Traer Scott is a wonder. Not only is she a talented photographer, she’s also an active animal activist who donates portions of her book proceeds to the ASPCA… A woman after my own heart.
Her series Natural History was a favorite of mine in Photolucida’s 2010 Critical Mass competition. That series inspired me to feature her black and white work in my column for Black and White Photography (UK) last August 2011, which also earned her the cover shot.
Here’s an excerpt from a conversation we had late last spring.
SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?
TRAER SCOTT: I spent my teens and early college years sampling just about every creative media possible. I started college as a theater major but soon switched to Mass Comm and became heavily involved in audio production which lead to an early career in professional radio and voice imaging. I also dabbled in painting, singing, film making and playing music but nothing seemed to fit.
Photography was one of my very first interests as a child and I took my first darkroom class at 10 and used to stage fashion photo shoots in my house when I was 13, 14. All the teen mags always had model searches and I would enter photos of my friends. In college, I picked up photography again and really began to develop it when I moved to Seattle for a semester. Sitting on the steps of a dormitory facing Mt. Rainier, I had a bit of an aha moment, and suddenly knew that I meant to be a photographer.
As a junior, I won a fellowship grant in radio, The Dick Clark Broadcasting Award where I was also awarded a Radio Mercury Award in NYC. A few days after, I was offered my own national syndicated radio program with the ABC Radio Network. I was flown to Dallas where I sat in the Network President’s office and told him thanks but no thanks, I was moving to Boston to become a photographer. I think my father died a little bit that day. It took almost 10 years to prove to him that I made the right decision. Even I was beginning to wonder…
SB: I read that you began your journey at age 10 and worked in the darkroom, then owned an SLR by the age of 11? Did you study photography formally or are you self-taught?
TS: I have had lots of random instruction, from my first darkroom classes in 5th grade to Master classes in NYC and a one year program at the New England School of Photography but I do not have an art degree. I actually have a BA in Mass Communication which has served me remarkably well in this profession. In college, I had extensive training in both creative writing and journalism which has armed me with the ability to write all of my own book text, articles, speeches and endless proposals. Years of public speaking and professional radio experience have been invaluable too. Those first book signing speeches weren’t as daunting as they might have been and I didn’t panic when the CBS Early show came calling-although I was still insanely nervous before the taping. I used to lament not having gone to art school but now I’m actually grateful for having a well-rounded liberal arts education.
SB: Am I correct in assuming that you are primarily a commercial photographer, but you have successfully ventured into the fine art and documentary arena with many of your series/books. How do you balance both worlds? Does one feed the other? Or does the commercial work support your passion?
TS: Quite the opposite actually. I am, for better or worse, a fine art photographer through and through and that is where I earn 95% of my humble income. I actually do very little commercial work at all but am actively trying to change that. Even though I feel that I can offer a unique vision and fill a very specific niche, I have found the commercial realm difficult to break into.
It is definitely my goal to be able to support myself and my more personal photographic visions with commercial work. My struggle with the books has always been to curb the ‘fine art’ enough for them to be commercially viable. If I were to do publish a monograph for The Hungry Ghost say, I would want it as pure as possible even if it meant a tiny print run but all three of my books with Merrell were cause books that we specifically designed to crossover from fine art to commercial. I could have approached the subject matter differently and made really dark books with intensely personal images and the message might have wowed all five people who would have bought it. As it is, Shelter Dogs has over 60,000 copies in print with a new paperback edition and a Japanese edition. The success of the book undoubtedly launched my career but it has also raised tens of thousands for the ASPCA and hopefully delivers a powerful but palatable message.
SB: You are also balancing a career in the gallery world with print sales and exhibitions? And you teach also? Where do you teach and can you discuss some of your ongoing involvement in the gallery world?
TS: Every day I feel like I am trying to balance about a dozen vaguely incompatible aspects of my career, each needing its own special set of skills. It’s exhausting. My involvement in the gallery world thus far has been rather schizophrenic and disappointing. My name is somewhat known, but I appear to be stuck in limbo. The book portfolios are too commercial for the galleries and my fine art work is too personal for the publishing world. I assumed that the success of the books would inevitably lead to success in the gallery world, but it has not. I have had a lot of wonderful responses to The Hungry Ghost as well as my new color series Natural History but only sporadic, group exhibitions so far. Gallery representation has always been a primary goal of mine but so far it has remained elusive. I sell prints directly through my website and now in the case of Natural History, through Photo Eye’s Photographer’s Showcase. I teach an animal photography course of my own creation at Rhode Island School of Design.
SB: The Hungry Ghost is somewhat of a departure from your work with animals, but is strongly linked to your breathtaking color series Natural History. If I were to try and connect all of your work, I’d say they were touching on the metaphorical desire for freedom of spirit, regardless if human or animal. Does that ring true? If you were to summarize your work… What do you think links all of your series?
TS: The Hungry Ghost actually represents my photographic origins far better than any of my other work. For years, I shot exclusively with infrared film; very dark, dramatic narrative portraits with a theatrical bent. The Hungry Ghost is an evolution of that early work with better technical skills, water and a deeper context.
I think there are several things that link all of my work including our innate and inextricable connection with the animal kingdom. I also always seem to seek a certain lyrical, romantic grace in my images. I really like your interpretation best though!
SB: What was the impetus that inspired you to begin shooting your first series Shelter Dogs? Did you always intend for it to be published in book form?
TS: Shelter Dogs was born directly from my volunteer work at Providence Animal Control shelter where I am still heavily involved. At the time, it was my job to photograph all of the dogs for internet adoption sites and as the months went by, I would sit at night and stare at the growing number of images I had of dogs that never made it out of the shelter. It was devastating. Those photos seemed to be the only record of their existence. These dogs were completely innocent victims who had suffered one bad turn after another until their lives were abruptly ended. I couldn’t delete them and began wanting to put together a project which would memorialize their short lives. I aspired for it to become a book but never thought it would happen so quickly or be so successful. I have Joan Brookbank, my former editor at Merrell and current agent to thank for that. I met her in portfolio reviews at Review Santa Fe. Fortunately she saw potential in the project (which was only a handful of photos at the time) and took a chance on me. After the boom and strong sales of Shelter Dogs, I had a lot of freedom to choose and mold my next project which I felt absolutely had to be Street Dogs. It was an project I had been aching to pursue for years and finally has the backing to do it.
SB: What was the impetus for Street Dogs and Wild Horses? Did you shoot the series first, then pursue a publishing deal. Or did you complete the body of work then get a book deal?
TS: Street Dogs met with a lot of critical acclaim and great press but has in no way been the commercial success that Shelter Dogs was. It’s harder to digest and more harsh in its visual reality. It is my favorite of the three books -perhaps because of the epic journeys that I underwent to shoot it and the intense emotional toll they took on me.
Wild Horses was a different kind of struggle for me because I had to rely on other’s expertise. Where I consider myself extremely knowledgeable about almost all aspects of dogs and their behavior- I am not in any way, experienced with horses and I think that comes through in the book. It was also the first time I had to “stalk” my subjects. I soon learned that all horses spend about 99% of their lives grazing so you have to be unbelievably patient in order to capture that exciting 1%. I spent many, many hours driving through all imaginable terrain trolling for horses and then many more hours sitting in half frozen Nevada fields, mosquito riddled marshes and sand dunes with howling 25 degree winds waiting for movement.
SB: You are an avid animal welfare activist. Can you discuss your personal and ongoing involvement as an activist?
TS: I’m not sure that I can even separate activism from my life anymore it has become so ingrained in my every thought and action. This dedication started when I was a child and my passion (as well as anger) has only grown with time. When I was younger, I felt very hopeless and overwhelmed by the amount of suffering and cruelty that I saw and learned about- but photography has given me a powerful voice.
On a personal level, I have been a strict and fairly militant vegetarian for 25 years now. When I was a teenager in the south, I was literally mocked for not eating meat, but the world has changed quite a bit since then and now we are seeing things like animal welfare ratings in the butcher case at Whole Foods. It’s a small thing that represents a slight but significant shift in public consciousness. My hope is that people are slowly beginning to realize that perhaps animals are not just here to be used and exploited by us.
I am also huge advocate of volunteerism whether it is with animals, children, a food bank- anything. It is so crucial. The actual work that you do while you are volunteering is only one part of it. Volunteer work inspires empathy and perspective. It’s so easy for all of us to become tragically enveloped in our own individual micro-dramas. Stepping out of that for a little while and doing something purely altruistic is like a breath of pure oxygen. It isn’t just productive for the cause but for our own humanity. If every single person in this world donated just one hour a week of their time, think what we could accomplish.
SB: What is your personal link to water in this body of work?
TS: I am so much happier in water than I ever am on land. It seems to vanquish all of my insecurities and inhibitions as well as bring about a kind of quiet that is usually very elusive in my mind. I think it has a similar effect on my models because they seem to transform in the water. These photos are not just about creating a successful final image but experiencing the reality of the art if even for a minute - actually witnessing and/or respectively becoming the subject and the myth. I could create all of these in Photoshop but then I would be robbed of the incredible pleasure of seeing these characters come to life, completely formed, in front of me. That is what photography has always been to me- a way to make the world look like I want it to. I am an escapist and rarely interested in reproducing stark realities.
SB: Can you discuss the technical beginnings of this series? I read you began this series while playing with your used canon underwater camera purchased for snorkeling. How did the visualization of this body of work come together? Is it film or digital?
TS: The Hungry Ghost is digital but has been shot with a succession of inexpensive hobbyist underwater cameras, the most recent of which is a little Pentax Optio. I am often actually in the water shooting and also usually carrying a lot of props and supplies to semi-remote locations where we are able to shoot the models nude in a natural, clear water environment with no gawkers. Even if I had housing for my Nikons (my next purchase, btw) I’m not sure if I would use them for this series. There is a certain innocent, organic grassroots feel to the whole thing that I love. I don’t want to turn it into a Vogue shoot. Someone’s dog is almost always swimming through one of the shots- we leave with filthy, water logged costumes, cuts and scrapes and sunburns- but the images have this raw alchemical beauty.
It really just started with a cheap little camera and a fascination with underwater photography and costumes. Water allows for endless body positions that are completely impossible on land without rigging or now, completely digital construction. I would go swimming with my friends and snap shots of them which eventually developed into this. All of the models are just my close friends and we make a day of it. I’m fortunate to have such gorgeous, transcendent friends who are not afraid to bare all. I, on the other hand, refuse to be photographed clothed or otherwise.
SB: Looking back on all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of today?
TS: I am immensely proud of my books because I feel that each one was a completely unique offering rather than a regurgitation of what has already been done ad nauseum. Hopefully each one also marks a small step forward for their respective causes. Most of all, I am very grateful that I had the blind determination to hang on and keep struggling when everyone around me was hitting 30 and giving up. This is a brutal profession and trading noble aspirations for security becomes almost irresistible at a certain point. I have been rewarded with an unbelievably fulfilling life but I’m very lucky, without the unyielding support of my husband, I would probably be selling insurance now.
SB: What are you working on now?
I have three book projects in the works. Two are about animals, but all are a surprise! Hopefully you will be seeing them on bookshelves soon!
To see more of Traer’s work, pop over to her website.