For the latest in our series on women photographers, Lady Shooters, Tara Wray interviews LA-based street photographer Michelle Groskopf
Can you tell the readers of BUST Magazine what you do? And describe how you came to be the photographer you are today?
My work is an almost anthropological account of how I see the world, or at least the faces and details that draw my attention while I go about my day. It’s me saying, “Look at this face, isn’t it striking? Look at these hands, look what they tell you about the person.” This accounts for my obsessive compositions and tight framing. I'm very specific about what I want to show you with zero room for error within the frame.
These details tend to lay in wait amongst my obsessions. Youth culture, suburban iconography, seniors. These are the topics that get me excited these days, so much so that I chase them down the street with my camera. Above all else, photography has always been a way to get to know myself, my dislikes and my loves. It’s a great tool for that.
When I’m not shooting in the street, I’m covering stories for magazines or working on projects with my collective Full Frontal Flash. I’m currently working on a story relating to my Hollywood neighborhood. It’s a local meditation on change. I take great inspiration from my neighbors.
I'm dying to hear about your relationship with flash! (Flash photography is not always utilized in street photography; for one thing it blows your cover. You can’t shoot covertly and have to actually interact with your subjects when using one.)
Flash is a way for me to explain my internal relationship with the everyday. It's me shouting, "Look at how beautiful we are, don't ever take this for granted." Flash adds pizazz. I've only really been shooting with it for the past four years. It was a way to challenge myself, to engage photography on a more technical level. I used to shoot on an automatic point-and-shoot, but now I shoot fully manual, including manual flash. With each frame, I'm telling you something specific, and it often has something to do with just how beautiful I find the simple things. Flash also reflects my sense of humor. It's tongue-in-cheek. I'm not an overly earnest person, and flash tends to add a lightness to heavy moments or details. It's just become a powerful tool for me to turn my internal appreciation for life outwards.
There is such a crazy notion that women aren't brave enough or are too sweet to commit to using flash. I hate it. I try and break that stereotype down every day. Women don't have to be nice. I'm nice but I don't have to be. It's not my obligation just because I'm a woman. Or that flash needs to be this horrible experience for the subject. It doesn’t.
Did you teach yourself how to use flash? What changed about your work when you started using one?
I'm a self-taught photographer in general. I love research and spend a lot of my time online digging around boards and sites learning as much as I can technically. I taught myself flash and am still mastering manual out on the street. It's a challenge. I'm also trying to teach myself more complex lighting set ups so I can refine my light for studio work etc. I never want to be held back by my own lack of knowledge.
Using flash changes the act of taking photographs. For one thing, it's way more difficult sneaking up on folks. I used to be a crazy ninja. I still like to like to think of myself as a gentle butterfly but I've become an elephant on the street with my set up. I'm capturing moments less and challenging myself more with portraiture. Not sure if flash dictated this change but it certainly lends itself to the work I'm doing. I treat the street like my studio.
Also: it seems most of your work takes place in the street, as a kind of one-off experience; do you ever get the urge to go to a subject's home and photograph them in their natural habitat?
I definitely get the urge to go to people's homes and photograph them. I'm always thinking of ways to further explore the fabric of people. Getting more intimate is definitely on that list. Homes are extremely telling of someone's life aren't they. Their stuff.
You've said you're a very out and proud queer street photographer. In what ways has that had an impact on your photography?
There is a suggestion of otherness, an outsider quality present in both street photography and queerness for me. As a teenager growing up gay in suburbia throughout the late '80s and '90s, I often found myself on the outside of things from a social and gender perspective. It makes sense to me that I picked up photography around the same time I was coming out to myself. I was comfortable in that space just outside of normal and for me that's where photography lives. One foot in and one foot out. Especially street photography. I see street photography as an act of queerness and not just for myself but for everyone doing it.
What's next for you in terms of personal projects? What's your ultimate goal?
A lot has changed since we began this interview, since the election results came in and pulled the rug back. As a queer woman who generally lives on the outside of accepted normalcy, I can admit to experiencing my share of hatred, but this really laid bare the legitimacy of bigotry in this country. As a white woman, it’s my absolute duty to fight that bigotry and to get in the way of this government’s upcoming policies. To fight alongside those who are legitimately afraid for their lives and the safety of those they love. I don’t claim to have much but I do have my camera and a certain amount of visibility which I intend to use as a tool of empowerment and in a way as a peaceful weapon.
I’m set to cover the inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington this January. I’ve also made a decision to photograph identifying women and queer lives as much as I possibly can. We need positive imagery to flood our conscious. To lift us. To validate our stories, joys and struggles. That’s what I plan to use my camera for this coming year. I hope editors step up to join me.
All photos by Michelle Groskopf
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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.