Local artist Deb Leal, SF Station’s current featured artist, takes photographs that play with lighting and color to produce striking and often provocative imagery. The Milwaukee native is the co-founder of Dogwood, a project that celebrates individual style and artistic collaborations while dishing up dreamy photo shoots that capture that spontaneous spirit of San Francisco youth culture. We spoke with Deb about her involvement with Dogwood and her recent work.

You lead the youth culture and fashion centered project Dogwood with your partner Laura Reilly. Can you tell us a about Dogwood‘s mission and your role in the project? 

As twenty-somethings out in the world to play and make of it what we will, we built Dogwood as a platform for what we were already doing everyday—socializing, styling and photographing. We approached Dogwood with a collaborative mindset in order to connect with other artists and designers in and outside of the city.

As we learn and grow from working together to branch our ideas, we are quickly realizing it’s an amazing tool to keep ourselves sharp, create a strong portfolio and market ourselves for larger production plans. Laura and I play an equal part with bringing projects to the table, as well as coming together to direct and conceptualize shoots as she styles and I photograph the final product.

You’re from Milwaukee originally. What brought you to San Francisco? 

Milwaukee is an amazing place to call my hometown and there isn’t a day that I don’t miss it. But I had finally hit a point in my life where a rut was imminent and needed some major change to help myself grow. I had graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design in 2011 and found myself not making the work I wanted to, as well as lacking the inspiration to do so.

I’d say there’s no better way to push yourself out of your comfort zone than to move to an unfamiliar city, unemployed, with two checked bags and a carry-on. San Francisco, ripe with opportunity, seemed like to perfect city to start fresh and build a strong portfolio before heading to the next city to do it all over again. And, let’s be real, I had put my time in with Midwest winters and wanted to enjoy some perma-perfect weather year round.

It’s been a full year now, and it’s exciting to see the progress I’ve made and to reflect on the experiences I’ve learned from thus far.


Much of your work captures the opportunity for artistic expression that makes San Francisco such a rewarding place for young people to live, but that liminal space of twenty-somethigness can also be pretty scary. Is this something you’ve felt since moving to San Francisco, and does it influence your work at all?

I’ve definitely had my fair share of existential crises in regard to being a millennial in such a transient city; we’d all be lying if we said we didn’t. Yet there is something so exhilarating about the twenty-somethings. It’s hard not to grab the lowest lows and highest highs by the balls in order to shape the person you ultimately become. I mean, there’s only so much time before California dries up and cracks off into the ocean, might as well take advantage of this time right now.

As far as influences in my work, I would say most definitely. Any work I create is ultimately a product of my current environment and state of mind; it’s my way of communication through observation, as well as pairing subliminal imagery with the available tools at hand.

What made you interested in photography? Is this something you’ve always done?

Art is something I’ve gravitated to ever since I’ve been conscious, but it wasn’t until early high school that I discovered my true passion for photography. My guidance counselor at the time let me sneak into a junior-senior level class after having taken all the art classes available to me as a sophomore. Since then, I’ve known that I’d pursue photography as my main hustle (shout out to madre and padre for being so supportive of my decision in doing so). Even then, I think I’ll always have my side projects of painting drunk Pokémon, and carving custom chalkboards.

Do you work much in other mediums outside of photography?

Besides photography, I’ve always had an interest in many printmaking processes—namely relief and etching. To soothe that creative itch as of late, I’ve taken to carving slabs of plywood primed with chalkboard paint in order to play with the idea of functionality. The pieces themselves are 2’ x 4’, so the amount of hours put into one piece is a bit overkill. But, go big or go home, am I right?

What inspires you? Are there any artists who influence your work?

This week I’ve found myself watching as many Die Antwoord videos as humanly possible, last week I couldn’t get Ren Hang’s imagery out of my head. As long as I can remember, my interests have always been peaked by elements of narrative and bold lighting/color control.

The first photographer I was truly moved by when I started studying photography was David LaChapelle, only to be immediately followed by Cindy Sherman, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Gregory Crewdson.

Do you have any new projects in the works?

Dogwood definitely has a few new productions in the works for the next coming months. We have teamed up with local band Vanwave to produce imagery for their upcoming album, as well as a sequel to our previous “Celfie” editorial—think layered surveillance cam and tech-bending styling. In the mean time, I’ve finally started chipping away at a new chalkboard-as-an-art swap with tattoo artist Derick Montez.

Images by Deb Leal:

More info on Deb Leal