March Feature: Steve Davis, Documentary Photographer
March 8, 2015
We are happy to present Steve Davis, our Featured Artist for March! Steve Davis is a documentary portrait and landscape photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Russian Esquire, and is in many collections, including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Seattle Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the George Eastman House. He is a former 1st place recipient of the Santa Fe CENTER Project Competition, and two time winner of Washington Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowships. Davis is the Coordinator of Photography, media curator and adjunct faculty member of The Evergreen State College. He is represented by the James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
See examples of his work on our Homepage or at the bottom of his feature page. Davis currently has a book out from Minor Matters HERE, and is exhibited in a show in Chicago HERE. Below, see what he has to say in an exclusive interview...
Interviewer: How did you get into photography?
Steve Davis: I started doing it as a kid, and then in high school. It was sort of my thing, my identity. I would photograph all the games and cheerleaders. I just continued on with it through college. So here I am, still doing it.
Interviewer: How did you get into documentary photography?
Steve Davis: I got into documentary photography all kinds of backwards. I was doing a lot of work at the time for my college as the staff photographer: documenting work and portraiture and that kind of thing. But I didn’t really have an interest in documentary photography--I didn’t think it was a terribly valid form of photography. At that time, it just seemed kind of tired and worn out. I was far more interested in a postmodern perspective, very interested in cyberarts, which in the early 90’s was an exciting way to pursue digital images.
Interviewer: Oh, what are cyberarts?
Steve Davis: Exactly, it’s not really a term anymore. It’s exploring what you can do with technology in the arts. And, of course, the beginning of doing anything digital was starting to emerge in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Work was sort of to investigate how the meaning of information was now going to be changed, and changed forever. So I started doing that... and no matter what I did or what anybody else did, the subject was always about the media itself. It could never extend beyond, “Let’s explore the media and how that changes things.”
And so, quite by accident, I got invited to teach some workshops in a juvenile incarceration facility in Maple Lane, and while I was there, they wanted me to take photographs that they could use for their fundraising. I didn’t want to do anything that looked like documentary work. I thought at the time that I was actually making an anti-documentary work--intentionally extracting the individuals and the portraits outside of their environment of prison, like by putting black fabric on the walls. I started with that and eventually it grew into an expanded look at incarceration facilities, and not just faces and kids. Then the work started being accepted, and I was asked about my “documentary work,” when I hadn’t even thought it was a documentary work. So I basically got in [the field] by not knowing what documentary work was.
Interviewer: I believe that project, “Captured Youth,” was formulated into a book?
Steve Davis: Well, I had a blurb book. But I have a book coming out, and I have a link to that. It’s not out yet. It’s with Minor Matters, and their model is that they need to pre-sell a certain number of books. Then when they reach that amount, the book is released. So we’re at the very beginning of that process now.
Interviewer: Did you talk to [the youth]? Were they sharing their stories? I saw a video on [your website] called Confessions that I thought was really interesting.
Steve Davis: Yeah, I did. I actually did a series of video interviews early on, and because I was working with a group, teaching them photography, I spent a long time with them. Through them, I would want to photograph others or they would want to be photographed. Some of them, I had very little connection with, and others, a fair amount. I rarely inquired about what got them there. It was always better, for me anyway, to accept that, “Okay, they’re there.” How they got there was somebody else’s issue. I’m just here to deal with them as a human being. So I often didn’t know why they were there.
Interviewer: Were there any stories from when you were interacting with them that really made an impact on you?
Steve Davis: Sure. I photographed at a place called Remann Hall, and I spent most of that time working with incarcerated girls. I worked with a girl who was eleven years old--she was real heartbreaking. I don’t know if what everything she told me was true, because often what they say is not, but she was there for beating up her father--and she was a tiny, little eleven-year-old, so that made less sense. She was basically deserted, abandoned by her family, at least according to her. So that was a real heartbreaker.
There was a boy named Benito, who was Mexican and was arrested for muling drugs into Washington. He was a very sad case. He was so innocent, and he was doing it for his family. Couldn’t speak a word of English. Everybody there knew that if anyone should not be there, it was him. I watched him really get hardened and toughened over just a few months.
The most disturbing story actually didn’t involve anyone I had worked with directly, but he was with some of the kids I was doing workshops with. The workshops would often not have anything to do specifically with photography. It was mostly just an opportunity for them to talk and maybe walk around the facilities, very informal study like that. And some other kid walked up to some of my students and was making some big deal about this big secret he had. There was this back-and-forth, like “We don’t care about your secret,” but he clearly wanted them to ask about the secret, which I assumed was drugs or something that had been smuggled in, because that happens all the time. So finally my students were like, “Okay, what have you got in your pocket?” And he pulls out this crinkled, old photograph that was just of him and his family. That was the one secret he didn’t want anybody to take from him.
That really hit home with me. Their personal connection to their family photographs, or even just magazines of girls in bikinis, all that stuff. That was the only thing they had that wasn’t institutional. The importance of it to them was huge. My kids would be taking pictures and would keep creating them and giving them to other kids. It was almost like money. The kids in my class with their cameras became really sort of powerful. They could control an image and share it. That was a huge deal.
Interviewer: Would you say this project has changed your view on your judicial system? What do you think is the main focus of this project?
Steve Davis: Yes, this totally changed my view--not that my view was the complete opposite of what it is now, but, like most people, I didn’t have one terribly formulated. They do a good job of keeping this stuff pretty well hidden from the general public, but they’re starting to change that, I think. I saw some really supportive staff people, with some really good programs and really good things. But I also saw some other programs being erased because they couldn’t afford them--real, basic things like auto mechanics. The IMU, the Intensive Management Unit--I saw that, and it that was just mind-blowing.
I think what I came away with is that there’s no one answer--it’s really messy, everyone’s got a different issue. And I think that’s why photography works really well, because it pretty much presents something on the surface and then requires someone to think it out based on their own experiences. I can tell you one thing: the system that they have now--and I say now, but these pictures are a few years old--is just a total failure. Super expensive. The recidivism rate is about 80%, so it’s clearly not working.
Interviewer: From that project, how did you choose your next subject?
Steve Davis: Yeah, I don’t know. I think I began to realize that it wasn’t so much that they were incarcerated in the initial ones that I was attracted to, but that there was a sort of institutionalized parenting, where the state becomes a sort of maternal figure. And what does that really mean for these communities in which people may have nothing in common except that they are in the same institutionalization.
So from that I did some work for the Department of Social and Health Services, which is not on my site. And I learned about this place called Rainier School. I heard some terrible stories about somebody who had to be jailed--and it was a ridiculous story, wasn’t true, but it was a fascinating start. I explored it and started writing letters. I wanted to photograph the people at the Rainier School who were developmentally disabled. In some ways it’s very similar to the juvenile incarceration, and in other ways it’s completely different. I sort of found myself attracted to that institutionalized community. Then from there, my more recent work involved people who are completely not beholden to any institution, at least in their own minds. That was the ”21st Century Hippies” series. These people were just the dead opposite of those I was photographing before.
Interviewer: How about the landscape projects you did, like “The Western Lands” and the “Abandoned Brewery”? Were they just interesting spots you wanted to work with? Was there anything you found really unique about them?
Steve Davis: After a few years working in these facilities, it really gets overwhelming, so I wanted to intentionally break from that and do a series of landscapes. Landscapes--that’s a genre that’s done so much, and I wanted to see what I could do with it and take it seriously. So I started doing “The Western Lands.” I found it actually to be extremely difficult. I thought it would be easy. But it’s enjoyable. I still do it off and on and keep adding to that collection of work.
The Brewery was a big thing here in Olympia. It made Olympia beer... It basically closed down, and nothing was being done with it at all. It was being vandalized for the copper wire
Interviewer: Do you just stumble upon it?
Steve Davis: Well, I would drive by it. It’s near where I live. So I tracked down who the owner was, and it took some emails, but eventually they let me in it. And I found that to be really fun, because it was like I was being a little boy again in a building you’re not supposed to be in. ‘Cause everything’s just dark, big, and empty, and there are all these crazy, little spaces. I enjoyed doing that work, and I feel it’s just kind of important for me, since I’ve been living here for so many years, and I miss smelling the brewery when it was active. That’s just a little project I did for my own curiosity.
Interviewer: What inspired your segment, “Where Babies Come From”?
Steve Davis: A couple of things. I’m faced with having to explain that to my own daughter... And what I wanted to explore was the idea of a fairly formal portrait, like what I’ve done with other subjects, but with brief and odd motion and actual commentary. So I focused on one single question. There’s sort of only one answer to that question, in terms of the mechanics of where babies come from, but everybody approaches it in crazy, different dimensions. No one says the same thing about the same subject. So I kind of liked the fact that for a very simple question, you never know what’s going to come out of some people’s mouths. I thought that was very interesting. This is me trying to explain the idea of video, but from a photographer’s perspective. I would show this work in vertical monitors if I could, to try to present them as static prints that are, in fact, not static. I need to do a lot more of those. Well, what’s your thought on those?
Interviewer: I thought they were interesting in the aspect that it’s a topic that comes up with all of us. Their expressions as they were talking - it seems like they were trying to keep very plain-faced. They were trying to be very scientific about it, and it was funny and familiar in a way.
Now that you’ve experimented with video and photography, which one do you like better?
Steve Davis: You know, I’m always going to be a still photographer, but I don’t want to be ignorant of [video]. I don’t want to be resistant to it, so I just sort of dived into it. I teach photography, and I have to teach video now, which I have mixed feelings about, because that, in and of itself, is difficult. Such a big subject. But I don’t think someone can take a liking to digital photography and not explore video. So the way I get better at teaching it is to go out and do it myself, learn from my own mistakes.
It’s hard to show video. It’s hard to look at video in a gallery and listen to the whole thing. It doesn’t really work like that. It works almost better on YouTube or something. So I’m not happy with that part of it, yet.
Interviewer: What are you working on right now and where do you see yourself going next with your projects?
Steve Davis: Well, I’ve been working on a couple of shows. There’s one in Chicago. And I’ve been trying to help with the editor and publisher of this book thing, so that’s been taking up my time lately. All the “Captured Youth” stuff, the “Rainier School” stuff, that’s eight-by-ten film, which slows everything down and gets pretty expensive. And then with the landscapes I switched to a nice, high-end digital camera.
But I’m going to go back to film for a while. I think it might be a mix between portraits and landscapes. The reason I want to do it is--well, first of all, I think digital photography is superior to film and makes a better picture. But it also facilitates a sort of “fast food” photography where you don’t have to think about anything. You just consume it and then it’s done and then there’s more photography to look at. But when you shoot film, especially sheet film, it’s very expensive, very slow, so you have to be very deliberate. You have to put hours into it, or you don’t get anything. I want to slow myself down, get back in the dark room, and do that. That’s what I’m doing next. From there it might evolve into a more focused project, but for now, I’m more concerned with putting my digital camera aside
Interviewer: What advice would you have for our readers on the blog?
Steve Davis: In photography, and really, in everything, it’s very easy to do work and do it quickly and do a lot of it. But it’s also really hard to do that on any sort of meaningful basis for a meaningful amount of time. So it’s a lot of hard work. What I tell students who want to go into photography as a life mission or career is that you have to do it in spite of the opportunities, not because of them, because they’re not there. You got to keep doing it in spite of how bad it looks... otherwise you might want to choose something that’s a little easier, and a little more profitable.
Well, I’ve been lucky. I work for the state, I get a regular paycheck, and then on the side, I try to do work like what you’re looking at on the website. But a lot of people don’t have that, so they have to be okay with working at Starbucks or something so they can do their art. You can do this for a while, but it’s really hard to sustain.
Interviewer: How did you come in contact with “The 21st Century Hippies” models?
Steve Davis: I wanted to do a portrait series again. I work at a college, and I wanted to focus on the students, not somebody exotic or imprisoned. Students are their own form of institutionalized beings, as well. Evergreen’s famous for having a lot of hippies, and I reached a point where I don’t even see them anymore, I don’t think about them, they’re just part of the landscape. So someone was jokingly saying, “You should do hippies.” I thought, you know, I started working [at The Evergreen State College] in the 80’s, and the amount of hippies has been pretty much constant through all those years, and that’s actually kind of fascinating.
Some people I knew already. First off, I didn’t ask them, “Will you be in my picture and be a hippie?” I would say, “Do you see yourself as a hippie?” And they would say, “Yeah, I see myself as that.” So I would ask them to write a paragraph on how they are a hippie or how they see themselves as one and also if they would like to be photographed, and I would photograph them. At that point, I didn’t tell them what to wear, or how they should look, or anything like that. Some people had other friends, and they even went and started Craigslist. I started getting strangers at my door, and some of them didn’t even look how I envisioned a hippie, but if they were willing to self-identify with that title and write something to show how they did fall in that, then they would qualify. I wouldn’t use the term “model.”
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more interviews, blog segments, and sneak peaks into our upcoming Issue 2.