In Conversation with Tristan Spinski
Maine-based photographer and writer Tristan Spinski says people don’t remember photographers, they remember photographs. That doesn’t bother him, as he says what’s more important is living a life of intention and contributing to the larger conversation.
Tristan Spinski was first drilled in storytelling and “finding micro narratives that apply to macro topics” at his campus newspaper at the University of Delaware. After completing his literature degree, he worked odd jobs for a few years – in construction and at resturants. Eventually Spinski found his way back to stories and earned his graduate degree in journalism. His work now focuses on “intersections between people and the landscape.” He is also a co-founding member of GRAIN, a photography collective. We talk to him about his photography, influences, and curating Everyday Everywhere.
Q: During your curation week, did anything surprise or catch your attention?
A: I was definitely surprised at the volume of work and response out of the Middle East. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense now, given the one-dimensional tone of images that permeate Western news feeds. Of course there are wonderful exceptions. But most of what I, as a news consumer in the United States, ingest is a stream of highly dramatic, nightmarish images of misery, suffering, war, and religious extremism.
I think Everyday Everywhere does a fantastic job of countering that narrative. So now I’d say I’m surprised at how intentional and democratized that effort is; how patterns emerge amidst the chaos of social media and there seems to be a collective consciousness to show normalcy and humanity in a part of the world that my country’s headlines have reduced to a negative, one-dimensional narrative.
Q: I noticed that you encouraged your colleagues and friends to use the #EverydayEverywhere hashtag. Why?
A: In scrolling through the feed of hashtagged images, I saw a lot of pretty pictures. Most of them from places I’ve never been and have no attachment to or understanding of. I also looked through the Everyday Everywhere curated feed to see what has been selected in the past by the guest curators. And most of the highlighted work involved photography with celebration of the serendipity of light, moment and gesture. (A side note — if anyone ever doubts Alex Webb’s influence on documentary photography, search #everydayeverywhere. It’s amazing.) Back to my point though — I wanted to embrace work that I was both intrinsically familiar with, meaning it was made in my own backyard and I have a greater grasp of nuance of, and I wanted to highlight work of substance. I wanted to get beyond the serendipity of light and moment and get to something more evidentiary that speaks to larger issues.
We were in our first few months of a Trump presidency, and there is so much uncertainty with reshuffling of political priorities. These topics involving refugees, the environment, American identity, infrastructure, economy, and community identity all grab headlines. But oftentimes they are large ideas presented in very abstract ways.
Everyday Everywhere offered an opportunity to humanize these spheres of discussion, here in the United States. Ben Rasmussen, a photographer based in Colorado, has been working on a brilliant project over the last few years, and a chapter of that involved a Yazidi community in Nebraska. Now, several years after the attempted genocide of the Yazidi people by ISIS, I found his work to be a wonderful opportunity to have a highly relevant, geo-political conversation about war, refugees, immigration and family in the context of “Middle America.”
Another example was Lexey Swall’s image of a street scene in Philadelphia, where kids are boxing on the sidewalk. This was an outtake from a project on a black neighborhood in Philly dealing with budget cuts, teacher layoffs and school closings, and what that means for the fabric of that community. Again, it humanizes the issue.
Greg Kahn’s photograph from Cuba was timely as well, embracing the aesthetic ideal while offering a window into Cuban culture amidst the turmoil of the new U.S. President’s rumblings on shifting the infant policy of more cooperation and reestablishing relations between the U.S. and the small island country. As was Mike Belleme’s image of the coal industry in West Virginia — with a lot of politicians blaming the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for impeding economic prosperity and a new president appointing a long time critic and adversary, Scott Pruitt, who once sued the EPA, to head that very agency.
My point is that a lot of this work exists within the internal dialogue of American politics and press. But I don’t know how much makes the jump to the international audience, especially the younger generation that might not be glued to traditional media outlets.
I thought that by embracing the work of my friends and colleagues, who are exceptionally good at what they do, Everyday Everywhere would offer a platform to engage and challenge an audience to see this corner of the world for what it is — an evolving, complex and often contradictory work in progress.
Q: That white cat! Tell me about coming across the image and sharing it. I love it!
A: I spend a lot of time making photographs, editing photographs, looking at photography, talking about photography, and thinking about photography. I’m obsessed. But an unfortunate byproduct of those efforts is that I have become a bit desensitized to imagery, both in terms of serious work and lighthearted work. It takes a special image to provoke a reaction out of me.
As I scrolled through the hashtagged images, I came across the white cat photograph. I chuckled, then moved on. And then I went back and looked at it again. And I laughed again. And again, and again, and again. I think it’s important to honor that reaction. And I trusted that if it made me laugh, it will make a lot of people laugh. So much of what I work on and engage with is serious, almost soul-crushing. We need to laugh. So maybe I did it as much for me as for everyone else.
Q: How did you end up becoming a journalist?
A: Upon graduating [from the University of Delaware], I took a few years to work odd jobs and then opted to pursue a graduate degree in journalism. I ended up at University of California at Berkeley and had planned to focus on long form narrative magazine writing. While pursuing my master’s degree, we were encouraged to step outside of our comfort zone and explore other forms of storytelling — documentary photography, radio reporting, filmmaking and television production. I took a documentary photo class from Ken Light and Mimi Chakarova and I knew, immediately, that I had found my path.
Q: Your first internship at a newspaper in Florida turned into a staff job that you later left to pursue freelance work. But when you “failed” at freelancing, you went back to the newspaper. What do you mean when you say “failed”? You are now a freelancer again. How has your work changed over the years?
Photography never came easy to me. Some people are so naturally talented. Not me. Every success and advancement with my work has come because of multiple failures. The only thing I’m truly good at is being curious and enduring rejection. Everything else is learned through repetitive practice and critical analysis of my work.
When I say that I failed at freelancing, I mean I photographed one editorial job in two years and could not make a living in photography. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready. I had no personal vision or larger message or theme to my work. I was still in a stage where, at best, I could react to a scene or situation and make a well-composed, moment-driven image in available light. But there was no nuance or intention to my work. My portfolio showcased my reflexes, speckled with a bit of cleverness. I wanted to create thoughtful work, not clever work.
But saying “I want to be thoughtful” is ridiculous. And so my career floundered, and I found myself working in bars to pay the bills. But while there was struggle, this was a time of enormous personal growth for me. I remember seeing an exhibit of Richard Avedon’s “American West” at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. That, along with a weekend at the LOOK3 Festival changed everything for me. Personal vision entered the equation.
As my career has progressed since then, I think most of the hard lessons have come about because of a lack of intention. If I find myself simply reacting to what’s in front of me and not thinking critically about what I’m doing, I won’t like the work I produce. Now during an assignment I have to pause and ask myself: “What’s compelling about this? What would I want to look at?” It’s such a simple exercise. But at this point my obsession with photography and visual communication has led me to believe in my own taste.
Ira Glass gives a brilliant lesson on the gap of “taste vs talent”. The general point of this lesson is that you have great taste in a creative field (say photography), but you don’t have the ability to create work that meets your own standards, that you recognize the gap between what you appreciate and what you’re capable of making. And that it takes years to narrow that gap between your taste and your talent. I’m still neck deep in that phase. But the ratio of what I do that I like (or at least can live with) on purpose versus on accident is changing.
I’m now accomplishing more intentionally than accidentally stumbling into success. So I know I’m on the right track. But I’m a long, long way from being satisfied with my photography. So I fail, over and over and over again. But once in a while I get it right. I think the one project that I can stand behind is “Mr. Sczelepinski” — a still life series I created after my father died. It’s uncompromised. And I met my own standards for the first time.
Q: How do you classify your shooting style?
In the past few years, I’ve tried to focus my work on the intersections between people and the landscape. This has led to a lot of work about natural resources, conservation, land use, and economic and cultural legacy in the context of land use.
I see my work as an extension of myself, my values and my family’s legacy. My late father was a sculptor whose work was commentary and critique on the myth of American exceptionalism, celebrated the working class, and critiqued mass consumerism. My stepmother is an artist who explores natural systems and patterns with her work, oftentimes looking at geologic formations and life systems for inspiration. My mother is a nature lover who looks to birds, insects and plant life for art. Her late husband was a sculptor who explored classic mythology with his work, with strong narrative elements and atmospheric textures and scenes.
I see myself and my work as an extension of all these people. My world view is built on the backs of them. And after years of “practicing” as a generalist, I feel like I’m just now, in the past two to three years, finding my own voice and dedicating myself to a more specific path.
That said, there’s a lot of ego in this industry. And not that I’m immune to it. But let’s keep it in perspective. For example, go into any space that offers a cross section of the public, like a subway car, a public bus, a restaurant. Or hell, find a room full of people who have college degrees. Ask a random person in that room to name three photographers from any time period, in any part of the world.
I’ve done this a few times to illustrate my point. Here in the United States, you’ll get: “That’s easy — Ansel Adams…” And then they’ll stop, and think, and look confused and uncomfortable. Maybe they’ll get Annie Leibovitz. Maybe. Or “that one nanny from Chicago” (Vivian Maier), or that “guy who photographed the girl on the cover of National Geographic” (Steve McCurry). Occasionally my point will implode, and I’ll inadvertently ask an art major or an art history major and get embarrassed when they rattle off a string of names.
But most folks don’t remember photographers. People remember writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, poets, magicians, martial artists, filmmakers, actors, dancers. But not photographers. They remember photographs. And that’s fine with me. It’s about living a life of intention, and contributing to the larger conversation. Who cares if it’s done in relative anonymity?
To take it further, professional photographers will lob the complaint that: “everyone’s a photographer now”. So what? Everyone has access to pencils and paper now too. It’s just another vehicle for conversation. It’s just another language. Are writers biting their fingernails when they walk into an office supply store and see all of the paper products and writing utensils? Do they see a computer keyboard and suffer anxiety attacks because someone, somewhere might be writing something worth reading and that could impede their ability to succeed. I hope not.
Q: Tell me a bit about GRAIN and why you founded it.
A: Greg Kahn, Lexey Swall and I founded GRAIN in 2012. At the time we were all colleagues at a midsize daily newspaper in Florida and had ambitions to strike out on our own, work on larger projects of consequence, and find our own individual voices within the medium. We banded together, pooled our resources and launched GRAIN as we embarked on our freelance careers. Since then, the collective has served as a creative and collaborative hub for us. And as we’ve added new members, the role of the collective has migrated into a think tank/test kitchen for sharing work and developing projects and ideas. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but for me it’s been crucial to be a part of a small community that fosters ideas and challenges me to be the best version of myself, both in craft and in concept.
Q: What value do you see in documenting everyday life and taking pictures in general?
A: Documenting everyday life allows us to recognize the spectrum of nuances that accumulate to tell our story. Photography is one path. There are many other paths. As for the value of photography specifically, I think it has enormous capacity to give a viewer pause and consider larger truths about the world. But I also approach it with perspective. I just finished the book, The Sixth Extinction, which presents an argument that we are in the midst of a man-made mass extinction. In the book the author writes: “A hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man — the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories — will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.” So I realize that none of this really matters. But the possibility of seeing as much as I can see, experiencing everything I can, and trying to make sense of it through photography is everything to me.