EDITOR’S NOTE: The interview portion of this article is composed of two separate conversations, one live interview over the phone and written questions that Sinclair answered over email. They have been edited together for continuity and to provide greater detail on some of the issues we have discussed. All photographs by Wray Sinclair
Son of Virginia now living in Los Angeles, California, Wray Sinclair looks at communities and spaces of grit and striking beauty. But the judgment is in the eye of the beholder, and some of the places that mystify the eye through Sinclair’s photography have been often portrayed as decrepit and dystopian.
But where some see rust and peeling paint, Sinclair finds strong individuals, often a backbone of their respective communities. He’s primarily interested in their stories, and the image is his way of sharing those narratives, rather than a simple visual created for its own sake, indulging in perfect composition and technical detail.
Sinclair started his career working as a photo assistant and lighting specialist on big advertising and fashion shoots, but the goal was always to do his original work. Photography has been with him as far back as his middle school days. Now, based on the West Coast, he manages to navigate between commercial photography and his personal projects. We connected to chat about the latter.
Jan Pytalski, The Daily Yonder: Why are rural spaces and working people of particular interest to you?
Wray Sinclair: My work specializes in communities and people who have a connection to the environment they’re in, so that’s often farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, artists, you know, stuff of that nature.
I’m attracted to people who have a unique story or point of view. I think that is why I find myself attracted to rural spaces. When I grew up, I was always fishing and camping, so spending a lot of time away from the suburbs helped cultivate my love for these areas. I’ve also always been a naturally curious person. So part of me loves the fact that I can go into a part of the country that is foreign to me and get to learn about the people and their way of life. The access you can get in the country is unlike anything in the city. I find it so much easier talking with people and holding a conversation. They’re generally a bit more open to being photographed as well. I also find it really inspiring spending time with the people who truly make our country run. Without rural communities, we would be nothing, and I think it’s really important everyone remembers that.
DY: How do you get into the communities you photograph, how do you become a familiar presence, one that your subjects can trust? Could you tell me how you managed to photograph the miners and the watermen?
WS: With rural communities, trust is everything. It takes time for people to open up and allow a photograph to be taken. Sometimes, just a smile and a really polite ask is all you need; but often when I’m embedding within a community for a long period of time, you have to take the time to show your interest in their lives. It’s not uncommon that I’ll talk for 30 minutes to an hour before picking up my camera. It all depends on the subject, but I’ve generally found that the better the questions you ask of the subject, the better the photos. As long as you show genuine interest, people are fairly open to having their photo taken. With my long-form work, It’s all about finding the right people who can make the connections. This was especially true with my watermen project. They live a very solitary life, one that they’ve chosen, so often someone they don’t know asking to spend a whole day on a boat with them can be a really big ask. I’ll have to show that I know enough about the community and that I already have made connections in it. And finally, you have to show that you’ll portray them in a good light. With things getting so politicized, oftentimes it’s these small communities that can be caught in the middle. Sometimes that can be as simple as showing a couple photos, or just having one of their friends vouch for you.
DY: I saw you did a project on the Yosemite climbers. I wanted to ask how it came about and what it was like?
WS: I did that two or three years ago now, and I was really inspired by Richard Avedon and his American west project…And that was the formative project of showing people on the East Coast, what the West is like. And he had shot it all on location with a backdrop, and he would just put a backdrop in the open shade and photograph the people. So all your concentration was on the people and what was interesting about them. And I was really inspired by that project and I kind of wanted to think about, you know, how can I do something similar, but it would need to be a community that I wouldn’t really know a lot about, which happened to be climbing. I’m very much into the outdoors and, you know, surfing backpack, flying fish and all that stuff, but I never was a climber. So I went to Yosemite and I just stayed in Camp Four and I made friends with climbers there and I would go out with them every day and photograph. I would literally hike with my full camera bag and stands and a backdrop.
And I would photograph them either right before they were going, or right when they came down off the rock. So it wasn’t very staged because that was how they were looking for the day that was all their real gear. And it was just moments before they were going to go. So I was in the park for probably a week and photographed like 50 or so climbers, and I’d just be walking up to them, introducing myself, asking them to take some photos. And it was really nice, people were cool about it.
DY: Some of the landscapes, especially when I look at your project on the Virginia Kyanite miners, it’s very easy to portray these industrial landscapes as dystopian.But I noticed that your photographs are very bright and even colorful. And I don’t know if you do any work to bring that out after you shoot those pictures, but it’s really not drab. It’s very light. I wanted to ask how intentional is that and what you do to accomplish that?
WS: I’m always thinking about colors more. In my photos oftentimes I’m more attracted to a clean composition or a photo where when you look at it, you kind of immediately get what you’re looking at. It doesn’t take a lot of thought process or anything. One way that I find you can add emphasis or another element is with color in certain areas, whether that’s a helmet or a shirt, or a tool. And there’s always some of my editing after the fact, I’m always looking for pops of color that I noticed. So I very much gravitate towards that.
And it’s funny because also in my post-processing I desaturate, and I take out some contrast as well. But because there’s so much emphasis in my photos on one color that’s already occurring naturally in the photo, it makes it seem almost more saturated than it is if that makes sense.
DY: You told me in our earlier conversation you almost never work with models, that people you photograph, even for commercial projects, are real people with real stories. What are the challenges of that and what are the rewards?
WS: Working with real people is simultaneously the best and worst thing ever. It can be the best because it’s not likely they’ve been photographed before. You can get real emotion, and tell real stories. However, it can sometimes be tough getting them comfortable in front of the camera. That just takes time collaborating with them to make a good photo. Also, not everyone photographs well, so sometimes it can take working with a bit more people to get the one that works.
DY: When looking at your photographs, it’s striking to see a kind of “triangle” of subjects: a landscape, a man, and a tool. Could you talk a little bit about that approach?
WS: Whenever I go out to photograph, I’m always looking to make a story rather than a single photo. To tell a story you need to show who, why, and how. You can use a portrait, landscape, and detail to show this.
You need a landscape, which shows where they’re doing what they’re doing. You need a portrait to show who it is, and you need a detail to show what they’re working with. So if you did those three photos or variations of all those – that’s, to me, how you tell the story. So there’s elements of all those things in my work, but generally they’re kind of the three things that I always concentrate on with every project.
It helps set the stage for the story to be told, and allows a better understanding for the viewer of what is happening.
DY: What other photographers and other mediums inspire or influence your work and why?
WS: I’m always looking at photography, and constantly finding new inspirations. Some of my earliest projects were inspired by Robert Frank’s ’The Americans’, and Richard Avedon’s ‘In the West’. For someone who’s had longevity of a career and bridged the art and commerce gap I always think of Kurt Markus. He was someone who was able to shoot a fashion story one day and then embed with cowboys for weeks on end. There’s really no one like him anymore. For more contemporary photographers I’m really inspired by Alec Soth, Anthony Blasko, Bryan Schuutmat, Joey Lawrence, and Elliot Ross. The list goes on and on.
DY: What is your camera of choice and why? Is it purely a question of technical capacity, or are there other considerations that guide your choice of the equipment?
WS: I often think that the style or format of camera has more impact on a photo rather than the brand itself. I shoot on all different kinds and formats, from rangefinders, to medium format, and occasionally a 4×5 large format. They each have their place for a given situation. Sometimes having a small rangefinder or point and shoot can help because it’s non-obtrusive and people don’t think anything of it. Unassuming subjects can hate having a dslr shoved in their face. But on the other end of the spectrum there are projects that I like a large format view camera because of the interaction it can cause a subject to have. So I’ve got 4 different formats I shoot with now, all digital except the 4×5. I think it’s also worth mentioning, at the end of the day the camera you shoot on doesn’t matter so much as the interactions you can have with your subjects. That is what will make the best photo.