An interview with photographer Noah Grey
Ladies and Gentleman, I am pleased to post Noah Grey's answers to the questions you asked in our announcement last week.
Self described as "31, Dublin, photographer, writer, musician, programmer, gay, survivor, oddball, and mostly harmless," Mr. Noah Grey was one of the first members of Photographica. His touching stories and excellent photography played a significant role in shaping the future of this website. Without Noah, this website would have taken a very different course.
Thank you all for asking these brilliant questions; and thank you Noah for agreeing to this interview. And now... on to the interview...
ROCKADEE: Noah, Do You Have A Favorite Walk Around Lens...If So What Is It?
Noah Grey : If I had to pick, I suppose I'd least want to go without my telephoto zoom lens (currently the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM). I love to get as close as I can to subjects and visually isolate them in a particular way, and that lens is probably the best for it overall.
chef009: Which one item of equipment would you say is the most important to you[?]
NG: Eh... it's wonderful to have great equipment, and gawd knows I love the Canon 5D I use now - but quite honestly, I could learn (and have learned) to be happy with much less. The greatest camera in the world won't make great photos without a photographer behind it who knows how to do so... my most important gear will always be the double-lens camera built into my head.
wilk, northstar: Would you give a brief walk through your work flow?
NG: Every photo is different, of course, and I rarely do exactly the same thing twice, but my general process nowadays (since Dublin) is to import my RAW files into Photoshop using their Camera Raw module, usually making several 16-bit conversions from the RAW file, optimising for different points - i.e. for a portrait, I might tweak it one way to get the eyes looking the way I want, do another for the hair, another for the background etc, then carefully clone-blend them together, doing more dodging and burning along the way... often starting from a plain black "canvas" to which I "paint" in the details as I want them, it's my way of keeping myself focused on what's essential in the photo. I never add anything to what's there, but I often take a great deal away.
jojames1: In general, during a session, how many pics would you say you take to find "the right one"?
NG: It greatly depends on how much or little I'm feeling connected with the subject at the time, but on a very rough average, I'll only end up working on one out of every 10-20 raw shots I take - and out of the ones I work on, only a fraction of *those* will ever end up being seen by anyone other than myself.
lilbit: Are you a self taught photographer or did you have a mentor that showed you the ropes?
NG: I'm completely self taught in pretty much everything I do, for better or worse... I'm not that keen on influences in general (I'd much rather be a good Noah Grey than a bad Ansel Adams). Photographically, what inspires me most is the more hidden, non-obvious beauty... the kind of things that I have to work a bit harder to see the beauty in, the things that take me more by surprise in that way, are always the things that most remind me what I'm doing this for.
fleetofnuns: How do you decide on locations & subjects?
NG: I usually don't, as such - when I'm not asked/hired to be somewhere and shoot something in particular, I go wherever the mood takes me, depending on my finances and my ability/willingness to get somewhere at any particular time. My own fear/insecurity is still the greatest limiting factor in where I go and what I do, but over the years it's been getting much better.
bojolee: Sometimes when I am shooting photography it feels very spiritual and photo ops simply present themselves as a gift....do you ever feel that way and do you think there is such a thing as someone really having a "natural eye" for photography?
NG: I feel that way all the time... the day I never get that feeling anymore is the day I know it's time to stop. I think anyone can learn to become *technically* good at photography or any other artform if they're diligent and dedicated enough to learning it, but I do believe that there's an instinct, an aptitude, many of us are born with for certain means of expression that others don't have, and vice versa. For instance, as much as I've tried to play guitar, no matter how well I ever learn to play the notes, I know I'm never going to be on the level of a Stevie Ray Vaughan... wherever it does or doesn't come from, there's a very personal, passionate connection you *have* to have with what you're doing that goes beyond anything you could ever learn in a book or classroom or acquire in a hundred years of practice.
fleetofnuns: Why are a lot of your photos "off center"?
NG: Good question! I'm far more of a instinctive photographer than an intellectual one - I rarely stop and think much about how I want to get something, I just capture it and work on it in the way that feels right to me. The fact that so many photos of mine have an off-center composition isn't something I plan deliberately, it just comes out of what I do by pure feeling... maybe they're off-center because *I* am. ;)
Mike H: [D]o you rely on lighting (natural, or artificial), or do you rely on dark-room/computer manipulation?
NG: Well, every photographer relies on light *some*how. ;) But aside from work I've done for hire (which I don't usually consider my "real" work), I can count on one hand the amount of times I've chosen to use studio lighting for something, and have fingers to spare. I'm a very natural, in-the-moment sort of guy - the more I plan or expect to get a particular thing in advance, the worse or less satisfying the result usually seems to be.
Photo Yaloo: I noticed that most of your photographs on the website have a low key and or a lomo quality. Is this a simply a theme for [your] website or is this a personal preference...?
NG: I think it's what my style's evolving into. If you look back over my stuff for the past decade, my style's been all over the map - I've been trying (in full public view) to find my footing photographically, the mode of expression that felt most right and natural to me, and all that jumping around was downright schizophrenic sometimes... it took me a long time, but I think - I hope - I'm just now starting to find my real voice with it.
Lidljo: I love your B&W work and you also have some color. What makes you choose to shot something in B&W over color?
NG: On a technical level, B&W is much more flexible to work with - you can bend the tones and shadows around in B&W in ways that you really can't do in colour without it looking psychedelic. So in that way, while B&W may seem like a limitation, it's quite the opposite - in colour I usually feel restricted, while in B&W I feel like I can get away with just about anything. But more than that, I think B&W has a far deeper emotional quality. B&W has a dreamlike aspect to it - in one way it takes us out of our everyday colour reality, in another way it's stripping it down, it's pulling away part of the surface of reality and showing it in a more basic, essential way. There's no end of visual and emotional expression that can only be had in colour, of course - and I feel like little more than a complete novice in colour, to me it's practically a whole different medium than B&W photography altogether - but my heart is, well, a very grey one...
Anon: [All your pictures are black and white], why is this? [T]hey seemed to me as though the person is in a 'big black hole' and is trying to find their way out. I have seen B/W by different photographers, both pro and non, that are really exceptional work and do not leave me with such a depressing feel about them.
NG: I'm sorry it comes across that way to you; to me, it's coming from anything *but* a "big black hole." I did so much of my superficially brightest and most colourful work when I was most miserable - but I'm feeling more alive and more true to myself now than I ever have... and, for me anyhow, that's showing in my work as being more honest, more stripped-down and direct. From the first moment I ever picked up a camera, through all the years I used it as my weapon in fighting my demons, I've just wanted to be as raw and real with it as I've ever known how to be - I got farthest away from that when I was feeling the least true to myself. But now... well, what may be darkness for you, is *clarity* for me... and that's actually a ridiculously happy feeling for me these days.
Jump1ok: I like the way you seem to focus on the eye's of your subject in many of your portrait shots. Do you make an effort to do this or is it just a natural behavior talent that happens?
NG: It's just instinct, I guess. Whenever we look at someone's face, of course their eyes are the first thing we always look at, they're the element that draws us in and defines the character of someone's face arguably more than all the other elements combined... and I'm nothing if not a creature of instinct, so I'm always compulsively drawn to the eyes.
Black and white has a dreamlike aspect to it......it takes us out of our everyday colour reality
cmcnaught: I've had people (family and friends mostly) tell me that my photos are "incredible, you should sell them." How do you as a photographer know if photos are really art? Or if people are just being nice? At what point did you evolve from a person who takes photos (my stage) to a photographer and then to an artist?
NG: I'm wary of defining art in general terms... one person's Guernica is another's garbage, and I think that's how it should be - it'd be an awfully boring world if we all felt the same way about the same things. For me, photography's an intensely personal process, and that's the only way I can define it - if anything I do ever moves anyone else in any way, then that's all kinds of wonderful, but it's gravy, it's secondary... before everything else, it has to move *me*, it has to do what I wanted and needed it to do - that's the only way I've ever been able to judge it, or ever will be.
But maybe that's what an artist is - can you look at what you're doing and honestly say to yourself, "even if no one else in the world gave a damn about my work - even if I really *was* doing all this just for myself and no one else - would that be enough? Would I still, not just *want* to do this, but *need* to do it, hunger for it, have to do it more than anything, if I really was the only soul on earth who would ever see or care about what I've done?" If the answer's an unhesitating, unequivocal Yes... then, well, I've heard much worse definitions for "artist" in my life.
surferguy: Professional ... or not.. as in .. "I"... my stuff is just as good as yours... IMO... why or why not..?
NG: I'm not sure I understand the question here... if you mean "why did you become a professional" - and that depends on how you define professional, but let's say it's someone who gets paid for their work - then, well, I suppose I'd say "because I could." Photography's something I've always done, and would spend the rest of my life doing, whether or not I ever made a dime from it - and if I have the option to do so, without compromising my work in any way, then why not indeed? We all need to make money somehow to live, and if we can make our living doing what we love to do anyway... then hell, life's too damned short already.
Photo Yaloo: I've had several people tell be to go professional, but I have no intention to do so. I'm afraid I'll lose the joy if it becomes work.What made you take the leap into professional photography?
NG: I never planned it that way - if I'd had to stay at home taking photos just for myself the rest of my life, I would have been happy. But when I moved out to California and started getting hired to do what I always loved to do for free anyway, it wasn't exactly a hard decision from that perspective. Very long story very short, the problem was that there *was* a slippery-slope element involved - I had never had that kind of money before, it intoxicated me and I wanted more of it for its own sake, and I started letting that have too great an effect on the jobs I chose to take, and the kind of work I ended up doing... I hated what that was doing to me, and that was part of the reason I had to leave. (I'm condensing a pretty large story here, but I've rambled about it enough on my journal.) I moved from California to Dublin and have kind of started over - I have a great deal less of the income these days, but a great deal more of the passion, and that's a balance I'm far happier with nowadays.
jam9663: [W]as there a defining moment when you knew that it was time to take pictures professionally or was it a gradual transition?
NG: I think it was more gradual than anything... I've been taking photos nearly all my life, but it wasn't until several years ago - in the midst of "I'm in my mid-20s and I still have no idea what I really want to do with my life" self-torment - that I realized what I want to do with my life is just what I *have* been doing all along.
Lidljo: There are times when everyone is telling me that a picture is good, but I am not satisfied with it. How do you know that a photo is really good?
NG: Whenever I look at anyone else's art, the only way I've ever known how to judge it is by how much it moves me, how much of an emotional impact it has on me - even if that impact is only in utter misery or revulsion, I'll take that over indifference anytime. And I can only judge my own stuff the same way. I'm an extremely, absurdly emotional person, for better or worse - no matter how much I try to intellectualize anything, whether my own work or anyone else's - no matter how technically accomplished it is, no matter how much I can appreciate the sheer skill or effort involved in it - and no matter what anyone else says about something, no matter however many good, valid reasons other people have for saying Artist X is great and important and Artist Y is a cheap useless hack - when all else is said and done, if it doesn't make me feel something, nothing else matters.
AnyMoose Hero: Before you put your work "out there". Do you have it critiqued by someone else, [o]r do you just go with what your heart tells you is right?
NG: I just go with my heart, pretty much. (My guy is always the first to see my latest work, but he's yet to be critical with me, no matter how much I always expect him to be.) I have to admit I'm not fond of critiquing, either on the giving or the receiving end; I wouldn't put something out there unless it was doing what I needed it to do for myself emotionally, no matter how much it's lacking in the technique or composition department. So it's not so much that I hate to be criticized (or hate criticizing others), but that I think it's kind of beside the point - I'm the only one that can judge whether my own work succeeds by the only standard I need it to, and it's very difficult for me to get into the head of other artists who don't see *their* own work in the same way.
oh wow, I'm still alive, I'd better make the most of it and go do something ...I forget that sometimes
KayN: Do you ever find yourself in a "photo funk", and, if so, how do you get out of it?
NG: I don't really try to... I've probably "quit" photography (if only to myself) more times than Cher, Barbra and Celine combined have given "farewell performances". When I get burned out for a bit, I just put my camera aside and focus my energies elsewhere - whether on some other creative outlet, or just letting go and enjoying life. The photo urge is too much a part of me to ever be gone very strongly, or for very long.
MudMistress: You have many creative outlets... which do you get the greatest satisfaction from?
NG: They satisfy me in different ways... I think music, for instance, is what I enjoy most as I'm *doing* it but least *after* the fact, and writing tends to be the exact opposite - writing is the hardest thing to do, but the satisfaction of *having* written something is incomparably rewarding. Photography probably gives me the most consistent satisfaction from start to finish.
Jump1ok: As an artist do you find yourself drifting away from one form of media to another, devoting your creative forces souly to the media at hand. Or do you try to divide up your time more equally?
NG: I'm very much a drifter... whatever "muse" I have, she's a very fickle and finicky creature. I think she's even more of an ADHD manic-depressive than I am.
jojames1: Can you tell by the images you produce if you were manic or depressive at the time? Or do you find you only take photos during one of those phases? Is photography your escape from your mind...or a way of harnessing your emotions?
NG: Both, in a strange way - it's both a way of capturing and isolating my emotions, and a way for me to step outside them, to deal with them in a more detached and ultimately very cathartic way. And I can definitely pinpoint exactly how I was feeling at the time, they're very much a visual diary for me in that way... though it manifests itself in odd ways, so many of the photos that seem like they'd be done in one state of mind were often done in its complete opposite (see above, re: doing my "brightest" work when I was most miserable, etc).
bleustudios: How have your different creative outlets affected each other? Lidljo: Which of your talents is most important to you?
NG: To me it's all the same thing, in a way - whenever I take a photo, or write a song, etc., I'm trying to capture an emotional quality, just in different forms... it's all different means of trying to achieve the same end. So it's very difficult for me to compartmentalize them, or picture going without one or the other - I can't think of a better way to say it than that it'd be like choosing between your arms or your legs, you may not always want or need to use both at the same time, but they're different extensions of your body that you'll always have different uses for - and however different those uses are, one isn't really less ultimately essential to you than the other.
whenever we look at someone's face......their eyes are the first thing we always look at
Beholden: You have mastered so many creative outlets--Is there another area of talent you wish to explore that you haven't yet?
NG: Oh, gawd forbid I ever feel like I mastered anything! If I ever felt that there was nothing left for me to do in the things I love doing, I would be sadder than if I'd lost a limb... fortunately, I know that's *never* going to happen. I still feel like I'm just getting started with photography, let alone everything else!
But I'm always restless to try new things. I've got a number of web projects I'm working on, a novel I'm aching to get back to writing... and I've always wanted in the worst way to do a film.
Blizzard: Is Noah Grey your real name?
NG: I endured way too many Noah's Ark jokes growing up to have *chosen* that...
Blizzard: Which came first and what is your earliest childhood memory of it? Sketching? Music? Writing? Photography
NG: Photography, I think - I can remember playing with my mom's Instamatic when I was barely big enough to *hold* the thing.
Blizzard (all): In my best James Lipton voice.... ~ What is your favorite word?
NG: "Tintinnabulation," particularly when said with an English or Irish accent.
B: What is your least favorite word?
NG: "What-ever," when pronounced with an "h" at the end, with extra discredit for being accompanied with a dismissive hand motion.
B: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
NG: Remembering that "oh wow, I'm still alive, I'd better make the most of it and go do something." I forget that sometimes.
B: What turns you off?
B: What is your favorite curse word?
B: What sound or noise do you love?
NG: Light rain against a windowpane; slurping the last of a nice frappucino from the bottom of my cup; the little purr-like rumble my guy makes when I rest my head next to his.
B: What sound or noise do you hate?
NG: Songs that I love turned into muzak; the ringing of telephones; anything emanating from the mouth of, or relating in any way whatsoever to, Crazy Frog.
B: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
NG: Running my own bookstore and/or restaurant; starting a band; becoming a film director.
B: What profession would you not like to do?
NG: Running for public office; doing telemarketing; becoming an altar boy.
B: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
NG: "There you are! We've been holding this 100,000-megapixel camera for you; there's a cloud full of large, handsome men over there in various stages of undress waiting for you that you might want to test it out on. (Oh, and all those fundamentalist nutjobs down on that silly little planet of yours? Don't worry, they really *were* full of it all along. And besides, darling, do I look like I'm that unfabulous?) Now hurry up and go on over there, they won't bite. Much."
...my most important gear will always be the double-lens camera built into my head
Fleetofnuns: I am in Germany and would love to see your work up close. Are your exhibitions planned for any other country than Ireland?
NG: Yep! There will be exhibitions happening throughout the UK and Europe next year, and Germany's definitely on the board.
fleetofnuns: Are you going to do more "themed" galleries?
NG: Depends on what you mean by themed galleries... if you mean the series collections I've done, then yeah, I'll probably always have ones like that that I want to present as a particular group. For the most part, though, I prefer each photo to be regarded individually, and I only present them in categories on my site as a manner of convenience - but with the gallery exhibitions I'll be doing later this year, there will probably be more arranging to themes. I also just completed a new experimental art project, Faceography, that's kind of an automatic, infinite gallery unto itself.
Beholden: What is the ONE lasting impression you want to leave in your photos?
NG: That *everything* is beautiful. Even the darkness, even everything strange and painful and distant and fucked-up and wrong in the world... sometimes especially those things, sometimes those things most of all. The longer I go on and the more photos I take, the less I see any ultimate distinction between a sparkling sunset or a sleeping homeless man, a child's smile or a dying decaying animal, a flower in bloom or bitter words spraypainted onto a crumbling wall... to me it's all achingly, absolutely beautiful.
NG: ...Thanks so much, everyone! I deeply appreciated all the questions (and I hope I didn't do too bad a job answering them, I never know how to talk about these things without sounding completely ridiculous), and all the kind and thoughtful words... thank you for having me here.