Interview by Jeanette O’Keefe
Over the past 10 years, Cary has been documenting life in New York. A real love for the city is evident in his black and white photographs. His work embodies an energy and grittiness hidden to the casual eye, but captured by those like him who observe closely and deeply integrate themselves into their surroundings. In 2000 he started posting his work online at Visual Diaries and in 2008 created CaryConover.com. I’m so glad to interview Cary before he moves to Kansas with his wife Yvonne and their newborn son Julian at the end of November, where he will teach photography.
“Looking Back: New York (2000-2010)” – a mini-retrospective of Cary’s New York photographs – can be seen starting October 19 at Lunasa (126 First Avenue, New York, NY).
Can you tell us a little bit about your background before you came to New York? What were you shooting in your early years after college? What kind of assignments did you enjoy shooting for the newspaper in Michigan?
I enrolled at Kansas State University knowing I was going to be a photographer, I went there specifically for the yearbook, The Royal Purple. So all throughout college there was a pretty strong photography staff, especially considering there was no official photojournalism major at K-State. So that was an early influence right there, the idea of a strong tradition for photography.
It was expected that you would apply for summer internships at newspapers. My internships really shaped my photography, not so much because they allowed me to shoot “real world” news and stuff, but that they let me get out to see other parts of the country, out into the “real world” as it were. That’s when the real “street photographer” in me came out, 1994-96, during my internships in Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire. On these internships, I would shoot my assignments for the newspaper, then on my off hours I’d have all this extra time to do my own shooting. Imagine being paid to go away for a summer, work at a newspaper, but have all your free time devoted to exploring a new region of the country. So I came away from those internships with a lot of outtake pictures. Those outtakes became my portfolio, more so than the news and sports I was paid/hired to photograph.
My first job after college in Michigan, at The Monroe Evening News, I wanted to be at a place that would sort of allow me to nurture this “extra” photography, a place where I could sort of continue working on the outtakes, all the while doing really good work for publication in the next day’s paper. I would say my favorite assignments in Michigan at that first job were weekend community assignments. I’d get an assignment to photograph, say, a pumpkin patch or an apple orchard opening and there were just a lot of opportunities to come away with great pictures…both ones to be submitted to the newspaper for publication–that told a wider story to a broad audience–as well as other pictures to sort of mull over afterwards, my own little experiments within community photojournalism, pictures I would share with other photographer friends.
Another example is that I’d have a Friday night football game to shoot for the sports section of my paper, but it was the halftime pictures, the teenagers canoodling under the bleachers, that I lived for capturing, as opposed to the decisive game-winning touchdown photo. Well those, too, but I was very good at creating work “on demand” under deadline pressure but also very prolific creating my own body of more personal, nuanced work.
What made you want to move to New York from Michigan?
After nearly four years in Michigan I was ready for a change. I had visited Paris for ten days in 1999 and I had absolutely loved it, and I my hope was that a bigger city would be in my future. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t envision applying for jobs at bigger newspapers–I remember telling myself at the time that I was happier being a big fish in a small pond. I liked the idea of freelancing, as I had friends who were freelancers in DC. Turns out one of them, Patrick Witty, was moving up to New York and looking for a roommate.
So we basically went half and half on the deposit for a one-bedroom apartment on Stanton Street, just off Bowery. He moved up in June, I came later in August. Before long we had a rotating cast of roommates, including one, Craig Allen, who unfolded a cot every night and slept in the kitchen. Those were really fun times, it felt like one big party. A bit of that care-free life went away with the trauma that was 9/11.
What kind of assignments have you had in New York through the years? Any particularly memorable ones that you could share?
Many of my assignments for the Village Voice were nightlife-related events. A lot of live music, parties, restaurants, bars, etc. But also a lot of alternative lifestyle stuff, I did a lot of work dealing with the LGBT community, tenants-rights stuff, issues dealing with the unions, etc. The Voice sent me to cover the New Hampshire primary in early 2004, that was my first big assignment from them, from anyone really.
In late 2004 I started doing a lot for The New York Times, and that was a lot more breaking news, courthouse and City Hall beat stuff. A lot more grueling in the sense that most of that NYT work was last-minute but that’s the way this business works sometimes. With the Voice I almost always had a day or two notice, then again the Voice is a weekly. And I shot film until around May of 2004, so it was a nice leisurely stroll up Bowery to the Voice offices to drop off my rolls and captions the next morning after an assignment.
Once I had gone digital it felt natural to start taking on a bigger workload of assignments from the Times. So 2005, 2006 were great years for me freelancing. As for memorable assignments, the Republican National Convention in 2004 was a really fun thing to photograph, I actually got credentialed onto the main floor for The Voice.
Can you tell us a little bit about the difference between shooting assignments for the Village Voice, NYTimes, etc. and shooting your own street work? Would your method change at all?
One distinction I make between work/personal is that work is color (digital) and personal is black and white (film). Another huge difference between photojournalism vs. my own work is the whole gathering of names, caption info, etc. When I’m on assignment I would talk to my subjects quite a bit, and it’s important to remember that I’m representing a news organization. When I’m doing my own shooting I don’t talk to anybody. My assignments were always at a specific location, whereas my personal work was always more the result of long, drifting excursions out into the city, quick errands as well. But even when I was on assignments I’d always have a film camera loaded with Tri-X with me, always. When I wasn’t working I’d leave my digital gear at home. I still do, although on countless occasions I’d get a last-minute assignment and be off on some breaking news story, stopping at home first to get my digital gear of course.
When you’re shooting your own personal work on the street, is there anything in particular that helps you get into a good zone or state of mind for shooting?
It’s funny because I definitely never use the phrase “in the zone” in regards to shooting. Maybe if I’m playing pool and I’m having a good night then I’ll use that phrase. “State of mind” feels much better, and lots of things put me in a nice state of mind for photography.
Usually it’s something fleeting or ephemeral that causes me to get my camera out, an atmospheric change, leaves scuttling across the street on the first real day of fall, an unexpected light rain during an otherwise perfect day. Or, sometimes I just feel like visiting an old block that I used to live on and all I want to do is revisit a previous time and place I once occupied. Or I saw a great movie the night before that had a noir-ish feel, or a really strong exhibition. Sometimes there’ll a big story in the news such as Hurricane Katrina, a presidential election, or the Ground Zero Mosque and I get into a mood for photographing rallies, protests, activism, etc. Washington Square Park and Union Square Park are really good for these kinds of things.
It’s hard to explain but I’ve gone through phases over the past several years. At one point I was in my “walks phase” where I’d take 2 or 3 really long walks a day, or one really epic one like up to Central Park and back, just walking around in flip-flops on the hottest day of the year, coldest day of the year, whatever, just soaking everything in. Other times I wouldn’t photograph people but would be more into “seizing forms.” Then other phases I’ve gone through are more about nightlife, just going out to the bars and photographing people in the East Village, Lower East Side, playing pool, having a fun time, smoking outside, etc. Now, and it’s probably because I’m leaving NYC soon, I’m trying to capture the skyline more. One of the loops I’ve made a lot more recently is around the World Trade Center site, now that construction has kicked into high gear. That’s one story that takes years to tell, and it gets more into the “long-form photojournalism” that I like.
More than anything, there really isn’t an on or off switch with my photography. Or hasn’t been I should say. Now that I have a newborn son he just feels so fragile and I haven’t bothered with carrying any camera, and just yesterday I was walking up Broadway and saw a photo I definitely would have taken. It was that French culinary school NE corner of Broadway and Broome, and there was a man eating by himself up high in the window and then an androgynous woman standing outside below him… and she resembled the man, or vice versa.
Who are some of your influences?
So, so many. I lean toward prolific mid-century FSA and Photo League shooters and pertaining specifically to New York, “New York School” shooters such as Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Louis Faurer, Leon Levinstein, Ted Croner, Weegee, etc.
It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Cartier-Bresson, I would have loved to have shaken that man’s hand. Garry Winogrand is a great character, but I don’t obsess over him like many others have, I find him a bit too sidewalk-y, too daylight-y. I’ve run into Robert Frank several times in my neighborhood, he’s an icon. Lee Friedlander I’ve run into as well. I love Elliott Erwitt’s work. I ran into Richard Kalvar on the subway once and we chatted for a few stops, he was a nice guy, I’ve tried to keep in touch. Love a lot of Gene Smith’s work, he’s also from Wichita. I had a big Ralph Gibson phase, and I still really dig his stuff.
Closer to my age I like Trent Parke, Gus Powell, both have been really nice to me. But also some of my closest friends, who are also photographers, have been big influences, Aris Economopoulos, Patrick Witty, Andy Cutraro, Matt Smolinsky.
Then are just totally unknown, obscure people. For example there’s a guy who shot a lot in the 1960s, Robert Otter. I run into his son Ned all the time, he sells his father’s black and white prints in Washington Square Park. More and more the people I am blown away by are the people I’ve just discovered for the first time, today it was Samuel Gottscho, whose name I remember but I can never seem to commit to memory. Eugene de Salignac is a guy who was shooting for the NYC department of bridges around the turn of the century, his work is just amazing to look at today.
In a couple of weeks, you’ll be leaving New York and moving to Kansas where you’ll teach photography. Have you come up with any sort of philosophy on how you will teach photography to kids completely new to the field?
Teaching professionally has been a goal of mine for quite a few years. The reasons for this are many, but nowhere among them is the idea that I have some super-valuable knowledge or wisdom that my students must possess in order to succeed. I have a pretty healthy ego, but it doesn’t belong in the classroom. Granted, I certainly have real-world experiences that will inform my teaching, certain anecdotes that I can share–and certainly my own experiences as a high school photographer 20 years ago. But more than anything I want to awaken and ignite any creative energy and talent my students may have, latent or otherwise. I want to impart on them the philosophy that none of us are really ever finished learning. And I want to do better than many of my own high school teachers, who were content to instruct me to merely read the textbook. I went to a public high school and I feel that’s where I really flourished growing up.
High school is such a crucial time, so much going on, and I’m so stoked that I’ll have a good chance of being a positive and reinforcing influence for my students.
What will you miss most about New York?
Friends, mostly. But the city as well, for sure. I’ve always thought you could live fifty lifetimes here and not capture everything. I captured a lot in my 10 years here, I’m pretty proud of the work I did. I even got to drive a taxi for a while! And I certainly wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t totally in love with the city. But it can be a grueling existence for a freelancer, or any other type of creative person. So I’m looking forward to the stability of teaching, health insurance, my family to help with our baby, etc. So for those reasons I don’t have any regrets leaving whatsoever. And at the same time I don’t have a fear that I’ll never ever be able to come return. That’s for sure–New York City isn’t going anywhere.
Cary Conover is a freelance photographer based in New York City. A native of Wichita, Kansas, he attended Kansas State University from 1992-1996. In 1996 he began working as a staff photographer at the Monroe (Michigan) Evening News, which published his first book, titled “Black Book: A Visual Diary” in 2000. That summer he moved to New York City and began his freelance career. He’s been a regular contributor for both The Village Voice and The New York Times. Cary is perhaps best know for his black and white photography, which has been exhibited in group shows at the now-defunct CBGB’s and Ariel Meyerowitz Galleries. It’s also been a staple of his long-running website visualdiaries.com and now at caryconover.com. Cary and wife Yvonne and their newborn son Julian live in the Lower East Side. Cary teaches photography every summer to high schoolers at the Flint HIlls Publications Workshop in Manhattan, KS and plans to return to Wichita to teach photojournalism at Andover High School beginning in early 2011.