In the second installment of Lady Shooters, our series focusing on women photographers, Tara Wray interviews Amy Touchette.
“There was very little I needed to hear when I started out that I didn’t feel in my gut. Mortality is the ultimate teacher, and even though I was feeling my way in the dark, I somehow instinctively knew the real from the bullshit.” — Amy Touchette
I really love your image "New York Young, No. 9" (top). Can you tell me everything there is to know about making that picture?
Thank you! I made this picture in the summer of 2011 when I was photographing teenagers in New York City. I walked the streets until I found people this age who interested me and then stopped them and asked if I could photograph them. I used 120 film and a Rolleiflex, a twin lens reflex camera that makes beautiful portraits and was also used by Diane Arbus, who, like me I believe, photographed to have an experience first and make a photograph second.
Because I was asking strangers for their time, I tried to be very quick. I made sure my camera settings were in the ballpark of the light I was walking in, making slight adjustments at the time of photographing if need be, and took just two frames. For the first frame, I let my subjects pose however they want to. For the second frame, I gave them brief directions that would hopefully result in the genuine portrait I was looking for.
I want most of all for my subjects to feel comfortable when I photograph them, but how do you get a stranger to feel comfortable when you have the power of a camera and they do not? Learning how to manage that very real exchange was the main reason I began photographing. It’s so incredibly fulfilling to gain the trust of someone you just met, and each time I do, I feel like my heart grows another millimeter bigger.
I was/am so intrigued with photographing teenagers because they’re often so accustomed to photographing themselves and each other, a veil of cognizant presentation falls over each portrait. I love that because it adds so much depth to their portrayal. Who are we looking at and how do they feel about themselves? So lovely...so interesting...so worthwhile to think about...People are more transparent than we think, if we just stop and really look. And what’s so wonderful about photographing is that it demands that open frame of mind.
Unlike most images in New York Young, “New York Young No. 9” is pretty candid. In the first frame, they took a strong pose — too strong for it to show anything authentic, I thought. The second frame, this one, I took while they were re-assembling themselves for their second portrait. What attracted me to them was the palpable energy they had swirling between them, so that was what I was keen on capturing.
How did you get your start in photography?
It was a pretty dramatic and emotional start, actually. I was working in the publishing industry in New York City as a writer, then an editor, then a managing editor when I realized how unfulfilling corporate America was. So I decided I’d work on a series of paintings instead of overtime at the office to soften the grind a bit. But then September 11th happened, and everything changed for me.
Outside looked like an apocalypse. No cars were allowed in the West Village, where I lived then — an eerie sight of a city that never sleeps — and a sickening stench of death and destruction pervaded the air. Worse, the streets were filled with pictures of people and their loved ones’ desperate pleas to find them, but they were all dead. I was so scared and so sad. I remember just wanting to connect with people, or at the very least look them in the eye. It was the only antidote I knew to the violence and hatred that was suddenly in my world.
After some really honest conversations with myself about who I was, what my natural skills were, and what I wanted out of life ideally, I decided to look into photography, hoping it wouldn’t feel as lonely as writing and painting. Not knowing what an f-stop or shutter speed were, I enrolled in Photo I at the International Center of Photography with street photographer Jeff Mermelstein. Four months later, I quit my job and became a freelance writer and slowly began creating a life as a photographer. It’s crazy to me that an event so incredibly tragic and full of loss inspired one of the best things in my life, but it did. There’s a lesson in there, and it’s one I think about every day.
What do you wish you had been told when you were first starting out in the world of photography?
There was very little I needed to hear when I started out that I didn’t feel in my gut. Mortality is the ultimate teacher, and even though I was feeling my way in the dark, I somehow instinctively knew the real from the bullshit.
One thing that wasn’t totally clear, though, was that applying for calls for art, grants, festivals, contests, etc. are not so much about winning or getting accepted (although that’s obviously great); they’re about going through the application process. Each time I’ve had to make an edit of my work, write about it, and fit myself into the guidelines for a call, I got much further in my development and my understanding of my work. Calls provide an incentive to grow. They’re never a useless endeavor, no matter the outcome.
How did you go about the business of finding your personal vision?
I took a lot of courses. I looked at a LOT of photography. I studied photo books and I read many of the canonical texts on photography. I photographed only what inspired me and led me to experiences I desired. I didn’t rely on photography to make a living, so I was always photographing on my own terms. And I asked for feedback from others as much as I could. Knowing nothing about photography when I started, I was obsessed with understanding what a good photograph comprised. They seemed to come in all shapes and sizes, and I wanted to know what was at the root of all good pictures and how I could apply that to my own interests.
After several years, I knew it was time for me to stop asking others about my photography and start asking myself. Of course, I still get feedback from others—and I always will—but ultimately I need and want to be the main force behind my images. Personal vision is in the edit more than might be evident.
Do you work in film or digital?
Both, but mostly film. All but one of my personal projects is made with film, and my life is largely built around making personal work. I really like how film slows me down and makes me think before releasing the shutter. There’s so much intention there.
I also like that I can’t see my pictures right away. Sometimes the experience of photographing can be so intense, I’ll think a picture shows something it doesn’t. Having time away diminishes that misperception. And then there’s the amazingly soulful beauty of film grain. Each as unique as a snowflake, the perfect pixel suffers in comparison.
But photographing digitally helps me keep my prices down and churn out work more quickly, so I use a digital camera when I’m getting paid to make portraits, and I’m really thankful for the technology.
What are you working on now?
This summer I’ve been making Rolleiflex portraits of people in my neighborhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Mostly groups of people: friends, couples, but especially families, the latter being a main interest of mine at the moment. This neighborhood is extremely special. I’ve never been a part of anything like it. And I plan to give back as much as I possibly can.
Do you make pictures every day? Even on days when getting out your camera feels like a chore?
I do make pictures every day. I’ve been working on a series of images with my phone called “Street Dailies,” which are candid pictures of people on the street that I post every day on Instagram. The images are a lot like sketches: made very quickly, without my subject’s permission, using equipment that takes so few resources I can shoot liberally. It’s the polar opposite of photographing with my Rolleiflex, and I love working on both sides of the spectrum like that.
The act of photographing is never a chore — it’s more like a lifeline — but scanning, organizing, and other back-end tasks photography entails can! That said, when I go out with my Rolleiflex I have to introduce myself to people, so sometimes I do have to give myself a little push out the door, depending on my state of mind. On those days I tell myself I don’t have to photograph anyone, I just have to walk the streets with my camera. That immediately takes the pressure off, and invariably, before I know it, I come across someone I’m dying to photograph, and 7 out of 10 times they say yes, and 10 out of 10 times it makes me so happy when they agree. Just having that experience once wipes away any insecurity or lethargy I felt earlier, and it’s clear I’m doing what I should be doing.
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Tara Wray was born in Kansas and now lives and works in Vermont. She is the director of the documentary films Manhattan, Kansas (SXSW 2006 Audience Award winner), about family relationships and mental illness, and Cartoon College, about the weird and wonderful world of indie cartoonists. In 2008 she turned her attention to still photography, self-publishing the photobooks "Each One Wonderful" and most recently “Come Again When You Can’t Stay So Long,” a follow-up to Manhattan, Kansas. She also curates an interview series on VICE called Doin' Work: Flash Interviews With Contemporary Photographers. Follow Tara on Instagram.