“Good pictures happen when I feel comfortable in my skin.”
- 24 minute read
- Published May 6, 2018
- Portrait by Ryan Pfluger
- Interview by Mo
Ifirst talked to Amy Harrity, a San Francisco-based photographer, almost a year ago. At the time, our conversation revolved around patience and the attachment one can have to photography, regardless how engaging or destructive it could be. We recently had the chance to catch up and see how her reignited relationship with photography has shifted.
Part 1, Summer 2017
Mo: What's new in Amy's world?
Amy: [laughing] Not too much! I've been working on a project this summer with Hemispheres Magazine that I'm shooting over the course of a month in San Francisco. I just did some New York Times stuff, and a job with Adidas in New York. I don't know! I'm just trekking along.
Mo: I remember seeing a photo of yours in The New York Times' Arts & Leisure section of an interesting guy.
Amy: Yeah, his name is Roscoe Mitchell. He's an avant garde, contemporary jazz composer. He's the head of music at Mills College out here in Oakland. I tend to shoot a lot of younger people so it's pretty exciting to get the opportunity to shoot older folks.
Mo: In what ways was the experience similar to communicating with an younger subject?
Amy: I think with an older subject its about their comfort level. With younger people, I try and push the envelope in seeing what I can get them to do. The past year-and-a-half or so, I've wanted to avoid the stoic quality [found] in my images. I've been focusing on directing people and asking them to do and try things. It's like a game, seeing how far you can push people; seeing what you can get them to do. I think specifically with Roscoe, I'm asking him to do things and I can tell if he doesn't want to do something. The conversation we had through the shoot is good pictures happen when people feel comfortable in their skin. The first shot I did, I tried to get him to sit backwards on his chair while straddling the chair instead of sitting on it. He did it for a second and was like, "I don't like this," and I assured him that he doesn't have to do it then. [laughing]
Amy: I'm always hyper aware of how the subject is feeling. If they're awkward then I feel awkward. It just doesn't make good pictures.
Mo: And its very transparent. You can witness when someone is comfortable in an image. You don't need words to explain the energy in a photograph.
Amy: I got this really great shot of him as he was walking away from me and I was like, "Hey, wait! Will you turn around really quick?" And he turned so there was a little bit of movement in the photo and you catch his eye. Getting that authentic moment of a shot is challenging.
Mo: It's hard to do that. But other than that, how has summer treated you work-wise and personally, compared to last summer?
Amy: This summer is good. It's a really hectic summer for me. I got out of town last weekend and went to Tahoe and got to make some photos which was really nice. I feel like, lately, I've been really wanting to make photos away from where I live, and getting the time to travel is challenging. So having the opportunity to leave a separate a little bit I think is really, really special because it lets me detach.
Mo: Is it detaching for the sake of detachment, or is it more about finding an area that's challenging to you because you're not familiar with it?
Amy: I think it's both. What I like about making pictures is a detachment from reality. My pictures are not steeped in real life. They take you out to a different place. If I'm feeling really bogged down by normal life stuff like finances, business, whatever, then its really hard for me to get into that headspace. So I think simply being away or being in a new place can trigger that for me. Does that make sense?
Mo: It definitely does. I would say the same for myself as well. There's so many nuanced adversities that freelancers face and sometimes we don't realise the ability to detach away from them.
Amy: Definitely. It's easy to be distracted.
Mo: I’d like to talk about your college years and what transpired during then.
Amy: Totally. I moved from Louisville, Kentucky to San Francisco when I was 20-years-old. I had been in college at University of Louisville where I was an anthropology major, fine art major, communications major, and I only went for two years! [both laughing] It was a lot of switching up what I was studying every semester, and not feeling the desire to be in school. But I really don't want to knock school. I think it's important for some people. I think I regret about not doing it is the community you can foster, and having that experimental time which is so valuable. The experimental time for me was in my 20s which everyone saw—it involved a lot of bad photos I made that were on the internet! I am a little bit jealous of having that intimate, experimental phase that school can offer but I don't think it's a necessity.
Amy: I came to San Francisco for the first time when I was 20 and fell in love with it. On day two I decided to drop out of school to move here. I wasn't taking photos before I moved here, but I was interested in art my whole life—I painted when I was younger and my mom is a painter. So I picked up a camera and started taking it everywhere and wondered maybe I could work in a studio.
Amy: My first job was interning for an architectural photographer, eventually doing studio management and assisting for him, and then I began working in other studios, assisting, and it snowballed into where I'm at now.
Mo: Were your parents supportive of the move? Where you in a financially comfortable position to make the leap?
Amy: None of the above. [both laughing] My parents were pissed at me. Oh man, they were really upset. My family is pretty conservative, and I feel like they've come a long way the past decade, but their thinking 11 years ago was much more linear. And San Francisco is the liberal capital of the nation. [Mo laughing] I was moving in with a boyfriend and they were not okay with that so it caused a big divide with my parents, but we're in a good place now.
Mo: What series of events led them to realise that you weren't settling for anything else?
Amy: A harsh line of independence was drawn and I was kind of like, "I'm doing this my way," and, "I don't need help or money," so for me it was a sink or swim [situation]. I think once I really starting working at it and getting assignments, they were impressed and excited. My mum is super supportive and calls me asking, "How's the best photographer in the world today?” She keeps clippings of every time I’m in a newspaper or magazine, so they're happy and proud. I have a cousin who's older than me and is a photographer and him mentoring me and my mom having a relationship with him opened my parents to the possibility that you can make a living and be a stable person, opened their mind a little as well.
Amy: Also, it's not their fault. Their parents were coming out the great depression and the way that my dad was raised involved a really noble and hard working mindset. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It's different now. Obviously with the internet and the expansion of technology has allowed people to have different lifestyles and find new ways of making money.
Amy: But that's the answer to your first part of the question. To answer the second part, I didn't have money.
Mo: But you had a boyfriend, right?
Amy: Yeah, but he didn't have money! [both laughing] I think I saved $2,000 to move, so basically enough for a security deposit and first month's rent at the time—basically enough to get a place and figure everything else when I got there.
Mo: How were those first couple of weeks in San Francisco?
Amy: It's funny because the apartment I got, which I was in for five years, my old roommate still has the place and she still has this cheap rent that's $1650 for a two bedroom and I keep wondering, "Why didn't I stay?" [both laughing] But I remember me, my boyfriend at the time, and our friend, who we went to high school with, all decided to move so they were going to pack up everything while I moved out here two weeks early to find an apartment. I started looking at places and I went to first open house—mind you, this was pre second tech boom—and there was a line out the door with people way more grown up than me. I didn't have checks with me, nor a credit report, or all the paperwork you should have when you're doing this stuff. So I called the guys in Kentucky to send me credit reports and papers I needed. They sent me all that stuff and I had an appointment the next day and I called the landlord asking what time his first appointment was. He told me it was 9 a.m. so I asked if I could see him at 8. [Mo laughing] So this guy met me at 8 a.m. and I had all the paperwork needed and told him I'll take the place; you don't need to see anyone else today. So that's how I got my first place, by being super aggressive.
Amy: Our first year was hard and we were very insular. I had the desire to go out and explore. We were home sick and didn't know anyone so they ended up moving back and I stayed. Its pretty wild because I'll have moments where I think to myself, I can't believe I pulled this off.
Mo: And look at where it has gotten you.
Amy: Yeah! I didn't know that I would have a career in photography. I had no idea. I was interested in doing fashion stuff when I first came out and I did a semester or two at Academy of Art which was a giant mistake, because they're a total for-profit school. Nonetheless, once I started shooting it was mainly fashion stuff.
Mo: When you first started to get the idea of being a working photographer, did you ever imagine that you'd be at the place where you are now?
Amy: Yeah, I imagined it. [laughing] I feel like that's a key to success. You have to be able to visualise it—that was the main driving force. I would look at other people, and want the kind of jobs they were shooting. I still don't feel like I'm where I want to be, but I think you can ask anyone that and they would say the same thing unless they're Annie Leibovitz or something! I'm not sure if its mentally or emotionally healthy to think about what's next. Even when something good happens, you're looking around the corner like, "Okay, but what happens after this?"
Mo: You're never satisfied even when you think you are.
Amy: I definitely have this conversation with photographers: Job comes in and you're thinking that this is amazing, that you're incredible, and that this will be the best. And then as you talk to producers, do the estimate, get on set, and when you whittle down to the end of it, you're going, really? That was it? I was so excited. [laughing] It sounds really cynical but maybe that's just the way life is.
Mo: I think it's healthy, because you need that optimism to fuel your interest in getting along with the entire process until the end. If you were cynical at the start then maybe you wouldn't have the energy to really complete the shoot in a palatable way. But what do I know? I'm too cynical for my age.
Amy: It's those always happy optimistic people you can't trust. [both laughing]
Mo: What are a few things you haven't obtained yet that you're hoping to achieve, personally or creatively?
Amy: I want to be on bigger productions. Sometimes I feel like I'd eat into my own budget to make the shoot better or try and get people to help me out. I want more support for the productions that I'm brought on to. I've been on a few jobs like that where I'm here to shoot and everything else is taken care of. That's always more exciting. Another thing is finding ways to generate income when things get slow so I'm not wondering how I'm going to eat.
Mo: It's funny because there's a "when" to that statement, not an "if". It's important to condition yourself to the idea that things will get slow one way or another as a freelancer.
Amy: Yeah, and freelancing can be pretty isolating.
Mo: In what ways?
Amy: I feel like you work alone all day. A lot of times I'm just at my desk, by myself, and realise that by 5 o'clock I haven't spoken out loud to anyone all day. [both laughing] My husband would come home and I'd tell him that I literally haven't said anything to anyone all day today, so I think it can be isolating in that sense. I think that it's also isolating in the sense of being your own business, and thinking about your work and yourself and what kind of pictures to take and how to put them out there, and what are people thinking of when they look at your work. You're kind of caught in a mental loop of yourself. The question was goals, right? [laughing]
Amy: So yeah, I would say that my goals are split into fiscally practical goals and then I have work oriented goals. I've been looking into a lot of residencies and I just finished applying to one last night, which goes back to what I was saying earlier about being somewhere new and carve out a time to make work that's not supposed to get me work—just turning all of that off and make work for myself. That kind of decoupling hasn't been a conscious thing. It just kind of happened naturally with freelancing where photographing has been work. I guess the desire to get away and make something for yourself is a goal.
Mo: I feel like I do the opposite of that. Any project or collection of work that I feel like creating usually fits into the mold of a possible client.
Amy: So you find yourself making work because you think it would appeal to a client?
Mo: Yeah, everything I do has a destination—from this interview series to my photographic work. But there's still the motive of making something enjoyable and beneficial for myself and others.
Amy: If I did a residency in some ways it would have a destination because I have to pitch the work I want to make to them since it would have to have a thought out thesis.
Part 2, Spring 2018
Amy: You just moved to LA, right?
Mo: I did! I moved two months ago.
Amy: How are you liking it?
Mo: It's good in the sense that I'm glad to not be in Detroit, and that I'm in a place that's creatively and visually stimulating. But in terms of work, it's been interesting in the sense that its been slow. I'm just getting my bearings together and finding my place in the creative community. The financial aspect of coming here is a little polarising since my rent is fucking ridiculous. [laughing]
Amy: I would say stick it out. LA is a working town—there's a lot of work if you meet the right people. The city is all about who you know which is kind of awful [laughing], but once your foot is in the door, I feel like you can get work.
Mo: Yeah, that idea has comforted the transition. For now, I've been reaching out to people to assist and I'm glad that most of them are familiar with my site, so that creates a small world I can focus on. I think the biggest thing I've reminded myself of here is patience.
Amy: Yeah, two months isn't that long! [both laughing]
Mo: It isn't! Its funny how naive I was, and still am, thinking that work will roll in once I'm here. Assisting at least gives me a baseline of work to hold on while I wait for an email threads with possible clients to come into fruition. Who knows when you'll actually shoot for someone after they've responded positively to your outreach. Maybe it's a week or year from that first email thread.
Amy: It could come into fruition two years from now. It's so crazy because that's something I've been realising now, too. I've had such a lack of patience. For so many years, everything I did was to get a certain kind of job. I was wondering why isn't it happening. But then, over time it starts to happen. It takes so long to get into peoples minds.
Mo: Do you find that there was a trend of thinking that allowed things to happen? I usually feel like when you're not thinking about something, that's when it usually happens.
Amy: I was joking around the other day saying that the key to realising my dreams is to give up on them. [both laughing] I don't actually mean giving up; I mean not letting my worth be measured by my success. Even since the last time I talked to you, I was in the process of dealing with that. Over the past year I've really let go of a lot in terms of how I measure success. It's been very liberating in terms of me saying, I've tried my hardest, so I'll let my work speak for itself and send it off, instead of being so impatient. I do think its a psychological thing. So now when things happen that I'm excited about, I didn't anticipate them to happen.
Mo: It's a very powerful thing to get a hold of regardless your financial situation. In an industry that encourages such a free-willed and non-linear way of thinking, you have to have a stable way of processing every change that occurs.
Amy: For me, it's just learning how to let photography be a part of me but not define me. Because naturally you'll have weeks, months, and maybe a year, where you're uninspired or things aren't happening the way you want them to. But if you can get back to "that place" where you're excited about what you're doing and it doesn't feel like a job, that's when things really open up.
Mo: Have you had the chance to do that recently?
Amy: I have! I mentioned when we last talked that I really wanted to get away and go somewhere different to solely make work. In January I planned this personal shoot in Mexico City that I've been thinking about doing for a year. I finally blew the money and it was incredible. I wanted to shoot around this architect who is somewhat of an enigma, [and cannot be named in this interview] even when researching the locations and his body of work and figuring out logistics, I couldn't do from here. I had to wait until I was in Mexico City because of all the protection around his work.
Select images from Mexico City
Mo: How did you come across his work?
Amy: I really don't know how I saw it. When I found it, though, I became really inspired and wanted to make photography that interacts with his work. So I did the personal project and Tidal Magazine ended up picking it up and will run a small feature on it.
Amy: The shoot was really transformative. I feel like I got back to "that place". I remember saying on the shoot that I don't care if anyone sees these pictures; this just feels like its for me. I haven't really done much with the pictures [laughing] but I should since a lot of people came out to Mexico City to help me out.
Mo: That reminds me of what we talked about before—creating work for a destination. It's so liberating to be in a space where the destination is where it started from—you. I've thought about that recently and had to ask myself if I would still do these interviews if no one was able to read them. I still haven't found the answer to that.
Amy: I remember that part of our conversation, too, because I'm the same way. For as a long as since I've discovered photography, and made it a profession, everything has had a destination or end goal in mind. And kind of back to what I was saying—giving up on that concept created so much space for me to do something because I like it. Mexico City was an intense experience, though.
Amy: I did a lot of research on his architectural principles, which revolve around beauty, solitude, mythicism, and how the spaces are extremely ethereal. I don't know how to explain it, but it's like you're watching the earth from another planet. The first place that we scouted were these six massive colour blocked towers that are in the middle of two freeways, which you can kind of walk around. You can see a Chili's, Bed Bath & Beyond, but you feel like like you are on mars because the towers are next to them and these freeways. I had a very emotional response to being in his spaces. He actually coined the term emotional architecture which I didn't know until after the trip.
Mo: Did you see anything there that made you want to not take a picture, but observe it?
Amy: [laughing] The purpose of being there was to shoot so not really. We did tour his chapel and the nuns made us give them our phones and cameras. It was an hour-and-a-half tour of the space and there were a few moments where I thought about taking a picture since I still had a camera under my jacket, but, A, I didn't want to piss these nuns off, and, B, it's really nice to experience something that you won't have a photo of. Everything's kind of compartmentalised in his rooms so they lead you into other spaces, which becomes a sort of reveal, and I was having some weird spiritual moments there. I'm an Atheist, so that's a lot coming from me. [both laughing]
Amy: I remember seeing the tagline on the document of the interview when you first sent it to me, and it said, "Good pictures happen when people feel comfortable in their skin." I realised on this trip it's the opposite of that. [laughing] Good pictures happen when I feel comfortable in my skin.
Mo: You have to be comfortable in order for the other person to be comfortable.
Amy: Totally. Something tangible I got from that shoot was being comfortable in my skin and being excited about what I was doing and experiencing, which made the team of people I was working with feed off my energy.
Mo: What have you done to make yourself comfortable before a shoot?
Amy: Its about not being worried if the person wants to leave or doesn't have enough time. It's not necessarily something I do before, but more so during—not letting the other party dictate how much time I need to get the work I want or being scared to ask someone to do something for the shot I want.
Mo: So, how do you look at the future now compared to before?
Amy: Before I had really clear markers that I had to hit to gauge success. And now it doesn't feel that linear. Photography and what it means to me and what I enjoy about it is going to ebb and flow over time, which is okay. It's never going to be dead—it'll evolve into new things. I feel positive about the future. This might be a tangent, but I've been thinking about photography—not as my career and not even something as I do—but more as being archival. Its this thing that I've done that's been defined my life. I thought it was defining because it was a career but within it I keep finding very surprising things. For example, and this sounds really silly, but my dog passed away in December. And I was heartbroken because it was very sudden and I had him for 13 years. It sent me into this two week spiral of looking at old photos and looking at myself 13 years ago when I got him. I never make small prints like the ones that you'd get from Walgreens, but it sent me into this loop where I spent a week printing photos. Not because they're cool photos to put into my [portfolio] book, but because of the nostalgia that they brought me and archived my life.
Mo: I remember looking through my phone's camera roll looking for comfort on a bad day, and it reminded me of what you're talking about—how archival photography is. It also reminded me of how important it is to focus on the moment you currently have because how you photograph that is going to tell you how you felt about it. As cliché as it sounds, photography reveals a lot about yourself. I remember my first attempt at moving to LA two years ago and seeing how warm the tones were in those image compared to everything else was. And even with photos I took two weeks ago, I asked myself why is everything so dark? I wonder what we subconsciously tell ourselves in the photos we make.
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
- Cool dog leashes
Any type of pasta.
Your most used app?
What've you been reading lately?
Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Hold Still by Sally Mann, and everything by Elena Ferrente.
Ecuador, Namibi, and Portugal are on my visit list.
What question(s) are you tired of being asked?
Is “x” a good camera?
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