David is a photographer (@davidwilliamsphoto) from Denver who is currently based in New York.
When did you have your first encounter with a camera and when did you start shooting regularly? I read that your mother used one all the time. Did she push or encourage you at all?
Yes, growing up, my mother took a lot of photographs and made scrapbooks from our family vacations. But I really started taking pictures at local hardcore and punk shows in high school. I grew up heavily influenced by my dad, who loved Bruce Springsteen, and an older brother, who skateboarded and played in a lot of bands. I never had the talent or patience to learn how to play an instrument, so I began photographing shows. I wanted to contribute more to the “scene” than just being a spectator. Once I realized how difficult it was to make a living off of photographing bands, I started to focus on documentary and editorial work.
At what point in your work do you feel like you developed this style with flash that is so present in your photos?
My college had a great selection of gear to rent for school assignments. I would try different strobes and speedlites for whatever I was working on. I was never the most technical photographer so I tweaked things until they looked how I wanted them to. At the same time, I fell in love with the work of Martin Parr and Lars Tunbjork, both fantastic color photographers who often used flash. Assisting in New York was also a good opportunity to see how other photographers worked to get the results they wanted.
You made a book called “Men With Cats” after shooting it for almost a decade. Do you think it’s a series that you’ll continue? Or is it mostly finished now that you put together the book? I know you are doing the "Seniors With Pets" series, too, so I wonder if maybe that’s demanding more of your focus now.
Men With Cats is mostly finished, but I also haven’t been asked to photograph a guy and his cat since the book came out. I spent most of 2015 shooting over 150 portraits for the book and by the end felt like I covered the subject as much as I wanted to.
The seniors project came about while I was impatiently waiting for my book to come out. I had to wait about eight months to show the portraits in Men With Cats and wanted to start something that could be seen as a follow-up book that I could share quickly. It’s still a series I would love to keep shooting, but I also want to be conscious about the work I’m putting out in the world. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as someone who only shoots portraits of people and their pets.
Shooting people, whether for your personal series work or for clients, what have you learned over the years about how to interact with your subjects? How to direct them (or not) and get the shots you want.
This is something that I’m still perfecting. With the exception of the occasional celebrity, I almost never photograph someone who is comfortable in front of the camera. My approach is to try and chat with my subjects throughout the shoot to make them, and myself, feel comfortable. When I’m shooting documentary work or on the street I tend to be more aggressive when I see a shot I want to get. With most of my personal work, my biggest challenge is gaining trust of my subjects to let me into their lives and stick a camera in their face.
Originally you’re from Denver. How do you think that impacted you, as a person, and your work? How do you think moving to New York has impacted you?
Even though I spent the majority of my life in Denver I don’t feel any sort of identity connection to the city itself. My family moved around a lot when I was younger and while some of my family and friends still live there, I find it difficult to feel like it's “home." Denver has also gone through rapid changes since I left five years ago and it feels like a completely different city. Any feeling of nostalgia I had for Denver is almost completely gone and the only reason I go back is to see my family. The Denver I remember is kind of grimy and industrial, and Denver now is covered with condos, tech start-ups, marijuana dispensaries, and too many EDM festivals.
While New York often causes me a lot of stress and anxiety, it feels like the right place for me to be now. I’ve been able to assist and befriend many photographers who helped me grow as a person and I don’t think I would have gained that experience anywhere else.
What, to you, are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of freelancing? What do you think are some misconceptions or surprises that people may not realize?
Freelancing can often feel alienating and depressing. When jobs get thin, you will struggle with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness that frequently result from comparing yourself to other creatives and their online personas. Social media is full of people begging for acceptance and if you spend all day refreshing Instagram you’ll fall into a spiral of depression. I constantly struggle with it and have found the best cure is to simply walk around and make new work.
With that said, it’s important to surround yourself with others who are in the same boat and talk about those issues. If I’m not on an assignment and just working at home on emails/estimates/talking to my cats I try to keep a schedule by waking up at the same time, taking a walk in the afternoon, and having some form of human interaction -- whether that’s meeting a friend for a drink or talking to the old guys on my block. I have pep talks with my photo mentor about work and life that always tend to leave me with positive feelings.
Also, shooting personal projects is probably the only reason I’m still pursuing a career in photography. Not only did it lead to a book deal, but often keeps me level headed and excited about photography. I’m constantly giving myself assignments and I think I’ll do that for the rest of my life even if I throw in the towel on freelancing and get a job as a postal worker or mowing lawns for the parks department.
Do you find it a hard balance to bring your vision/style into your client work at all or is it pretty seamless?
Not really. I think having a distinct style helps photo editors realize what my pictures will look like when they hire me and I’m very thankful for that. However, I think it’s important not to be a one-trick pony and have multiple talents while still maintaining an aesthetic.
Really enjoyed the "Bowling Midwest" series. What did you take away from seeing all those places that remain and how do you feel about the current state of bowling as entertainment? Why did you feel it was important to show the people of these facilities as well and not just the physical spaces alone?
Like most of my personal work, I find a subject and won’t stop thinking about it until I photograph it. With the bowling project, I read about the oldest bowling center in America, Holler House in Milwaukee, and simply wanted to visit and meet the woman who owned it, Marcy Skowronski. Then I just created a road trip around the Midwest looking for interesting bowling centers. I’m a very curious person and use photography as a tool to go learn about subjects that I don’t think I would have the opportunity to meet without. Architecturally, bowling alleys are some of the most interesting buildings in America, but the people who represent these buildings (owners, patrons, etc) are the cherry on top.
Going back to flash, do you find a surprise or excitement in looking at the results after, as you’re adding a somewhat unpredictable element that changes the visual from how it actually looks to a degree?
Absolutely. I shot a little bit of film but never considered myself a “film photographer” and the way I shoot definitely gives me results of surprise that I’m sure photographers who shoot with film get in the darkroom.
Q&A by Jack Sommer