your typical business woman. (I can be a pretty reckless human being at times.) But each year, I am astounded by the boss woman I’m transforming into. Here’s my advice for students thinking about this path:

  1. Know yourself. If you thrive in a bustling, action-filled work environment, this might not be the route for you. You will spend a lot of time alone in front of your computer. Sure, eventually you can get a space and hire people and build a bustling, action-filled work environment, but in the beginning it is a lot of you and your cat and your thoughts.
  2. If you can, intern, assist, work in some way in the field you want to start a business in before you start a business. Make sure it’s where you want to be. Start networking right away, before you put any money into your own business. I don’t mean poach clients from your boss - simply be kind and generous. When it’s time to go out on your own, it will come back to you, especially in a small town like Santa Barbara. 
  3. Be patient. It can take over five years to see your business really take off, so have a side job (until you don’t need it) and try to remember why your started your business, everyday. This one is super hard. Especially when comparing your business to someone else’s…. which brings me to another point.
  4. Don’t compare your business to someone else’s. It’s so easy to do when social media makes their success so visible, but remember that we are all projecting our best selves online - it’s certainly not the whole picture. 
  5. Take a graphic design class, a web design class, a business class, a photography class, a marketing class… you will be your own everything in the beginning and maybe always so why not try to be the best at them all?