Interview with Patrick Wright

I first met Patrick Wright a while back at a Film in Baltimore meetup. We got on the discussion of taking street portraits and the courage it required, exchanging tips and past experiences. After getting home that night, I had to look up his work. Scrolling through his Flickr, I saw a brilliant portfolio of subjects on the street, all seemingly comfortable in front of the lens. It's one thing to take a portrait of a stranger, but it's an entirely different feat to make them appear like your oldest friend. Patrick does this very well.

Recently, Patrick has been working on a new series DC Metro Moments, which details his experiences riding the Nation's Capital's metro system.

We spoke with Patrick about his experiences shooting portraits on a train, his run-in with the DC mayor, getting over the fear of photographing strangers, and more!

All photos by Patrick Wright
Interview by Josh Sinn

 

Where are you originally from?

I grew up in Arlington, Virginia.

You’re now living in Washington DC. What brought you there?

I went to college in Iowa. After I graduated, I moved back to Arlington and lived with my parents. Once I saved up a little money, I moved to DC in order to get the hell out of the suburbs.

What are your first experiences with photography?

One day in kindergarten they gave us disposable cameras and set us loose. Our teacher put gold stars on the backs of the photos that she liked. I remember flipping over my photos and getting a rush of good feelings every time one had a gold star. It’s kind of the same feeling I get now when someone likes one of my photos on Instagram. I guess not much has changed since kindergarten.

Do you have any formal training in it?

Not much. I took a couple darkroom classes in high school. They were great but once the classes ended, I stopped taking photos. I tried to pick it up again in college when I signed up to be a yearbook photographer. They loaned us expensive DSLRs and paid us $1,000 per semester but I was too shy to go out and take photos.

More recently, I took another darkroom class to brush up on my printing skills.

You started off shooting street portraits, which can be nerve-wracking. How did you push yourself to talk to people and gain their trust?

I always wanted to photograph people but I had always been too afraid. The idea of walking up to someone out of the blue and asking to take their photo seemed impossible. But I started to notice examples of people who were able to pull it off. I followed blogs like The Sartorialist and a Flickr group called 100 Strangers. I realized that photographing strangers was something I could do, something I had to do, so I borrowed my wife’s camera and got started.

It was hell at first. I felt sick to my stomach when I went out to take photos. My hands shook when I held the camera. But what kept me going was the idea that if you do anything for long enough, it starts to feel normal.

I started off photographing people at Union Station because it was on my way to and from work. I made myself take photos there every day for months. I knew that if I skipped a day, I might lose the nerve to keep going. By the time I finished the project, I had photographed more than 1,000 people. My fear of photographing people mostly disappeared and I started to have fun with it.

"I realized that photographing strangers was something I could do, something I had to do"

One thing I learned was that the more I explained to people about what I was doing, the more they would trust me. I’d say, “Hi, my name is Patrick. I’m doing a photography project and I’d love to take your photo.” Then I’d tell them about the project. I’d tell them that I post the best images online and that I could email them the photos if they’d like. I’d give them my business card. I’d speak in a slow and deliberate manner and by the time I was done, they’d say, “Okay, let’s get on with it.”

Also, I shaved every morning and wore a button-down shirt to look trustworthy.


Any interesting stories from photographing strangers in your DC neighborhood?

I was taking photos at Union Station when I saw Vincent Gray, who was mayor at the time, walk past me with a security guard at his side. The mayor was drinking a milkshake through a big straw. I caught up to him and said, "Excuse me sir, could I take your photo?" For whatever reason I didn't address him as Mayor Gray or Mr. Mayor or anything that would indicate that I knew who he was. He thought about it for a second, then handed the milkshake to his security guard and told me to go ahead. The smile on his face was a forced one, but I rolled with it because I couldn’t exactly tell the mayor not to smile. After I finished taking his photo, he and his security guard went on their way. A minute later his security guard came jogging back and asked, "Do you know who that was?" I said, "The mayor?" That was good enough for him and he left.


Last year, you started a project called DC Metro Moments where you photograph people on the DC Metro. How did this idea originally come about?

Before I started the project, I was having trouble finding the time to go out and take photos. Once I finally got off work and took the metro home, it was too dark outside to take portraits. Finally, the obvious solution hit me. I could be taking photos during my commute on the metro.

I enjoyed it so much that I was soon taking photos on Friday and Saturday nights as well. It's impossible to run out of interesting subjects who are going somewhere on the metro. I’ve photographed people on their way to first dates and people on their way to court dates.


What attracts you to a specific person to photograph? How much direction are you giving to your subjects?

I follow my instincts. Sometimes it takes an hour before I find someone I’d like to photograph. If they ask, “Why me?” I might explain that it’s because I like their outfit. But the real answer is probably more like, “Because you look cool but not in a way that’s screaming for attention and I think if I pointed my camera at you, you’d do something unexpected.”

I don't like to give a lot of direction because I like to see what the subject comes up with. Photographing teenagers is the best because they need no instruction. It's usually adults who prefer to be told what to do. When someone needs direction, I them to recreate what they were doing when I approached them in the first place.

Photographing strangers on a train is certainly different than out on the street. You’re in an enclosed space that you can’t exactly leave whenever you’d like so it must make approaching people more difficult. Do you feel more nervous about peoples’ reactions on the metro than the street?

Photographing on the metro is a little more challenging but it's not too bad once you get used to it. On the street, if things get weird you can just keep walking. On the metro, you can pull out your phone and stare at it like you got an important text. Then just hop out and switch cars at the next stop.

The thing that did make me nervous was having an audience. I didn't like the idea of several people watching me as I took someone's photo, making me and the subject uncomfortable. But it turned out not to be a problem. People are more interested in their game of Candy Crush than they are in the person taking photos three feet away from them.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t bring up Bruce Davidson’s Subway. How has his work influenced your own?

It’s one of my favorite books and it has been very influential. At first, I was afraid to start my own metro project. How could my work compare to Bruce Davidson's? But that’s the thing - it can’t. Nothing can. Once I figured that out, I was able to learn from his work and find my own voice.


Why did you work with film for this project?

I would have already quit this project if I had been shooting with a digital camera. On most nights, it might be a couple hours before I get a decent shot or I might not get one at all. If I could look at the back of my camera and see my failures in real time, it would be discouraging. But with film I don’t see the results until weeks later. And by that time, I’ve already moved on.

"I would have already quit this project if I had been shooting with a digital camera"

Also, when I'm shooting with a digital camera I get caught up in technical things like making sure the image is sharp and in focus. I'm much looser when I shoot with film. Accidents happen and I embrace them.

You often use flash for your photos on the metro where, in your past work, you’ve relied on natural light. Was it difficult for you to get used to shooting with flash?

I love working with natural light but using flash has really opened up the possibilities. When I relied on natural light, I was done shooting when the sun went down. With flash I can take photos long after most people are in bed. And I can freeze action with the flash so I can catch my subjects in motion.

It's been a steep learning curve though. With flash, you’re bouncing light off everything in the frame and it’s hard to anticipate how it will bounce back. I’m slowly getting better at it but the photos are still full of surprises.

Where do you see this project going from here?

The project is still in its early stages. As it’s progressed, I’ve been drawn to different things. I recently started taking landscapes on the metro which is a new thing for me. I’m taking candid photos more often as well. Who knows - in a few weeks I might be taking selfies on the metro.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

Nope. Just one at a time for me.

Interview with Brian McSwain

The work of Brian McSwain brings me a rush of feelings that I can only recall from dreams; you know - the dreams where unfamiliar surroundings feel like home. Whether it's a beautiful, obscure dirt road or an eerily vacant street corner, something about his photos makes me feel like I've been there.

Following his work for a number of years now, I always get excited when I see a new photo from Brian so it was only natural that we got him on board for an interview. We connected with Brian to discuss his move from New Orleans to Florida, influences like Robert Adams, and so much more.

We're honored to have Brian and his work up on Cadillac Ranch Dressing!

 

Photos by Brian McSwain
Interview by Josh Sinn

Portrait of Brian McSwain by Patrick Joust

Portrait of Brian McSwain by Patrick Joust

You’re currently living in South Florida, but you’re originally from New Orleans. What was it like growing up there?

Growing up in New Orleans is one of the most precious experiences I’ve ever had. It’s home and always will be home. It was the only place I knew for much of my life and it wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how unique it is. From an early age I was able to appreciate how beautiful the city is -the old oaks, the French and Spanish architecture, and the unique atmosphere to each neighborhood. I used to ask my mom to take me for rides around the older parts of the city and I used to just look out the window and soak everything in. But there’s substance to the style. There’s resilience, a heart and soul, not only in the architecture and landscapes, but especially the people. The sense of community is healthy. I think that was heightened post Katrina.

How did you first get into photography?

It had interested me for a quit sometime before I ever picked up a camera. My earliest influence is from skate photography. I used to always check in magazines who took the photographs.

I had a period in my early twenties where I was partying a lot and that’s pretty much what I did. It was a pretty dark time and I wasn’t getting what I wanted for myself out of life. I got some help and once I quit doing what I was doing the world really opened up to me and I was able to follow through with my convictions, I needed new outlets. My stepfather had an old Nikon D60 that he shipped to me from New Orleans and I started walking around shooting really democratically. I didn’t know about Eggleston at that time or the notion of the “democratic camera” but that’s what I was doing. I fell in love instantly.

Do you have any formal education in photography?

I don’t, but I wish I did if only for the opportunity to meet other photographers. Plus that would mean I would have picked up a camera while I was in high school instead of my late twenties.

With no formal education, what were some types of ways you built your skill in photography?

I started out shooting digital, which allowed me to take tons of photographs, which I could instantly assess. I forced myself to shoot on fully manual mode, that really helped me learn how to be technically sound as well. I think shooting digital really sped up the learning curve. I also constantly look at work by other photographers. I study what I like, but I also pay attention to what I don’t like and learn from that as well. But more than anything, constantly photographing has helped me the most. I learn so much from my own mistakes. I spend a decent amount of time studying and editing my own work. I can honestly say I work hard at my photography and at times I’m maybe too hard on myself. I always want to be evolving and getting better. It seems that making a good photography is pretty hard to do though.  

Who are some of your biggest influences in photography?

Robert Adams is someone whose photographs (and writings) I keep coming back to more than any others.  I have the most consistent emotional response to his work and I think watching and reading interviews with him really helped me connect to what he is trying to portray in his photographs - it’s subtle, yet effective, it’s quiet, but moving, hopeful, but often sad. While I don’t know him, I feel some connection to him and his work, and maybe that’s the mark of a great artist. I’m a fan of the man as well, not only the photographer. Todd Hido, Luigi Ghirri, and Saul Leiter are also personal favorites.

 "Photography has caused me to pay attention and it seems to be a switch I can’t turn off."

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the photographers I follow on all the social media platforms. So I just want to say thank you for putting your work out there. I also can’t leave this question without mentioning a friend of mine out in Texas who is one of the most talented photographers I know and a huge influence. He goes by @kleeche on instagram. I value our conversations about photography a great deal.  He keeps a pretty anonymous profile with his photographs, no website or blog. His photographs are so well composed, clever, and thoughtful - always a source of joy.

Moving from New Orleans to Florida, has photography made your new surroundings more familiar to you?

Photography has caused me to pay attention and it seems to be a switch I can’t turn off. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent driving and walking around Florida in places only photography would have taken me. I’m hyper sensitive to my surroundings because of photography. While I do feel connected to my surroundings, I don’t feel at home in Florida. I still feel like a visitor. But I think that has more to do with being from New Orleans than living in Florida.

When you go out shooting, do you have specific shots in mind or do you let them happen as they do?

Usually I’ll have a general area in mind, a street or section of town, but sometimes I do have a specific shot in mind, which is usually accompanied by a certain time of day I want it taken (usually around dawn). Nothing beats a long walk though. I’ve discovered I can drive around as much as I want, but everything changes once I get out of the car.

"I never want to pigeon hole myself into one style of photography."

Much of your Florida work depicts natural landscapes, often with very subtle marks from human activity: lightly traveled dirt roads, hand-painted sign, smoke stacks over the horizon. These works reflect a lot of what the new topographics movement was about. Would you say that you’re heavily influenced by the work of the movement?

It’s what I currently enjoy shooting the most and it’s conducive for long drives and walks which is just as pleasurable to the process as the actually picture taking. Wessel, Shore, and Adams are all photographers whose work I’ve spent a great deal of time with, so their influence is there. But I never want to pigeon hole myself into one style of photography. Lately I’ve noticed a shift where I’ve opened up my photography to not being so dependent on a scene.

Why do you choose to primarily shoot with film?

For the way it looks and that’s pretty much it. I do enjoy the process, while not as instantly gratifying; I do feel more connected to my work. I think film, especially medium format film really lends itself to the topographical subjects we touched on earlier because of it’s tonal range and ability to capture detail. Scanning and post processing can be a very tedious process as well.

Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?

There are five counties in the south central portion of Florida called The Florida Heartland which I’m particularly drawn to, and I’ve recently started to focus much of my work there with the intention of making a project. I’ve got a few photographs, mostly landscapes that are in the working edit thus far – it’s in the very beginning stages. The process of making a project has presented a whole different set of challenges to my work. I don’t want to just collect 30-40 “good” photographs from this area and call it a project, so I’m going to take my time with it and pay attention to what this area of Florida gifts me and see what evolves. With that being said I try not to let ideas get in the way and always keep “seeing” at the forefront of my photography.

Any parting words?

I just want to say thanks, Josh, for asking me to do this. I’d also like to thank my girlfriend for being so supportive and understanding of my photography. And to anyone who has given their time to look at my photographs and share their thoughts with me about them, thank you so much.

Interview with Audrey Gatewood

Entering her sophomore year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Audrey Gatewood already has a distinct voice present in her photography. With the majority of her work shot with black and white 35mm film, her photos depict quiet, fleeting moments of the people around her. Gatewood spoke to Cadillac Ranch Dressing about many things including the Baltimore School of the Arts, her valued time working at UMBC's Special Collections, and her love for writing.

We're honored to have Audrey Gatewood featured on CRD!

All photos by Audrey Gatewood
Interview by Josh Sinn

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Where were you born and where do you currently call home?

I was born, raised and currently live in Baltimore, Maryland.

For high school, you went to the Baltimore School for the Arts and focused on the theater production curriculum. What was it like going to BSA?

The power of the school, I think, is in the respect students have for each other. Even if you didn’t like someone personally, you turn to their artwork or see them on stage and can respect them. That's what makes the school unique; that respect that comes from getting to see your peers heartfelt work. There is also a really intense and colorful environment that’s created because everyone is getting to come of age through their art. So it’s interesting, you have all these feelings that are raw and new, and everyone at the school is being taught to channel those into art, together. It is really a great place in my opinion.

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How did photography come about?

The summer before 9th grade I was constantly bored out of my mind. I mean it was painful. I had a camera and had somehow acquired a tripod. So I started taking “conceptual” self portraits. Looking back on them now, oh man, they are awful. Very embarrassing. But I got hooked. That work somehow segued into the work I do now, and here we are.

How long have you been shooting photos now?

I’ve been shooting for maybe four years now.

Arriving at UMBC, you decided to major in interdisciplinary studies, essentially creating your own major of social documentary photography. Why did you choose to go that route rather than the typical photography major?

I wanted to widen the range of my knowledge. This major will require me to take more academic classes than a photography major. For photography, I feel like formal learning will only help me so much. No one needs to push me to do photography, I’ll always be holding my camera and learning through practice this way. The other subjects I want to learn about, I’d like more pushing from a teacher, so I thought the change was for the best.

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Working at UMBC’s Special Collections, you must see quite a lot of impressive work by some of the most renowned photographers of the last century. Who are some of your photographic influences?

Working at special collections has just been excellent, having access to so many different artists work. It feels like some sort of photo-book-playground to me. I’d really like to achieve something that's gentle and timeless like Sally Mann's photos, with the character of Graciela Iturbide's photos and the weight of Sebastiao Salgado’s work. Oh, and the composition of Alex Webb, haha. I have a lot of work to do.

"No one needs to push me to do photography, I’ll always be holding my camera and learning through practice this way."

Much of your work is shot on black and white 35mm. What draws you to it?

I find it takes away the concept of time to some extent.  Black and white film is so classic, it removes the distraction of technology and hones your focus to the content of the photo. Does that make sense? It's just a different aesthetic. There is a certain softness to it that is hard to mimic with digital, mostly in the way the highlights glow. On a separate note, being in the darkroom lets me spend time with my images in a hands-on way, again, something you just don't get with Photoshop.

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Your photos often depict young adults in natural or calm situations: teens laying on the beach, intimate couples, friends relaxing on porches. What attracts you to these moments?

Moments of stillness, clarity, tenderness, so on, are where I find beauty. I find the world so fast-paced, to be able to stop time and make things still for a second is the gift photography gives us. Maybe that's a clichéd statement but I mean it. These pictures aren’t necessarily taken during an overall relaxing day, or even an overall hour, they’re taken during fleeting moments of meditation. Those are the moments I like. I don’t want every moment to be serene or anything, that’d be boring, but I like to try and capture the little hints of a suspended moment or of self reflection in others. 

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Do you ever set out to go shooting or is most of your work shot from your own experiences?

Photography makes me get out and do things I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Would I usually go with my friends to, for instance, a skate park? No, I don’t skate, but I will definitely go if I can bring my camera. I don’t go out shooting per se, I follow my friends or acquaintances and shoot what they’re doing. So I’m shooting from experience, but it's an experience I may not have had if I didn’t have a camera.

"I find the world so fast-paced, to be able to stop time and make things still for a second is the gift photography gives us."

You’ve also started doing a series of interviews alongside photos of the interviewees. How did this come about?

This just came about from my own curiosity and nosiness, haha. For instance, my friend Lexei recently had a baby. When she was pregnant, I had so many questions about what she was feeling and specifics of her situation. Photography gives me that license to say ‘Hey, can I come take some pictures of you and ask you a thousand questions about yourself,’ you know? I’ve done a few other interviews besides Lexei’s, but I took them off the internet because they were pretty old and I know I can do better. I love interviewing almost as much as taking the pictures. It’s such a privilege to get to have someone open up to you.


Is writing something you’d like to incorporate more with your photography?

Oh, definitely. The context from writing can add so much weight to a series. I’m really looking forward to doing more series with text.

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Any plans in the works for future projects?

Oh yeah, I have a lot going on right now. I’m at a really fun turning point. I just started a great internship with City Paper in Baltimore which is pushing me in ways I really need to be pushed. I have a few series I’m just starting now. I’ll be working with the refugee center doing a photo series, and on the opposite end of the spectrum I’m also working with a snowball stand. Its going to be a transformative summer.