If you read one thing today, read this:
I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is trekking through the process. I’m not sitting on a high horse. I can’t even afford a horse.
It is often said that you have to be partially insane to be a creative. I’m not sure if that idea is influenced by the odd forms of modern art, or…
And I love them so much. I hope this continues, indefinitely.
Photo by Zack Wittman
Dawn by Rachel Maves
July 9, 2014
This was on the APAD blog years ago, but since that post no longer exists, it bears repeating, since it’s an FAQ:
I get asked all the time… What’s a GeekFest?! Well, it’s an excuse to hang out with old friends and make new. And a chance to be inspired by bringing in some of the best speakers and most incredible photographers I can find. In short, it is the best little photo conference with the worst, geekiest name out there. Every year, it’s suggested that we need to do something about the name, but in the end, it kind of fits. The name actually started as a joke, in reference to a group of geeks who’s all come together to geek out about photography.
The first one was in DC with about 10 of us crammed into David Holloway’s basement. APAD was in its infancy and we all just wanted to put faces with names, so we devised a plan to get together for a meetup. We did a shootout on the Mall for the Fourth of July festivities, and talked phototalk all weekend. It was awesome and intimate and invigorating to know that there were some like minds out there.
From there it went to Fort Lauderdale, where we got about a dozen people, sleeping head to toe in every room of my small studio apartment, including two in the kitchen and one in the bathtub. I worked at the Sun-Sentinel then, and decided it’d be awesome to have some of my amazingly inspiring coworkers, like Angel Valentin and Mike Stocker speak to our small group. It also allowed me to approach Lisa Krantz, who I didn’t know at the time outside of her badass work at the Naples Daily News (about 2 hours from me, right across Alligator Alley). I emailed her, explained my mad photo crush, and asked her if she’d come share her work with us and hang out for the weekend. She’s been one of my best friends and still one of my biggest sources of inspiration since.
Then we went to Austin, Chicago, Portland, to make it easier and more convenient for people to attend, and also to attract a new crop of talented local photographers and regional speakers in each new city. Then GeekFEst found a home base for three years in St. Petersburg, Fla. (where APAD founder Melissa Lyttle works now, and where we have an awesome photo community and a great accommodating town). Until, the demand was so great to take it back on the road, so we added Denver and Minneapolis to our awesome city lineup.
Looking back on the speakers over the years amazes me. We’ve been lucky enough to have such talented presenters such as Ben Lowy, Penny De Los Santos, David Holloway, Khampha Bouaphanh, Carlos Javier Ortiz, Jon Lowenstein, Scott Strazzante, Wes Pope, Jamie Francis, Beth Nakamura, Karen Ducey, Alan Berner, James Rexroad, Bruce Ely, Robbie McClaran, Laura Lo Forti, Susana Raab, Lane Degregory, Preston Gannaway, Ross Taylor, Boyzell Hosey, Bob Croslin, Michael Williamson, Ted Jackson, Allison V. Smith, Damon Winter, Pat Farrell, Sam Abell, Bryan Moss, Dai Sugano, Alexis Lambert, David Hanschuh, Nicole Frugé, Lisa Krantz (2x speaker!), Greg Kahn, Liz O. Baylen, Zack Arias, Ben Rusnak, Todd Heisler, Deb Pang Davis, Mike Davis, Melissa Farlow, Randy Olson, Tim Rasmussen, Craig Walker, Sol Neelman, Rob Haggart, Sonya Hebert, Benjamin Rasmussen, Matt Slaby, John Keatley, Jasmine Defoore, Danny Wilcox Frazier, Brian Peterson, Ariana Lindquist, Jim Gehrz, Jenn Ackerman & Tim Gruber (should I go on… Am I missing anyone???) share their work, their stories and their wisdom with us.
So this year, we’re heading to Philly. Sept. 12-14. More details soon, including speakers and hotel info. So, stay tuned here or follow APAD on twitter. If you’ve been before you know what a good time and great group of people it usually is… and if you haven’t, now’s your chance. Come be a part of one big, crazy, talented fun-loving, photo-geekin’, wonderful family.
Peter van Agtmael was born in Washington DC. He studied history at Yale, graduating with honors in 2003. Since 2006 he has primarily covered the 9/11 Wars and their consequences, working extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and the USA.
He has won the W. Eugene Smith Grant, the ICP Infinity Award for Young Photographer, the Lumix Freelens Award, as well as awards from World Press Photo, American Photography Annual, The Pulitzer Center, The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and Photo District News.
In 2008 he helped organize the book and exhibition Battlespace, a retrospective of largely unseen work of 22 photographers covering Iraq and Afghanistan.
Peter joined Magnum in 2008 and became a full member in 2013.
1. How does one go from a Yale History major to a Magnum photographer? I see the connection to the subject matter you’re drawn to and your studies, but where did the photography skills and interest in it come from (self taught?)?
I don’t know if there’s a clear connection there. When I found photography I felt it in my blood and bones and Yale and Magnum were peripheral. If there’s any connection it’s that Yale made me set high expectations for myself and Magnum helped provide a path to aspire towards.Ultimately I was drawn to Magnum through my interest in a community and my interest in History, both of which Magnum embodied for me. Of course pursuing Magnum also satisfied certain parts of my ego and ambition.
2. I’m a big fan of your work because it’s subtle, yet complex. I’d love for you to talk about your process and approach because I get the feeling it’s a lot more cerebral than emotional
Emotion is the starting point but emotion can be cloudy and two dimensional on its own. I’ve tried to first let myself feel, then try to interpret what I’ve been feeling, then root it in the history of the medium and of human experience, which of course are two things that are cyclical but nonetheless leave plenty of room for freedom. They also help balance each other out. Sometimes the mind is terrifying and sometimes the heart is.
3. What’s interesting is looking through your bodies of work, I actually find the America stuff to be bleak and depressing (much more so than the Afghanistan and Iraq stuff, which I strangely find witty and hopeful). Is it the edit? Your particular outlook on the state of the union? Or something much deeper, darker and harder to get the pulse of inside of you that comes out in those pix? I guess what I’m most curious about is it something internal or external that you’re reacting to when you work?
The America stuff you’ve seen is the opening stages of that work. I’ve been working for five years on it but much of it isn’t online. The early phases were born out of a deep unease at the ability of our society to be so self-righteous, ignorant and violent without much in the way of self-reflection. That made me angry as hell. The early work was a manifestation of those feelings. Over time that has been fleshed out to a somewhat quieter and more nuanced anger tempered with a lot of love and appreciation.
4. What do you hope your work, specifically the new book “Disco Night Sept. 11,” does or says about you? And about war?
DN911 says something about me and these wars at a certain place and time. I have no idea what it will mean down the road. The hope is that the meaning isn’t easily identifiable…like war… like all of our lives… I’d rather not make anything that can be easily summed up.
5. What’s the next chapter?
I’m still working slowly around these wars and will be for the foreseeable future. More immediately, the America work is starting to gel into a book and I’m getting pretty deep into the Israel-Palestine conflict, which I expect to work on for the coming years. I loosely have my next ten years or so planned out, I’m just hoping the market doesn’t implode in the meantime so I can keep up the pace… A part of me also thinks that the work of photographers and journalists is like the band playing while the Titanic sinks. Humanity sure seems to be ruining this glorious orb hurtling through the solar system. I guess that’s just how it goes.
Support good photography about important things and buy Peter van Agtmael’s latest book “Disco Night Sept. 11.” You can get a signed copy at http://www.magnumphotos.com/Store/Product/Disco-Night-Sept.-11-2K1HRG5YVNLJ.html and an unsigned copy at www.redhookeditions.com.
And I highly recommend it.
Born and raised in Queens, NY, Ryan Pfluger now resides in Brooklyn. He received his MFA from SVA in 2007. Captivated by nostalgia, his personal work often deals with recreating memories, memorializing objects and how sexuality influences image making. Exploring what portraiture means presently in our culture, his photographs deal with the subtlety of body posture, the gaze and the role of self-portraiture.
1. What do you do before and during the shoot to cultivate the kind of intimacy your shoots clearly enjoy? Even in the celebrity portraits, it looks like your subjects are inviting you in for a closer, more revealing look.
I try and approach both my personal work and editorial work in the same exact way. At times it can be difficult when shooting celebrities or personalities due to the short time frames and often excessive amount of people on location. Shooting one-on-one is always ideal. While I do make very formal portraits, my photographic process is always about letting things flow naturally. I often refer to my camera as a therapist, making my sessions a meditative process. Often my subjects will tell me stories, and I’ll just listen. I rarely make photographs during this time. It brings about a sense of ease and I always want my subjects to know I am sincerely interested in them as individuals, not just bodies to make interesting images. Even with celebrities, while often brief, I hope to make it an intimate moment they can remember. While I don’t think it’s talked about enough, a photographer’s outward personality plays an integral role to the work they create. For me, I’m pretty introverted and often enjoy existing in silence with my subjects.
2. Because some of your work seems so introspective in nature, can you talk about maybe how you’ve learned about yourself through photography? What I mean is, do you feel like your photography has had a role in shaping how you see yourself? Or do you feel like your personal work is maybe more about expressing what you already know, and putting it out into the world. We are often used to seeing photographers tell the stories of other people through their eyes, so It’s always interesting to see artists who bring up their own stories and their identities in their work because that requires such a level of openness and vulnerability, and I’ve wondered how that affects you after the work is done, and it is out there.
I knew when I began using photography as my means of creative output, that I wouldn’t be able to detach myself from the work I created. I can talk about portraiture for days on end, but in short, all portraiture to me is an extension of self-portraiture. As photographers, we are choosing to capture certain moments, we edit out what it is we want the world to see etc… Because of that, photography has definitely made me very self-aware of my strengths and weaknesses. I’m sentimental and nostalgic and have a constant need to make portraits to feel as if I have something to hold onto, regardless of whether the person stays in my life. Being open about my life and identity, and keeping myself vulnerable is the only way I can continue making work. I don’t necessarily need people to understand my story, but hope that through the work people can reflect on their own lives and relationships. It’s very freeing the put it all out there, and I never have any qualms about that.
3. Can you talk a bit about the role that sexuality plays in your personal work? Do you feel like the work that gets at this more explicitly (Men I’ve Met, Studio Boys) has had an impact on your commissioned work in any way?
Even if I tried, I don’t think I could pull sexuality out of my work. While it’s more explicitly referenced in some work, it’s definitely an undertone in many of my projects, solely because it’s just an aspect of me and my viewpoint. Even the work Memento is very deeply rooted in my sexuality, however it’s not about sex. I think that’s the one distinction as a gay artist that I often am very vocal about. Memento is objects I’ve held onto since a child that informed my sexuality and what I found solace in, Men I’ve Met are men who I feel I should have a connection with, inside of my community, that I can’t seem to ever be a part of etc.. It’s a constant search for a community, and often I just create it through photographs. I can say without any doubt that a lot of that work such as Men I’ve Met and Studio Boys, even my own self-portraits, has gotten me work with some of my more prestigious clients. Often there are photographs from those projects in particular that are used as reference for what my clients want for assignments. Again the work is formal, but intimate, meditative and unguarded, and that’s usually the kind of work my clients want from me in the first place. Nudity for me is never about sexualizing, but about stripping away literally what we cover ourselves in, that we believe creates our identity.
4. Looking at where you are at in your career right now, what do you think are some of the decisions you made that were most important in getting you here? For students who are intensely interested in pursuing portraiture as an artistic practice but also as an income can you look at your path and give any advice?
I hate to sound like everyone else, but handwork and dedication really do payoff. If photography, whether it be documentary, portraiture, diaristic etc.. is what you really love doing, you need to be all in. To make it a career you have to be ready for major sacrifices. I often talk about my first few years out of grad school, and how I was barely making enough money to pay my rent. Like any artistic profession, there are the lucky few who get a big break, come from money, or are just in the right place at the right time. For the majority of us though, making it what you live and breathe at first is what really makes our breaks you. At this point in my career I can choose to take down-time, or turn down a job etc. In a world that is now so saturated with images, you need to stand by your craft and your voice. Don’t ever make images because you think it’s what people want to see, or what seems to be trending. You’ll eventually get lost and never realize what your true voice is.
5. I’ve noticed that your most recent project steps away from traditional portraiture more and is more of a personal document, which you seem to have done a bit of - but there’s a certain lightness to Time Stood Still - I don’t want to project, but it seems that you’re pointing your lens outward rather than inward. Vestige/Memento and Bits and Pieces both come across as more introspective. Do you see a difference in the approach between the works? Can you talk a bit about how it felt to make Time Stood Still and how you think it might impact your work going forward?
No projecting at all. Time Stood Still was a very freeing body of work for me. It was a landscape that was completely unfamiliar to me and I didn’t have any personal attachment to the culture. I felt like an outsider, but I wanted to make a body of work that truly paid homage to the landscape. It has helped me have a new perspective visually on the work I make going forward. While I will probably still focus my photography on things introspectively, it has given me a new viewpoint and openness but not being so self-aware.
(Once again, thanks for an awesome 5 Questions, Peter Hoffman.)
Ross Mantle lives and works between Brooklyn, NY and his native Pittsburgh, Pa. His work often focuses on the relationships between person and place. He regularly photographs throughout the Northeast and the Rust Belt, looking at the complexities and beauty of the industrial, rural and suburban landscapes that comprise the region. Ross was selected for Young Guns X by the Art Directors Club in New York City. In addition to his personal practice and commissioned work, Ross co-produces the ADP Workshop, an organization that fosters critical dialogues between a network of photographers.
1. You’re originally from Pittsburgh, you’ve photographed a lot of the Rust Belt and even when you’re not shooting there your work often looks and feels like it still might have been made in Pittsburgh. You’ve made no secret of how the concept of place has a large role in your work. But you live in Brooklyn and have for a few years now. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to be there and how it has affected your work?
I ended up in New York four years ago because an opportunity came up that enabled me to make the move and I ended up sticking around. The actual decision to remain in Brooklyn wasn’t too complicated — it was one part personal and one part professional. I love what New York City offers and the community of people that are here and easily accessible, but I’ve also never fully rooted myself here creatively or personally. I’ve maintained all my ties to Pittsburgh, which has been easy enough to do in part because I still have a lot of close friends and my family there. I do a lot of personal work in the area, take a lot of commissions out of the region and I try to stay involved and contribute to the community there as much as I can from Brooklyn. It’s been a challenge both mentally and logistically but it’s worked out for the best.
My work and view points are rooted largely in a different region from where I’ve spent much of my time in recent years. What you pointed out is something I noticed a while ago in my work — that no matter where I made the image it always had hints of Western Pennsylvania. Instead of fighting it any longer, I embraced it and realized that it’s not something that I can get away from. I’ve worked with the idea consciously in some projects — the idea is pretty evident throughout California, Pennsylvania. I’ve worked on a couple projects in New York that I should have together and out in the world later this year. Even these reference NYC very minimally and I feel like they are rooted in my comfort with the Rust Belt as much as the work might reference a distance I feel living in New York.
In the past I fought a lot with where I was from. I had wanted to leave Pennsylvania because I was convinced I would have more opportunities to learn about life elsewhere. I thought that if I could separate myself from it physically then I could split from it as well. I learned pretty early though that it’s not possible for me to do that. I think most people can say this about where they’re from — I have a love/hate relationship with Pittsburgh. I hope that never goes away though, because I think it’s creatively healthy to maintain that balance. It’s kept me engaged and conscious of the complexities in the place that I’m from. I’m curious about other places and love exploring new cities, but I do not feel the need to see the world in order to understand more about life. I think that can be done on whatever scale you open yourself up to. Maybe it’s a continent that you need or just a block will suffice. I feel that my work is strongest when I’m working from a place of familiarity. Even when I work in new environments, the images are strongest when I remain conscious of what I bring to that space from where I’ve been and the places I know best.
2. You’ve grown your editorial business over the years with really great shoots for Monocle, Bloomberg Businessweek, covers for The Fader and a list of other magazines, but you’re a pretty young dude. Where are you trying to take your work from a business perspective these days and why?
I’ve never been all that great business wise and I’m especially bad with promoting my work. I ultimately want to make work and take on projects that I’m proud of and find some benefit in working on. That decision may be due to the creative freedom that a project allows me, the intellectual challenge it brings on or simply out of personal interest in the subject matter. As long as I’m comfortable putting my name on the work, then I’m not so concerned with who commissions it or where it’s going to be shown. It’s more important to me and the direction that I’d like to see my career move, to take on work that pushes me in some new way and allows for an opportunity to make images that I’m proud of.
I want to build a body of work that I’m excited to attach my name to and I’m hoping that continuing to do that in small ways over a number of years will turn into something more sustainable. I’m pretty awful at self-promotion, and am generally a pretty quiet person, but I’ve found it’s easier to talk about work and projects that I’m involved with if I honestly believe in its quality and substance.
3. One thing that I’ve really appreciated from following your work over the years is to see that you’re proactive about collaboration in the photo community. Being a photographer can be a lonely thing and that can make it hard to push your work as well, but you’ve really exemplified collaboration especially with the ADP Workshop, which has grown and morphed over the years. Can you briefly explain the premise behind ADP and then talk about why you take on the work of setting it up and what you get out of it?
ADP is a great excuse to get a group of talented and intelligent photographers together in a room for a few days to share work and talk. It’s a pretty simple format, but the community and energy that emerges from it is something that I think is pretty unique.
Carla and Jim Winn started it as an active documentary project. They passed it on after a few years and allowed me to take over and reformat it in 2010. Instead of creating new work at each workshop, we foster a conversation and community around on-going projects that photographers bring to discuss or get feedback on. The conversations that emerge are all over the place, most conversations steer away from photography pretty quickly.
The one thing that we’ve kept consistent throughout is the atmosphere and community. I think it’s benefitted us to not have much of a budget thus far. It’s forced us to be smart about our resources and pushes everyone to contribute what they can. The openness and communal nature of it is what really drew me in when I went to the Mississippi Delta ADP that the Winns organized. That experience had a big impact and I’ve hear similar sentiments from other participants. They created a really great environment and I didn’t want to see that go away. The format has changed, but the energy that made it so special is still there and that’s what we focus on maintaining as the project grows.
There are some other people involved with the production now and our network is growing with each incarnation. The whole project is collaborative. We can put as much effort and planning into as we want, but it doesn’t work without committed participants. We try to stress this to the people we invite, that it only comes together when they commit themselves. We’ve even tried to work this idea into the planning — in choosing our locations and structuring the format. It’s a lot work on the part of the participants to be involved. We’re eternally grateful to anyone who has made that effort and put their confidence in us to create a space that could help them grow.
We try to keep the format fluid — it is little different each time and our plans for future projects are pretty open at the moment. It’s not perfectly definable and I hope that it can stay like that.
4. In the spirit of collaboration I also think it’s safe to say that your work has evolved noticeably due to your long relationship with the talented designer Elana Schlenker. How has her outlook on design, collaboration and photography affected yours? Do you feel like working so closely with a designer has affected your work in any formal ways? Has it changed how you think about color, composition, presentation or sequencing of your work? Has it affected what you’re interested in photographing?
Elana and I are always discussing our work and running ideas by one another — she’s my best editor and my most trusted collaborator. The deep level of understanding that we have with one another’s work, goals and outlook allows us to be very open and honest in critiquing each other’s projects and ideas. She’s much kinder than I am, but never hesitates to tell me when something isn’t working. Even if I disagree with her perspective, just knowing what she thinks forces me to consider why I’m not in agreement. Often enough, those discussions yield more impactful changes in a project than when we agree on the direction.
I think that her influence has allowed me to push my work in directions it was leaning but I wasn’t clear of how to reach or completely comfortable exploring with her guidance. We work well together because our work and tastes compliment one another. I’m not sure that I can pin-point specific trends in my work that can be directly attributed to her, or any other influence for that matter — everything builds, blends together and eventually has an impact down the line.
More than any specific aesthetic influence, Elana’s constant analysis, work ethic and attention to detail has had a huge impact. I think about my work differently now, with a lot more consideration for every step of the process — from the time I begin researching a project to the typeface that is used for the title. I’d like to think I’ve become better about considering the entirety of a project and have gained a better understanding of how multiple languages need to work together to produce a complete work.
5. I know you’ve got some cool things coming up this year - do you have any plans we should know about? Are we ever going to be able to buy a book of California, Pennsylvania - for instance?
There are a few projects, both personal and commissioned, that I’m hoping to wrap up in the coming months. I’m finishing and editing a series that I’ve been working on titled Moultrie and Lesser Known Streets. There are a couple projects stemming from that series that I’m excited about too. There’s a good chance that California, Pennsylvania will be printed in some form later this year, but I have no definitive plans or timeframe right now. There’s a few projects that I’m in the middle of working on or planning to get started soon, but nothing is so far along that I have much to talk about at the moment.
(Big ups to Peter Hoffman for conducting this interview. If you’d like to ask 5 Questions of a photographer/editor/inspirator or suggest someone for us to interview let’s talk — email mlyttle [at] gmail.com. )
Our friend, Sol Neelman is doing a Kickstarter right now to support his new book, Weird Sports 2! Both Weird Sports and Weird Sports 2 are filled with wonderful weird sports from around the world including Florida. Click HERE to donate to his book! There are some really great rewards like getting a copy of the book, prints, and even a custom Weird Sports luchador mask.
Here are a few of our favorite Florida images:
John Francis Peters is a Los Angeles based photographer specializing in documentary, portrait, travel and lifestyle projects. John’s diverse body of work ranges from the portraiture of influential personalities to essays on emerging culture and environments in transition. His personal and assigned projects focus on both domestic and international subjects. John was selected as one of Photo District News 30 emerging photographers to watch in 2013.
1. As long as I’ve known of your work I’ve thought of you as a photographer a first, but you’ve done different kinds of work and have a background in design right? Can you tell us a little bit about how you arrived at the place you’re at right now?
It’s been a winding path but always with a focus on photography. Photography caught my attention during my first semester at SVA and from that point of engagement, every class I took or job I had somehow had to add or relate to the study and practice of the medium. I graduated SVA with a degree in design and then briefly went into the art department at Def Jam Records. It was a wild place to work during that time and while I was there I found my way into an assisting position for music photographer Jonathan Mannion.
Jon was amazing and taught me many technicalities of the medium that I had missed out on. I think the most important aspect of that position was taking on the responsibility of archiving his entire library. I was able to look through thousands of negatives and really begin to see the subtleties of how color, light, film and moments collaborate to make great images. What also made this position extraordinary was that Jon’s archive covers a vast history of hip-hop music and before he became a full time photographer he had assisted Richard Avedon. I felt I was soaking up some great experience during that time.
After I left Jon’s studio I worked on a few of odd jobs in upstate New York where I’m from. I kept practicing photography by wandering the Hudson Valley towns I had grown up in and shooting peoples portraits. I also picked up a few small gigs around that time most notably my first assignment being for the FADER Magazine. That was when Phil Bicker had taken over the creative director position at The FADER and freelancing for him ultimately led me to a staff position at the magazine where I spent the four and a half years.
2. It seems like you really started to hit a stride once you left your job photo editing for the Fader and decided to focus on freelance and on personal work. Do you feel like being an editor made you a better photographer at all, or a different photographer? Is there anything you miss about being an editor?
I would say my experience working at The FADER, specifically while Phil was there, was pivotal in my development as a photographer. During the first two and a half years on staff I worked under Phil’s direction. His vision, which really shaped FADER into a serious photo based magazine, was something I believed in and was fully dedicated to. I look back at that time as my graduate school in photography.
Working for Phil was challenging on many fronts one of those being to find new photographers all over the globe. I spent months searching through portfolios and I began to see how very subtle nuances in focus, form, editing and subject matter set one photographer apart from the others. While editing stories with Phil I began learning how to feel images as opposed to just looking at them. I also made great friends with some of the photographers I met during that process and began to network into the photo community at large.
When Phil left Fader I too was going to leave but after consulting some of my closer colleagues I decided to stay on as photo editor for a few more years. I was lucky then to work with the new creative director Justin Thomas Kay who became a great friend and collaborator. We worked closely together to continue evolving the magazine while maintaining a dedication to highlighting great photography from around the world.
I wouldn’t say I miss being a full time editor because I’m a shooter first. I hold my experience in full at The FADER, good and bad, close to my heart and would say it was essential in making me the photographer I am today.
3. A lot of times when photographers strike out on their own you start to see them make less photography than, say, if they had a job as a photographer for a publication. They’re suddenly a one man business, blogging machine, etc. But you seem to always be making new pictures, and a lot of it is in fact personal work. Can you talk a little bit about what drives that?
I think when we first start making photos, we see life and then we see how it looks in images which in turn feeds the desire to see more of life. As we begin to study and practice photography further, we go through the whole process of mimicking others work, aesthetically and such, which is important in the learning process. I do feel however it is essential to continue seeing life first or we end up seeing images first and getting stuck in formulas which are not our own.
For myself, the best way I find to evolve my craft is by actually practicing it on the purest level, in personal work. I need to push myself every day to see life first so I can collaborate with it and allow that process to guide me beyond what I already know. I never want to find comfort in process, that’s like giving up, succumbing to gimmick, which doesn’t add to anything. So what I hold on to is that initial connection I had with photography, in experiencing and collaborating with the world. That’s what will always drive my to make new work.
4. I recently came upon your dad’s wonderful paintings online. My dad was a painter too (but largely gave it up before I was born), and I know that as a kid, seeing his work was some of the first visual inspiration I ever had. How do you think your dad’s work as an artist has rubbed off on you?
Well my fathers paintings; his life path and the moments we have shared together, definitely set for me a solid foundation in the arts. He exposed me to great art from a very early age not only in his own work but via a wide spectrum of sensibilities. We spent many years together in upstate New York communities like Woodstock, which were in those days largely comprised of artisans. I literally lived the artist life as a child so growing into it as an adult has not been so foreign though no less challenging.
Growing up surrounded by visual and musical artists was so rewarding, something I definitely took for granted but now embrace as an essential part of my art. If I boiled down my fathers influence to a few keys aspects, the most apparent would be his dedication to nature. Focusing on nature is what has driven him all of these years to pursue his work amongst the confusion that life brings. I’ve been close to that level of spiritual dedication and I too look toward nature as a source of inspiration, focus and peace.
5. In the past few years you’ve been all over the world making pictures. China, Pakistan, Haiti, Morocco, Egypt, I don’t even know where else. What are you working on now?
I have been very lucky and proactive at pursuing international commissions and personal projects. Working internationally and experiencing culture in all its forms is essential to my work and the direction I want to go. I plan to continue my work in Western China and hopefully Pakistan, which is a place I’m greatly inspired by.
Right now however I’m focused on a project in San Diego, which may expand into a larger series in America. I’ve been interested in the people and communities that exist within the context of the American landscape and its seeming sense of order or normalcy. I want to explore the philosophies and stories behind people who are seeking more to life than what we are presented with here in America and look into other dimensions of our common landscape in which many folks exist for better or worse.
Roger Dale May is a documentary photographer currently living in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was born in the Tug River Valley, located on the WV/Kentucky state line, in the heart of Hatfield and McCoy country. He served in the US Army for 7 years and is currently enrolled in the Certificate for Documentary Arts program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he’s also worked as a part-time instructor. He appreciates photography of all types, says he’s drawn to documentary work that reveals the human spirit. He tends to hoard photography books, drink too much coffee, listen to the same songs over and over again, and bore his friends with obscure facts about photography, Appalachia, and gadgets. Roger says that somewhere between John Prine and Phosphorescent you could find the soundtrack to his life.
It’s true that I haven’t taken a traditional path to photography. There’ve been times in my life where I’ve seen that as a minus, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve chosen to be just fine with it. I think some of the things we all have in common as storytellers is an innate curiosity about life and a willingness to see and show the world differently. My first camera was a Kodak 110 that my mom got for me by collecting box tops from Corn Flakes. Around that same time, I was introduced to the Time Life series ‘The Vietnam Experience’ by a friend of the family who was a Vietnam veteran. I remember sitting in his living room, completely enthralled by those grainy pictures of a far away place. There was so much information contained in the four sides of those rectangles and it really made me aware of how powerful pictures can be. I actually have a couple of the volumes from that series.
Looking at Appalachia came from a series I write for my blog. A couple of years ago, I was alarmed by the way CNN ran an edit of photographer Stacy Kranitz’ work, which can be a challenge in and of itself. I reached out to Kranitz and our conversation resulted in a three-part blog piece ‘Perpetuating the Visual Myth of Appalachia.’ That sort of got me off my ass and into the work of fostering conversations about Appalachia’s visual representation. From there, I started proactively engaging photographers asking to feature their work and inviting them to participate in a conversation. Since then, I’ve featured nearly a dozen photographers including Shelby Lee Adams, Rob Amberg, and Tammy Mercure.