For Artist Debbie Porter:
The Journey is the Dream
By: Cynthia Hand Neely
Ethereal skeletons. Paper and tape fashions. Butterfly eyelashes. All are visions from the magical mind of Houston artist Debbie Porter who snubs rules and conventional paths. One minute she’s photographing Beyoncé, the next she’s making garments from tablecloths and colored markers for young runway models in the British Virgin Islands. The latter experience occurred at Summer Sizzle, an elite resort fashion show for the rich and famous, emceed by celebrity photographer Nigel Barker.
There’s no point in trying to pigeonhole this creative virtuoso. For 30 years as a professional photographer, Porter has photographed people and places from Tokyo to Alaska. Closer to home, Hawaii, Mexico, and her beloved Texas have inspired her. Porter’s work has included shooting major magazine and catalog campaigns for companies such as Lands’ End and JC Penney, while at the same time, creating and illustrating a wide variety of projects on the side.
Turning images into art is Porter’s passion. Whether her tool of choice is a camera, computer, or brush, she uses each in ways that are uniquely her own. Employing a simple point-and-shoot Leica camera, Porter captured a bird’s-eye view of heavily shadowed pedestrians and transformed it into a fine art series shown at the Deborah Colton Gallery. Titled, “Three Minutes in Mexico,” the series has become her most successful to date.
A set of wings, a keen eye, and we are looking at an angel
Turning a model into a celestial being accents her inner strength
For another series, shot in Tokyo, Porter used her cell phone with a Hasselblad lens to capture temples and Mount Fuji in marvelous new ways. Innovation is her mantra.
Mount Fuji as seen through a Hasselblad lens attached to a cell phone
Starting out, Porter attended college to become a fashion designer. However, when a professor said her designs “weren’t commercial enough,” she left her dream behind and moved on, ultimately becoming the mother of three children. Things took a dramatic turn for Porter when her oldest daughter became a child model: she segued into photography, a subject at which she’d excelled in high school.
Porter’s keen eye soon became recognized by agents, and a career in commercial and fashion photography blossomed. To this day, she enjoys taking actors’ head shots because she loves being part of their dream. Admittedly, Porter has a strong intuition for capturing the essence of a great photograph, but she also builds a relationship with her subject and looks below their surface. Over the years, it’s been a personal joy of hers to watch her clients go from their first acting classes all the way to the big screen.
Model with fencing gear shot for Yellow Magazine
Whether it’s taking one hundred shots in one day for Exxon or covering a high-fashion runway event, the desire to make a difference, especially to empower children, has always been simmering in Porter’s mind. Her newest project combines her myriad talents to that end.
Porter has written a children’s book series called Fabulous Phebe, which is about a young girl, perhaps, unconsciously, Porter herself, who wants to become a fashion designer. Fabulous Phebe is a character who uses fashion to encourage kids to believe the saying, “If you dream it, you can do it.” The books, available on Amazon, have led to a children’s fashion line featuring inventive, whimsical clothes that incorporate Porter’s photography and illustrations into the fabric designs. Thirty years after being discouraged by a professor, Porter’s designs are now featured prominently at the Dallas World Trade Center. She’s come full circle.
Symbolism is everywhere in Porter’s creations. One outfit may feature a lowly caterpillar while another may feature an exquisite butterfly. This is one of Fabulous Phebe’s lessons: “Potential lies within us all, just like in that caterpillar.”
Further stretching her creativity, Porter has become a producer. She has created a pilot episode for a television series based on Fabulous Phebe. Scripted and cast by Porter, who provided a majority of the outfits from her Fabulous Phebe line, the pilot will soon be pitched to studios such as Nickelodeon.
Shot in Houston, using a delightful mix of young actors and pets, the project is titled Fabulous Phebe: Fashion to the Rescue. It follows a ragtag group of kids who decide to help homeless animals find forever homes by showcasing them in a fashion show. Porter oversaw hairstyles and makeup and assembled a crew of talented Houston artists to bring her vision to fruition. Rival Studios is doing the final edit.
CKW LUXE recently spoke with Debbie Porter about her art, what motivates her, and what its like to branch out into the literary and television worlds.
CKW LUXE: You are an artist of many talents. Our readers would love to know how you put those various talents to work when you are doing a photo shoot or writing the latest Fabulous Phebe adventure.
Debbie Porter: Many experiences come together when you are creating. The main thing I try to remember is to be open and the best will present itself. To me, a camera is a tool, like a brush is a tool. Even a story I may write for children, or photography time; all experiences are stories.
CKW: Our readers would also be interested in knowing where your inspirations for your art come from.
DP: My experiences are from life. Some are joyous; some are struggles. All of them work together.
CKW: Please tell us what it has been like to create a literary character who inspires and motivates children and how you have transitioned her to television.
DP: Fabulous Phebe came from a re-creation of a dream I had left behind. In college, I aspired to be a fashion designer, but I was discouraged because I was too avant-garde. When you’re young you don’t always have the courage to take a risk. Maybe that’s due to a fear of rejection. Through it all, however, I have learned you set your goal as high as you can dream.
CKW: Please tell our readers where the idea for the CKW LUXE cover shoot came from and how you were able to make your vision a reality.
DP: The idea for the CKW LUXE cover was the publisher’s vision. I was happy Connie Kwan-Wong reached out because it is important for our team to show a strong representation in the world of children. As we have a number of projects in the works that include children, the timing was perfect.
CKW: The cover photo is beautiful and your models are ideal. Were there any particular challenges you faced working with children in a natural setting?
DP: There are many challenges that go into working outdoors as well as with children. In this case, the kids were the easiest part. I knew who I could count on, having worked with them recently. Our priority was to keep them comfortable. This is summer in Houston, Texas after all.
The challenges you don’t see in the final photograph include the fact that we had to change our location 20 minutes before we were due to shoot and that we had to be careful the branches didn’t tear any of the designer dresses. Having a watchful crew of ten adults making themselves available at all times and working toward a common goal made all the difference. With a responsible team, it can be done. The proof is in the end product.
While Fabulous Phebe: Fashion to the Rescue seems to have tapped into each one of Porter’s remarkable gifts, the final product of this or any of her projects is surprisingly not what motivates her. What Porter relishes most is the journey itself: taking the steering wheel, enjoying the ride, and making priceless discoveries along the way.