When did you first fall in love with taking photos? About ten years ago my father and I took a trip to Alaska by ferry. I’d been fortunate enough to have travelled elsewhere prior to this, but had never had much interest in photographing the places I went. On this occasion, however, a friend lent me her Canon PowerShot and encouraged me to take photos along the way. The ferry trip from Bellingham, WA through the Inside Passage and finally to Hanes, AK takes 4 days–and there’s not much to do but simply sit out on the deck and gaze at all the stunning scenery passing by while keeping an eye out for the porpoises, orcas and sea otters that often tail the ship. I wanted to capture whatever small portion of this beauty I could–if only to have evidence it truly existed–and with so much time to hone my meagre skills, I was able to teach myself a little about lighting and composition and other fundamentals. Many of the pictures I took on that trip are very straightforward shots of the gorgeous landscapes I happened to be surrounded by. In some of those pictures, however, I can see my point of view beginning to develop. Sometimes it’s the angle I chose. Sometimes it’s the subject. In any case, I returned from that trip deeply in love with photography.
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How would you describe your style of photography? I grew up in small-town Vermont, though currently, I reside in New York City. Living in such an urban environment has really determined the type of photography I’m most inspired by and what most captures my attention. I can’t resist vintage neon–like a moth to a flame–and am lucky to live somewhere where it’s possible to turn a random corner and simply happen upon the heavenly phosphorescence of an old laundromat sign or hair salon or liquor store. The allure of the weathered storefront or tattered awning the bodegas and fruit stands here in my Brooklyn neighbourhood of Crown Heights is also difficult to resist–especially as modernity begins to overtake the architecture and I feel ever more compelled to document the way it is or has been up to this point in time. I also like to capture people in candid moments–waiting alone on the subway platform or immersed in the crowd at the West Indian Day Parade–and have found the way I look at the city has changed and evolved along with my skills as a photographer.
Do you have a favourite photography related memory? I took a friend to visit Coney Island one night mid-January. The temperature was in the single digits. The wind sweeping across the water, up the beach and finally to the boardwalk–empty but for the two of us–was so shocking in its frigidity it seemed to be trying to prove just how preposterous this wintery trip to this summertime haven really was. Surf Avenue, bright and boisterous during peak season, was dark except for the neon of Nathan’s Famous reflecting off the ice crystalized upon the pavement. The metal gates to all the arcades were pulled down and locked tight, and snow was piled upon overturned picnic tables. It really did seem as if we shouldn’t be there–though we weren’t breaking any laws by doing so–and the sense of adventure only grew as we wound our way down darkened alleyways and through untouched snowdrifts. Capturing the familiar sights of Coney Island in these conditions–Nathan’s, the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump–really felt like an act of discovery and my eye hit upon small details I might not have otherwise noticed in the midst of a Fourth of July crowd. Inevitably, my fingers grew numb from the cold and I had to put my camera away and slip my gloves back on. My friend was kind enough to rub my hands until finally feeling returned to them, almost painfully, and I was able to take a few more shots before we hopped on the next departing train.
For any of our readers who are planning a visit to the big apple this year, name one cool area that most people might not think to visit? A hidden gem if you will? The five boroughs have been so well-documented over the decades–by what is likely the widest range of photographers and styles imaginable–that it’s difficult to pinpoint a single hidden gem. I sometimes wonder if there really are any secret corners left in the city, though that certainly doesn’t keep me from searching. My advice to someone new to the city is this: Don’t hesitate to visit some of the big tourist destinations here–Chinatown, Coney Island, the Village–but linger around after most of the tourists have cleared out and simply observe. You can capture shopkeepers on Bleecker pulling down their gates for the night. You might get a shot of Mott Street, nearly empty but for the neon of un-Yelped Dim-Sum joints glistening on damp concrete. If it starts raining, don’t make a beeline for the nearest subway station. No, stake out a spot under an awning and snap a picture of a lone passerby sheltered by an umbrella or the concrete glistening ever brighter. Look down–bend down–to see what strange mirrored marvels are to be found in the puddles coalescing in potholes and alongside the curb. If it’s snowing, even better. Find the sliver of the unfamiliar nearly obscured by the familiar. Make the commonplace mysterious again. Go out with your camera longer. Stay out later. Work with the weather. Find a new way of looking at what so many eyes have already looked at before. It’s all a matter of imagination.
What kind of camera do you use? What is your editing process like? When I make deliberate plans to go out and shoot I bring with me a Canon EOS Rebel T6. Of course, the camera I end up using the most is that built into my iPhone 6 since so many of my photographs are of wholly unplanned moments: A passenger hoisting her groceries up the subway station steps, the glint of headlights on wet pavement, a shadow splayed across a wall in a way so singular and brief it lasts only until a cloud inches across the sun and redirects the light ever so slightly. As far as editing goes, I don’t do much to those photos taken with my Canon beyond maybe straightening the angle a bit or lowering the saturation. With those photos taken by phone, I do more editing in an attempt to better recreate what it is I initially perceived but which the phone–technologically-speaking–doesn’t have the capacity to capture. Lately, I’ve been using the app Afterlight and will often deepen the shadows, sharpen the image a little and better balance the contrast.
What are some of your passions/hobbies other than photography? Other than photography, my primary mode of artistic expression is that of writing. Both mediums require me to be an observer–and yet I’m not content merely to observe. I must record–and yet I’m not content merely to record. I refract what it is I record through my personal and highly-subjective lens–be it a literal lens or that of the figurative sort. I write mostly short stories. What I find most compelling about this form is compression not only of language but of thematic content. If a story is doing its job well not a single word is wasted nor a single idea. Everything on the story’s page should serve multiple functions. Exposition should not only move the plot forward but serve to build a character’s identity and establish the bearing of the fictional world. Every action must generate a kind of emotional resonance. An image can’t simply exist as an image; there must be deliberate shape and purpose to it. I strive to bring this kind of precision to both my writing and my photography.
Who are some of your favourite photographers? A lot of my favourite photographers are already part of the canon. From his focus on seemingly ordinary objects and places to his use of colour William Eggleston’s influence can’t be overstated. He believed shooting in colour was far more difficult than black and white–naked, revealing, prone to a sort of ugliness black and white can sometimes mask–and yet he pioneered so much of what we understand of colour photography. The more I learn about him the more I admire the man. Vivian Maier I think is unparalleled as far as portraits of everyday people go and I find more depth and detail in her work the more I study it. Helen Levitt’s portraits of New York locals from Coney Island up to East Harlem are stunning in their abundant empathy for both the people in her shots and the neighbourhoods in which they live. Children With Gumball Machine from 1971 is a perfect photo. Danny Lyon’s photographs of Brooklyn–taken primarily in 1974–laid the groundwork for street photography here in the city. In fact, it’s next-to-impossible to look at modern photos of urban spaces without thinking of his pictures of brownstones, bodegas, graffiti on brick walls, and folks relaxing on stoops in the heat of summer.
Do you have any upcoming photography trips/sessions planned that you would like to share? I’ve been lucky enough to do some international travelling over the past couple years. I went to Morocco, where I got to explore the labyrinthine passageways of Fez’s medina, visit with a semi-nomadic tribe of Bedouins living on the slopes of the High Atlas Mountains, and camp in the Sahara. Last year I visited Cambodia, where I explored the floating village of Chnok Tru on the Mekong, visited a Buddhist temple in the small town of Kampong Tralach, and communed with the macaque monkeys which roam freely among the 12th-century ruins of Bayon Temple. These trips were eye-opening for so many reasons and certainly inspiring as a photographer–but also challenging. I’m far more attuned to the streets of NYC, and felt both overwhelmed and out of my element as a photographer in these locales. To a certain degree, I had to retrain my eye, rethink my style, try even harder to shoot what might be considered unexpected or fresh. In December I’ll be in Brazil on a week-long boat trip down the Amazon and am already prepared to be challenged–and inspired–all over again.
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