Whitespace Studio

How Photographer Marla Rutherford Created a Flexible Spot for Boulder Creatives

Article by Jessica Mordacq

Photography by Marla Rutherford

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

Marla Rutherford walks through her week’s schedule, and every day carries something different. On Friday, her husband, who assists with her North Boulder studio’s maintenance on the side, is helping with a studio shoot. Saturday, Marla’s photographing a wedding at a castle in Sedalia, Colorado. Day after day, she takes a family’s portrait, then professional headshots in her studio’s open, clean white space. 

Marla’s studio truly is “whitespace,” or when a company fills a gap in customer needs. Though Marla initially bought the studio three years ago for her own professional and creative use, her friends, then videographers and poetry club members, started inquiring about using the 1,000-square-foot unit at 1300 Yellow Pine Ave. 

“There’s a huge lack of open, modern space in Boulder,” Marla says, who was born and raised in the city. Before Marla and a few of her colleagues opened local studios in the last few years, many creatives shot in hotel conference rooms or built their own sets.

Local artist Mitch Levin constructed Marla Rutherford Studio’s dining room lights out of reused barrels, and Steve Cavanaugh crafted the barn doors from reclaimed truck flooring. These sleek additions, along with a small grassy outdoor space, colorful velvet chairs and wood stools, allow photographers and videographers to shoot multiple styles in and around the versatile room’s white walls and glossy, concrete floor. 

But Marla also rents to a biweekly women’s healing group that sits in a circle, dims the lights and plays soft music through the Sonos sound system. Beautiful, yet functional, the studio appeals to most anyone needing an open room for creative activities. It allows Marla to shoot there herself, though it took her years to become more interested in the business side of art and making her studio profitable.

“You can be a great photographer,” Marla says, “but not make a living if you’re not a good businesswoman.” At past lectures and workshops Marla has given, some attendees believed her career’s always been sky-high and profitable. But, Marla says, “in the art world, you’re hot one minute, gone the next.”

Up and Up

Marla graduated from Boston University with a psychology degree. After a Semester at Sea, a study-abroad program that takes college students on a voyage around the world, she returned to campus with rolls of film from Japan, Cambodia, China and Turkey, among other locations. She spent entire weekends printing out images from her trip in the darkroom across town. When her sister suggested that, after graduation, Marla apply for the Arts Center College of Design in Los Angeles, Marla put together a portfolio. She spent the next decade in California. 

“I wanted a place with lots of competition, so I’d know immediately if I’d make it or not,” Marla says. The L.A. photographer market was not nearly as saturated before iPhones and enhanced digital camera technology, but industry rivalries gave Marla the motivation she needed to succeed. 

At the Arts Center of College of Design, Marla photographed models, who posed for her in striking latex on feminine sets with stylistic lighting. When gallerists and magazine directors saw the images on film, they shared Marla’s work in Japan, Luxembourg, Germany and France. The photographs got Marla in with Los Angeles Magazine and other media outlets who wanted her to shoot their editorial portraits. Suddenly, she was booking with reality show stars and comedians like Sarah Silverman.

Back to Boulder 

During the 2008 recession, creatives who used to shoot movie billboards took Marla’s lower-paying magazine photography jobs.

“I came back to Colorado with my tail between my legs, no money, no nothing,” Marla says.

She lived in her father’s condo and worked at Mike’s Camera for minimum wage.  

“I was making $7.50 an hour when, just six months earlier, I was shooting for ESPN magazine,” Marla says.

She started shooting weddings and eventually regained her portrait client base.

Over the next 20 years, Marla shifted focus toward starting her own business. She required income after the recession, but also a future plan. Now in her 40s, Marla feels stiff the day following a shoot in the field. So three years ago, she bought her studio, a well-deserved photography space that’s much easier on her knees.

“I didn’t want to shoot weddings and bar mitzvahs into my 60s,” Marla says. She rebuilt her brand in her Boulder studio, this time including amenities she wished would’ve been available to her over the years.

Marla installed dimmable lights and privacy shades in her studio, as well as flattering bathroom lighting (since she historically noticed her lower confidence on set after returning from poorly lit toilets). She wanted more purse hooks and outlets, but also bamboo-padded, fold-up chairs instead of metal ones, and nine 6-foot-long conference tables. She put wheels on the projector, makeup table and coat rack so they can be wheeled into the waiting room and her personal office at the back of the studio. 

Marla now profits off her studio’s hourly, half- or full-day rentals. “It’s a big 180-degree step away from where I was 10 years ago,” Marla says.

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