An interview with photographer Will Steacy
“The Forum, Philadelphia, 2008” from Down These Mean Streets
Will Steacy is an American photographer. Born in Philadelphia, he received a B.F.A in Photography from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Steacy worked as Union Laborer before becoming a photographer. His photographs have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums across the country and are included in many private and public collections. In 2008, Steacy was selected by powerHouse Books and The Center for Documentary Studies for 25 Under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers, and was awarded a prestigious Tierney Fellowship. He lives and works in New York.
Steacy’s most recent project, Down These Mean Streets, which focuses on America’s crumbling cities, will be on view as part of the Tierney Fellowship Group Show at the New York Photo Festival (Tobacco Warehouse, 26 New Dock Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn, NY) from May 13 to May 17, and in New York University’s Gulf and Western Gallery (721 Broadway, first floor, New York, NY) beginning on June 4, 2009.
“Car & Trophies, New Orleans, LA, 2005”
Janna Washington: How did you become a photographer?
Will Steacy: My father is a lifelong newspaper man and so is his father. My father, back in the day, at one point used to take pictures for a newspaper and, while he is on the editorial side now, he was always taking photographs. So as a kid I was always exposed to [photography] and I have had a camera in my hand since I was 6 years old, a darkroom in my basement since 6th grade, etc., etc. I always hated school and wanted to drop out since first grade—how I actually went on to college, I don’t know—but in 11th grade I had a month long internship with a photographer. I didn’t go to school for that month and instead took pictures or was in the darkroom printing all day. I still remember the moment when I was fixing a print and had the feeling like, “this is what I fucking want to do, I will be a happy man if I can spend the rest of my life doing this.” But of course mid-afternoon daydreams as 16 year old (you don’t want to know what else I would daydream about)…being 28 now and somehow making this life happen, a lot has happened and it’s a lot of hard work living this day dream.
“Dead Sheep, Ketchum, ID, 2004”
JW: Who inspires you and informs your work?
WS: David Simon, Dorothea Lange, Raymond Carver, Mike Tyson, Paul Graham, Franz Wright, Jack Johnson (the boxer, not the musician), Charles Bukowski, De Kooning, Doestovesky, Guy de Maupassant, Cat Power, Francois Truffaut, Hunter S. Thompson, Walker Evans, Jacob Holdt, Blind Willie Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Hass, my hardworking mother and father, Miles Davis, Taryn Simon, Jim Morrison, Joel Sternfeld, New Orleans and Philadelphia, Philip Perkis, Sean Penn, 2Pac, Tobias Wolff, P.-L. diCorcia, Hank Willis Thomas, Galway Kinnell, Stuart Shils, Norman Mailer, Bill Buford, Frank (my foreman when I was a union laborer)…
JW: Much of your work requires travel. How do you decide where you will go next?
WS: Photography for me is a method of inquiry, it is a record of how I see and interact with my environment. The camera allows me to ask questions—it exploits this curiosity in me and allows me to enter worlds that I perhaps would not normally enter. All of my work is based on life and being alive. [I was] almost murdered several years ago. That night changed me and the way I see the world, and so all of my work in one way or another is about life’s experiences. The beauty of photography is the translation of life onto film, and all of my photographs are an abstraction of my experiences. So, with that said, I go to places that I am curious about; perhaps I saw a picture from somewhere or heard a story about a neighborhood, and it is simple small things like that that have me buying a ticket to Detroit or in a car to Memphis, or returning to the city I grew up in to rediscover areas I have not been to in 10 years. I don’t think I will have time to do St. Louis for my night walk project but that is a city that I really want to go to. Cleveland, Milwaukee and Little Rock are places I hope to explore this year as well.
“Danette Worley, Along I-40, near Waynesville, NC, 2004”
JW: What do you shoot with? Why?
WS: KB Canham 5x7 field camera. I used to shoot a lot of 5x7 but every lab I have ever been to fucks up the negs and looks at me like I am handing them wet plates from the 19th century to process. Anyway, so I shoot all 4x5 now with a 4x5 back on the camera. There is nothing better than lugging around my heavy 4x5 camera on my shoulder for 12 hours a day, sweating under that dark cloth as i peer through the ground glass in the summer, freezing my ass off in the winter, fingers numb focusing the metal knobs, my back aching at the end of the day with a bag full of exposed film holders.
“Mrs. Blanco, New Orleans, LA, 2006”
JW: Is there a project of yours that you consider your favorite? Which one and why?
WS: I think that whatever project I am working on at the moment is my favorite. I throw myself in, all of me, everything I have, to whatever I am working on and therefore I dream about it, it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up and what I spend all day working on, thinking about, and wrestling with.
“Checks, Philadelphia, PA 2005”
JW: Will The Photographs Not Taken (“a collection of essays by photographers about the times they didn’t use their camera”) ever return? And will it ever appear in another format, i.e. book form or an exhibition?
WS: “The Photographs Not Taken” was never intended to be a blog or this Internet thing. I set up a blog for it so the contributors could read each other’s stories and see who else was participating in the project. I used a blog for this because a blog is such an easy and accessible thing, and when I did this I had no idea it would gain the popularity it did. The internet is a crazy place. I have always seen the project in the book form, a book of photographs with no pictures, and I am currently working on getting it published. As I write this I am in the beginning stages of trying to get some things started, so please please everyone just be patient, but I promise you a book soon!!!!!
“Satellite Dish, Detroit, 2009” from Down These Mean Streets
JW: I love your latest project, Down These Mean Streets. Please talk a little bit about how this project came about, and what your plans for it are.
WS: This is a project I have had in mind for many years now and something perhaps I was always too afraid to do, or was discouraged by people telling me I was a fool to do something like this. But a lot of time went by and many ideas for other projects and photographs came and went, and this project is one that kept with me and one that wouldn’t go away. It is the ones that won’t go away that are always are worth holding on to. And eventually the timing was right and I applied for and won the 2008 Tierney Fellowship with a proposal for this work.
I must admit I was surprised when I got that call and my project was selected. I give The Tierney Foundation a lot of respect for believing in me and my work; without their support this project would not have been possible. A quote by Dorothea Lange was a major influence for this work, as well as Lange’s images and the life she lived. My good friend and mentor Anne Whiston Spirn first introduced me to Lange when I was a boy and recently published the book Daring To Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (2008), which in my eyes completely redefines Lange’s work and career. Anyway, in a conversation from the 60s Lange said:
“No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually that I know of… I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare to look at ourselves.”
These lines give me chills and reach down deep into my heart and soul. They have inspired and influenced me in so many ways.
“Morris & His Son, Memphis, 2007”
JW: Are you working on anything else right now?
WS: I have too many projects! I am in the beginning phases of a new project about the newspaper industry. I look forward to shooting in daylight again and short exposures, haha! I like to move quickly and shoot a lot and at first it was a challenging transition for me to shoot at night with 8, 10 and 15 minute exposures [for “Down These Mean Streets”], and by that time I had to keep moving and could only make one exposure of a shot because I couldn’t spend 20 or 30 minutes in many of the locations I photographed for the night work or I was sure to catch a beating or get myself into some trouble. I already was pushing it with the time I spent on some corners. So I am curious to see how a year of shooting this way will influence how I shoot things in the future.
“Golf Course, Christiansted, St. Croix, 2001”