Steve Craft has always been obsessed with American imagery. A Canadian in Phoenix, Craft particularly relishes the quirkier sights and scenes found in more rural reaches of the United States. As part of a recent project to highlight the work of rural food banks, where need has ballooned while resources plummeted, Craft made portraits at his local agency, the Desert Mission Food Bank. For Polarr, I chatted with him about the experience, community advocacy in photography, and how to create respectful portraits.
Emily von Hoffmann: Can you please explain the concept of your series, “Food Bank” for our readers? How did the idea arise?
Steve Craft: An advisory committee of three art and photography curators selected 15 photojournalists and art and commercial photographers for the project. Curators linked each photographer with one of 15 agencies, and Piper Trust hired the photographers to take photos of the agencies. All 15 nonprofits are serving emergency and basic needs in the current recession when needs have skyrocketed and resources plummeted.
My goal was to produce images that were both memorable and visually captivating. I approached the Desert Mission Food Bank project with the hope of photographing people who had an uplifting spirit and presence to see through the turmoil and stress associated with their environment.”
EvH: With your portraits, and Food Bank, and America — from which your photo of the Prada sculpture in Marfa, TX won an IPA — it seems like Americana and American imagery are big themes for you. Can you talk a little bit about this thread through your work, and what in particular you find interesting in these themes?
SC: I have always been fascinating with the quirky and odd that you can find in the remote areas of the United States. I moved to Arizona from Toronto after graduating university so I never really explored what Canada had to offer. The more I traveled around the US, the more I found little nuggets of the bizarre, off-beat and eccentric. I’ve been very fortunate to travel to some remote locations across the country for work and I’ll spend extra time exploring before or after the shoots. A couple times a year I’ll hit the road with my son, who is a journalism major at Ryerson University in Toronto, just to find new and different locations that are off the beaten path.
EvH: Did “Food Bank” change your relationship with your city or community at all? What was the process of creating it like for you?
SC: I approached the “Food Bank” series with the idea to photograph the customers in a stoic, almost proud, state of being. I didn’t want to capture any negative or downtrodden aspects to the portraits. You never know the reasons why these folks ended up using a food bank for their groceries or how quickly things can change in someones life where they end up having to shop there. I’ve always approached shooting portraits as I would approach someone on the street. I don’t care if you’re a celebrity or if you’re penniless, showing respect gains respect.
EvH: Can you tell us about any people you photographed who left a particular impression on you? Any interactions that stuck with you in particular?
SC: There were a couple folks who didn’t want to smile for whatever reason or they were very stand off-ish so I respected their wishes but I was still able to capture a proud portrait that had character and seemed natural.
There was a Hispanic man who didn’t speak one word of English so I tried to communicate with my limited Spanish along side my hand and facial gestures and I was able to capture a massive, heartfelt smile.
EvH: What are some things that you consciously do to create the conditions for a great portrait? Can you give us an example from this collection of a portrait that you felt challenged, delighted, or surprised you?
SC: If I’m shooting a portrait, I always go online and hopefully find out a little bit about the person. It’s nice to know some information about someones life and/or history so we can start to chat which usually puts people at ease. I find that people enjoy talking about themselves which usually makes the shoot go smoother. And if I get into a conversation about music or hockey, odds are I’ll forget to take any photographs.
There is a little girl in this series who was unbearably shy in the beginning but after some chit chat about Dora the Explorer and Sponge Bob Squarepants she ended up having the best, natural smile and once we started shooting, she didn’t want to stop.
EvH: Who are some photographers or artists in any medium who have had an impact on your style or process?
SC: I’m not sure how much impact these artists had on my style and I would say I’m all over the place when it comes down to whose work I admire. It’s the same with music for me. I have liked different artists at different times in my life for various reasons. I’ve always admired Joel-Peter Witkin. I’m in awe of Edward Burtynsky and his landscape photography. I think Dan Winters portraits are amazing as well as Frank Ockenfels 3.
I wish I had the creativity talents of graphic designer, Peter Saville. Oh yeah, Gregory Crewdson’s work is brilliant. I could keep going on naming wonderful artists but I would start getting depressed 😊