British-born photographer Shane Gray talks a little bit about his inspirations and aspirations. Shane will be showing his series of New York City photographs “Avenue Street” at Lunasa (126 First Avenue, New York, NY) until the end of March. The opening will be Tuesday, February 7 from 6 – 9 pm.
Jeanette O’Keefe: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you found your way to photography?
Shane Gray: Norfolk, in rural England was where I was born – I’m a country boy at heart. But a series of moves to other parts of the country saw me living in four other counties before finally settling in London where I stayed for just over a decade.
As village turned into town and town into city I suppose I gradually became more urbanized. And quite recently I left the United Kingdom to start married life in the United States.
I grew up in the seventies which I suppose was just as popular for photography as in the preceding decades.
My first memory of the ‘family camera’ was of a strange plastic boxy looking thing -it apparently took instant photographs, a total revelation at the time of course. I remember looking through family albums – with the interrupting digits as people grappled with varying contraptions in pursuit of savoring those all-important family moments. So I suppose you could say that it all started within the arena of ‘domestic photography’.
My first camera was made by a popular British chemist and used a tiny format called 110. From that day on I honestly think that something ignited – my first reckoning of what has commonly been termed the ‘decisive moment’, was my feeding a swan trying not to have it confuse my fingers for the chunk of bread. Couple this with the fact that I was always drawing as a child and I guess I became quite visually aware from an early age.
Later an Eastern bloc 35mm camera finally saw me putting my pencils down for good and after some relative successes and a growing stack of 6 X 4 prints, I soon found my way heading towards the city of Sheffield where I was accepted onto a course teaching many aspects of ‘professional photographic competences’. It just happened that the same college ran a press photography course for the NCTJ (National Center for the Training of Journalists).
I was soon heavily influenced by my busied peers and their gritty B + W prints. Permission was granted to travel with an aid convoy to former Yugoslavia, where the war had not long started, and a growing fascination led me to the renowned Documentary Photography course in Newport, South Wales.
Do you see your personality reflected in your work?
Ultimately, the answer would have to be a resounding yes to this very interesting question – it’s just that the strength of the reflection varies from subject to subject or situation to situation as photographed. Some photographers indicate the complexities within their work as totally curiosity driven, or embark on some aesthetic stance which points to a strong personal influence; a personality trait even, maybe even fetish in some cases. Others appear to distance themselves or at least appear distanced. At times I feel like either photographer, if that makes sense.
When you see emerging patterns or commonalities within your own ways of working there has to be some hinting at the photographers make up or psyche. Even within genres whereby the subject retains all impetus or importance there can still be a suggestion of personality I think.
Experiences in a photographer’s life affect their outlook and interests which in turn affects personality thereby acting as a vector for their own working. As we know there’s that matter of subjectivity of course, but when you look at the work of photographers such as Parr, Gilden or Mermelstein they seem to give off strong signals alluding to their true personality.
All photographers do at some point and I’m no exception.
As someone who works in an art museum, I am interested in a photographer’s influences. Your work has a very strong aesthetic to it – bright colors, bold shapes – and it seems you have a clear idea of what you like to photograph. Do you have any influences in the photography world, art world or any other world that you can tell us about?
Having spent some time in Arts Education in London (post degree), though only at a fairly ordinary level, I have certainly looked at artists work with a view to it influencing my photography and maybe on a less conscious level it has. Cross-visioning is something that I feel truly exists for anyone involved with any artistic endeavor. The color usage of Pablo Picasso (especially in emotional terms) or the feelings of angst with Edvard Munch, even the abstraction of Joan Miro, I would never discount a smaller influence on some level.
However, the Photographers who have influenced and inspired me along the way; these luminary figures are innumerable and mentioning all of them possibly may go beyond the scope of this interview – it would be a long winded answer for sure. As I’ve gone about my photographic practice there have been many influences either from a genre perspective or chosen method of approach; be it B + W or color or chosen format even. Then there are the time periods involved throughout the history of photography as well. Probably the most notable in contemporary color working and in either ‘street’ or documentary would be Alex Webb for his sophisticated arrangement of picture elements, keen sense of observation, and color appreciation. Martin Parr I very much respect for his sensibility in the observations he makes; his social commentary either on my motherland or someone else’s I find both astute and amusing. Joel Meyerowitz – again the complexity of his street work I love but at the same time his photographs really inspire because of his mastery in juxtaposing form often interjected with emotion or questions.
Picking up on personality again though – Bruce Gilden, I admire for his ‘chutzpah’ – his spirit in getting done what he wants, and the same with Jeff Mermelstein, apart from their work, it’s their modus operandi that inspires too. Constantine Manos is another photographer who I quite admire, his use of shadow and color combined I love to observe. Lastly but definitely no less importantly Lauren Greenfield and Mary Ellen Mark have influenced on some levels as they have gotten ‘closer’ to some of their subjects more than many others – investing both time and understanding it appears. Their intuition and sensitivity is important and relevant when you consider much of their subject matter. I try to remember this at times.
I see that you used to focus a lot more on documentary photography in the UK, but your work in the US tends to veer more towards street photography. Do you see a difference between the two? If so, is there a reason why your work in the US is mainly street? Are there any documentary photography projects in New York that you’d like to work on?
Really I’m pleased that you’ve picked up on this. Personally I think it’s just an indication of how we grow or sometimes just deviate as photographers. Whilst I appreciate that consistency can become expected it can also stifle. The last photographs of someone’s life are very rarely similar to their earlier exploits or even those mid-career. Getting back to your first question though; I still see much of my street work as documentary photography. In these street photography renaissance times the genre (or sub-genre as I think the case may be) there seems to be almost a struggle with its terminology. In 1972, the Life Library defined the term ‘documentary photography’ as ”a depiction of the real world by a photographer whose intent is to communicate something of importance – to make a comment that will be understood by the viewer”. Further to this three types of ‘reality’ were proposed by the same authors in conveyance of: visual reality, social reality, and psychological reality. There’s often a move towards the visual pun or reliance upon some arrangement of quirky elements in much of street photography. Nowadays it can appear very different from the more ‘concerned’ workings in documentary photography so it’s quite confusing at times.
My current work since I’ve been here in the United States is primarily street photography. I have spent much of my time photographing within the frenetic environ of Manhattan which has lent itself to photographing different types of behavior and people sometimes in unusual situations. There is also a different type of tolerance level found in the crowds in general, maybe even a desensitization to the probing camera lens which has permitted a different working for me. Technically a certain level of subterfuge exists with the wide angle lens as well. All of these factors have tempted me towards more street photography.
There are many documentary projects that I’d like to see get off the ground however – one of these is in upstate New York, an area that has certainly piqued my interest. Other projects within New York are still ongoing though including ‘Avenue Street’ my Manhattan based work. Inspiration levels are quite high when you’ve recently moved to a new country or culture so you could say that I’m just letting the ‘dust settle’ for now. Having said that I did start a project soon after moving here based upon Roosevelt Island which is just off the east side of Manhattan, this is likely to expand and encompass other islands of New York.
Are there any projects in general that you’re itching to work on in the future?
In the past I’ve enjoyed photographing at home and overseas so I often have thoughts on turning the camera back towards the UK. Probably after some time in my new home country these feelings will increase – it’s too early to tell. India is a country that I’ve visited before and got ideas for a project a couple of hours away from Delhi. Likewise with the Indonesian side of Borneo, again after visiting there the wheels started turning on possible projects but they seem out of reach right now. For now though the US holds so much interest I don’t necessarily need to look too far. In essence, I find that things can happen in front you just as easily as far away. Whether this constitutes a project or not I’m uncertain, but I have a backlog of negatives both in color and B + W that need printing. I would look forward to becoming a darkroom hermit for a number of months!
Your work, for me, encompasses everything that is great about street photography. It is well observed, balanced, captures a time and place, and is very funny at times. How do you see yourself growing as a photographer in the coming years?
Thank you very much for the compliments in your observation. Both portraiture and landscape are areas that interest me, though the former probably applies more so. This is how I would like to expand upon my repertoire and incorporate different ways of working, even within the same body of work I believe the observed moment and the more directed approach can sit beside one another. Growing for me really means incorporating more commercial acumen though I’ve been saddened to see some great photographers that I’ve personally known lose touch with their creative sides in place of strictly financial reward – it became just a job. This represents part of my quest to grow over the next couple of years and to maintain a balance. Photographic education currently interests me as does a community based photo project of some sorts.
Finally, if you were not a photographer, what would you be?
Again – a great question. This one is difficult for me, there have been so many persuasions, deviations and distractions in my working life that nothing else seems to fit now but photography. Everything that has gone before seems to have relevance though, it all goes through a form of filter which is photography. Dare I say a painter of some description – and not just for buildings or fences…