Interview #12: Arden Wray
CUS: First of all, the most standard question in the book: how did you get into photography?
Arden Wray: I’ve always taken pictures. When I was little, I had a point-and-shoot camera my parents gave to me and I used to shoot rolls of the sky, my feet, and buckets full of minnows at my cottage in the summer—careless little kid stuff.
I think the first photographs I ever really felt proud of, though, were ones I took on a pocket digital in Zambia when I was sixteen. I was living in a school for young Zambian girls affected by HIV/AIDS with a group of other young Canadian women to make a short documentary film. My photos from the first week of the trip were snapshots—almost like pictures you’d take at a summer camp: all us girls in the sun, playing cards, holding the camera out away from us and all squeezing into the shot. One week in, however, when we started conducting interviews with the schoolgirls we’d befriended, the truth about the severity of their situations started to unfold. I learned that many of my friends had been sexually assaulted, had lived on the streets, and were HIV-positive. While I’d become so close to them right off the bat, it really confused me to think that these girls could still have any interest in playing cards and reading magazines with me when they’d been through such unimaginable hardship. I think it was at that point when I started to really use my camera—almost as a means of putting some distance between me and my new friends so I could really look at them and try to understand. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be close to them; it was that I was confused and overwhelmed. That little bit of distance from looking through the camera instead of directly at them provided some relief for me. The photographs from that trip reflect that experience, I think—that sense of wonder and adoration and fear. Since then, I’ve kept on observing and learning and trying to understand through my camera.
CUS: Tell us a little about where you live.
AW: I live in a little apartment on a sunny street in the Plateau in Montreal, which I share with my three of my best girlfriends who I’ve known since I was twelve. We have wood floors, open windows, and lots of love. The kitchen is always messy and there are countless pairs of shoes scattered around at any given moment. On our living room wall there are a pair of antlers and a portrait of John Wayne. I have a big brass bed with mismatched floral sheets.
CUS: If you could photograph any person (past or present) who would you choose?
AW: Probably my family—I’d love to take portraits of each of its members. I’ve been trying to more actively document my family lately, but for some reason I get nervous. I have visions of my dream picture for each one—ultimate portraits with little bits of the fantastic mixed in, but it’s hard to orchestrate when I could take the pictures since most of my family lives in Toronto, where I grew up.
CUS: What kind of camera do you enjoy using the most?
AW: I really love my Pentax K1000. It’s a solid old film camera that I use most of the time.
CUS: Do you always have preconceived concepts of what you want to shoot?
AW: Absolutely not! Totally the opposite. Most of my favorite photographs are a result of me carrying my camera with me and waiting for beautiful moments to happen, then catching them when they do. To me, it’s much more about seeing than about making.
CUS: Do you have a favorite subject you like to shoot? And why?
AW: I really love taking pictures of people and of mess. I am endlessly fascinated by people and I think I have a knack for getting to the root of them quite quickly—I am fast to earn trust and make friends. In my photographs, I’m always seeking to show people at their most earnest, most vulnerable. I never want to take advantage of that, but I think it’s so powerful to see and it’s important in building a connection between the viewer and the subject. I do like messes too—that’s a recent thing. Big piles of junk, details in people’s homes, beautiful garbage—maybe it’s just a phase, but that’s definitely where my eye is being drawn lately.
CUS: Women seem to be a reoccurring subject in your photographs. Would you say that women play a big role in your life?
AW: Absolutely. I’ve always been surrounded by a strong female network and I think it's made me more outwardly feminine than a lot of other girls who might’ve grown up with brothers or with other more active male influences. My father is a film producer and has always worked very long hours, so I spent most of my childhood with my mother, a group of close female friends, my grandmother, and my mother’s partner at the time. I feel very comfortable around women.
CUS: What have you always wanted to photograph but have thought was too hard or difficult to execute?
AW: My fantasy project I’ve been rolling around for a while now is a series of portraits of all the men I’ve loved in my life. I would take a portrait of each one in a place which is significant to my relationship with them. I’d want it to be completely exhaustive, every boy I’ve fancied from junior kindergarten onwards, so it’d definitely take a lot of time and resources to actually pull it off how I’ve envisioned it.
CUS: What’s playing on your iTunes right now?
AW: All I want to listen to lately is the Tragically Hip. Sounds like springtime in Canada.
CUS: If you could go anywhere in the world to take photographs where would you go?
AW: The Southern USA. I’ve got a soul connection to the South. I love that bizarre sense of faded glamour, tackiness, history, and warmth it’s got all mixed together. It’s my dream to get in a car with some friends at some point in the next couple of years and hit the road, taking our time touring through back roads and funny little towns. We’d end the trip in Tennessee and go to see Graceland, the Grand Ol’ Opry, and Dollywood, and I would shoot one hundred rolls of film.
CUS: How much time do you generally spend on a shoot?
AW: Not very much. If I’m planning a shoot at all, I’ll almost always just arrange a time to go to somebody’s house, look around and see what looks interesting, then sit them down in front of it. I’m usually in and out within an hour tops.
CUS: What is your favorite time of day to shoot?
AW: Very early morning is the best light, but I have a hard time getting out of bed.
CUS: What are your other hobbies besides photography?
AW: I like collecting things. My favorite collection is a bunch of slides for my Viewfinder. The best ones I have are of pre-historical animals made out of clay and stills from an old cowboy movie. I also sell vintage clothes and am interested in astrology.
CUS: Do you feel that your mood affects the type of photographs you produce on a particular day?
AW: Of course! Happy people see the best in things, whereas hardly anything looks nice when you’re down in the dumps.
CUS: If every photograph should contain one key element, what would it be in your opinion?
CUS: What sort of themes do you try to explore through your photographs? Is there any one in particular in which you try to convey often?
AW: I find that most of my works seem to be autobiographical. Usually what I’m interested in is something that I need to understand or work through for myself, or a question I need to answer and my photographs can give me a way of doing that.
CUS: What are 5 things you can’t live without?
3. Floral patterns
4. Flea markets
CUS: What is the thing you like the least about photography? The most?
AW: The thing I like the least is how easy it is to make silly mistakes with major consequences. It’s happened a million times where I’ve(unknowingly) loaded my film incorrectly, shot a whole roll I felt excited about, and then tried to take it out to get it developed and realized none of my photos actually took. That’s an awful feeling. The thing I like the most is making a record of beautiful moments.
CUS: Do all your photographs go through some sort of post-processing treatment? And if so what kind of effect do you try to produce through Photoshop/other post-processing tools?
AW: I used to always shoot analog and then edit my photos digitally with Adobe Lightroom, but lately I’ve learned to try to rely on the quality of the negative itself.
CUS: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you on a photo shoot?
AW: I have a curse. It’s become sort of a joke amongst my friends, but every time I’ve started a new photo series which is dependent on the relationship between my subjects they’ve rapidly deteriorated. In the fall, I did a series which documented the romantic relationships of two of my close friends, both of whom had been with their boyfriends for over a year. Shortly after I finished, both couples broke up. In January, I started a new series about a house full of roommates. One week into shooting, one of the roommates dropped out of school, moved out of the house, and moved back to Chicago. My friends live in fear of me wanting to take pictures of them with their boyfriends or girlfriends, and even if it’s silly, I get nervous about it too!
CUS: What is something that no one knows about you?
AW: I really, really don’t like vegetables. This is a tricky secret to hide when most of your friends are vegetarian and/or vegan.
CUS: What are some of your favorite films?
AW: Some of my absolute favorites are the Virgin Suicides, Harold and Maude, Almost Famous, the Royal Tenenbaums, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and the Dreamers.
CUS: Do you have a favorite photographer?
AW: I don’t think I could choose just one, but I’m definitely in love with William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin, and Ryan McGinley. They’ve all been huge influences for me.
CUS: Do you believe that with the rise of digital photography the phrase “everyone can be a photographer” is true?
AW: To some degree. I think everybody can learn how to take a technically sharp picture, but there’s a difference between using your hand and using your eye. That’s much harder to learn.
CUS: What is your favorite photograph that you’ve taken?
AW: It’s always changing, but right now I think it’s this one. It’s a picture of one of my best friends laying in my bed, and I just like that it looks exactly how it felt.
CUS: What are your plans for the summer?
AW: I’ll be taking a couple of art history classes in May and June and hopefully finding a job in Montreal, maybe at the deli around the corner from my apartment serving up coffee and calzones. In July, I’m going to spend some time with my Mom at her house in the country and work as a waitress in her cafe out there. I’m also going to set up a little shop with vintage clothes in the beautiful attic space above the cafe, hopefully learn to drive (long overdue), take lots of pictures in the sun and the fields around the house, and maybe even learn to sew and play the banjo. Those are some of my goals.
CUS: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? Do you think that photography will still be a big part of your life?
AW: Ideally, I’ll be living somewhere warmer than here, own a shop with a mix of hand-picked vintage and my own designs, and be taking and exhibiting pictures on the side, maybe even doing some magazine portrait-editorial work. I hope I’ll have my own family by then and live in a house with a garden.
CUS: What advice would you give to your fellow up-and-coming photographers?
AW: Shoot constantly! Be bold! If you see something that you want to take a picture of, take it! It’s hard to be brave, but often it pays off with the best shots.
CUS: Our last interviewee, Carles Rodrigo, wants to know: Do you think film photography will disappear and would you like this to happen?
AW: I’m worried it might and I certainly hope it doesn’t. I will fight that very hard.
CUS: Last but not least, what would you like to ask our next Interviewee?
AW: What is your favorite photograph of all time taken by another photographer?