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Photographer Lucy Gray on her career, children, and new book Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers

The joy I found in being a mother gave me the drive and the confidence to try something new. As a writer I was practiced in the word, “No,” but when I turned to photography I decided it was essential to say, “Yes.” Having a child made me want to succeed.

Lucy Gray


Lucy Gray is an award winning photographer whose work has been featured in numerous books as well as The New York Times, the Independent, Mother Jones, Dance Magazine, Brick and Salon.com. Her projects with the homeless residents of San Francisco, tango dancers, and families facing foreclosure in central valley of California have been exhibited across the United States. She created artwork to illustrate a letterpress edition of “The Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West for Arion Press, 2013. Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers published by Princeton Architectural Press is a project she has been working on since 1999 that came out in 2015. For more information, please visit her website: lucygrayphotography.com.


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We found you through your latest photography book, Balancing Acts
Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers
which came out earlier this year from Princeton Architectural Press. What inspired you to photograph ballerinas becoming mothers?

I realize now that my interest in this project came as a ten-year-old when I watched my mother get her first job and support her five children. I was deeply admiring of her and it made me sensitive to the needs of working mothers.

Many years later, as a photographer, I had been trying to create a project around the subject. I set up a shoot with friends so they looked like they were making cold calls at night in an office with their kids playing around them. I had a friend who worked in the investment banking world and I knew she pumped milk as she commuted to work. I photographed her doing this but it didn’t have that dramatic element.

I knew almost nothing about ballet. I had never been a fan. But when I met Katita Waldo, a prima ballerina, with her three-day-old son James, in the market, I was ready to appreciate her and her situation and that it was a visual of what nearly 75 million women were doing in this country already as working mothers. Ballerinas just look a whole lot better doing it.

And here was a woman, who introduced me to two more, who were at the top of their field, succeeding, having risked everything to become mothers.

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Did you find the ballerinas had specific work/life struggles that differed from regular working moms?

It was the opposite. Their struggles were universal but they all became better dancers AFTER they had children. They found something outside of themselves that was more important to them and inspirational. They are a testament to the best in human nature.

It goes against everything we think we know about the needs of a ballerina to be single focused which dovetails with the idea that a mother must be single focused to be successful. The idea that came naturally out of this story is that the dancers were better mothers because they danced and better dancers because they were mothers.

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Fourteen years is a long time to be involved in a project like this, how did you maintain your motivation and enthusiasm?

I never looked too far ahead. I thought I’d have a book in two years. In 1999 I started. In 2005 I had an agent who took the book to twenty-five publishing houses who turned it down. That was the lowest point in the process — when she gave up. I cried for three weeks. Really cried.

And then I thought, what am I going to do? I don’t have a choice but to keep going. I know this is a good subject, an important subject, and I can’t throw good work away. Luckily, the ballerinas never wavered.

I don’t know that I told them about my difficulties getting a publisher. There was much more intensity in the early years — it was my main project then. There were shows over the years that I focused on. So i was always using and developing the work. Later I checked in periodically. I went to see them dance every year and went with my camera to their dressing room. I went to events.

By 2006 Kristin’s life is changing. She’s getting a divorce. She’s moving in with the conductor at the ballet, Martin West. James danced in The Nutcracker at SFB. Kristin had another baby and I photographed that and then their wedding as well. Each of the ballerinas retired and I was there for that.

The children grew up a lot. So you see I made sure I was there as a constant but not invasive presence. I was always working on many other projects. That kept me interested when I went back to them and them interested in me. They felt fresh and I was committed, it was not unlike having a job and being with your children but not day to day.

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Did you strive to keep distance between yourself and the ballerinas or did you find yourself becoming involved in their lives?

It was somewhere in between. I certainly heard a lot of stories from each of them about their lives, things I would not include in this book. I became friends with each of them in different ways. I am not in the ballet world though and I didn’t try to be. Our meetings really were around this project. I did keep my mind always on the direction of pictures for a book. So I didn’t take many pictures of the families without the ballerinas in them or at home.

I could easily have slipped into being their family photographer — there were jokes about me being their personal mommy photographer at the ballet — but I didn’t want to be that. I wanted the book. I saw them as being in the book. And they saw me that way, too. They performed for me in a certain way. They gave me pathways to their inner lives and that’s what makes them photogenic.

Creativity is at the center of these pictures — making dances, making babies. Talk certainly occurred when the camera was put away but I didn’t meet them without a camera. We all knew we had business together first. That was the framework to our relationships.

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Your own career has spanned an array of media and disciplines, how did you first get started?

My first job in 1979, after studying Film and European Literature at Dartmouth College, was as a radio talk show host for WNHV, an ABC station in Vermont. That was a fabulous first job after years of waitressing! I won an award. But after two years I found that instead of just asking about artist’s experiences I wanted to do some of the things myself.

I got a job in San Francisco acquiring films for a new distribution company. Then I produced a film for one of the directors I met there. For ten years, beginning in 1984 I wrote a lot of unpublished work but was regularly published by Elle, Interview, Movieline, The Boston Globe, The LA Times, The Real Paper for whom I wrote personality pieces and book reviews. I had my first short story published by The Journal of Gastronomy which was a milestone I have been circling back to more recently.

Why did you decide to pursue photography?

In 1989, I had my first son. I had wanted to change careers and when he started preschool three years later, I signed up to take photographs of the children for a fund raiser. As a child I had been given a Swinger Polaroid Camera — black and white images only — and treasured it but it was my brother who wanted to become a professional. For years, after a day at the typewriter, I would make collages from photographs in my postcard collection. Two artist friends who were appreciative of those collages thought I should become a photographer.

I took a darkroom developing class and picked up a camera really for the first time when I volunteered at my son’s preschool but that was the beginning of fifteen years as a professional portrait photographer and ten of those with a gallery and regular showings.
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Naming the Homeless: Before where the couple lived in their van on the street and After they had been made over pictures

 

I had many shows outside the gallery as well and one was in 1998 at Grace Cathedral. It was called “Naming the Homeless” for which I photographed 28 homeless people where they slept at night and again after they had been made over to look like fashion models. It showed at Christmastime in the nave of the cathedral which had never been done before or since. 50,000 people saw that show and eight of the participants got permanent employment.

tilden_cityhall

Left: Tilda Swinton near her home in Scotland. We didn’t know what I would make of pictures I took of her (2007). Right: Being interviewed by David D’Arcy for Artnet in 2006 about my exhibition of Tilda Swinton montages being projected on the north and south faces of City Hall for a week during the San Francisco International Film Festival.

In 2006, montages I had created from my photographs of the actress, Tilda Swinton, were projected on the north and south faces of City Hall in San Francisco for a week.

You’re also a filmmaker — could you tell us a little about how that came to be and your film series?

In 2007, I made a movie a week for an internet show. My page was called “Lucy Talks Movies.” In 2009 I started film clubs where I showed series of films on consecutive Monday nights and I gave a talk about each one. I still do three series a year. I have shown about ninety films. This has been my job, my reliable income, since digital photography came and changed everything for most professionals.

Director and Genevieve

Directing Genevieve Goes Boating – working the clapper in front of Kitty Sherer who played Genevieve and her two imaginary friends at sea, 2011.

 

In 2011, I made a film from a short story I wrote called Genevieve Goes Boating which was narrated by Tilda Swinton. The film played at film festivals around the world and continuously for nearly three years in the lobby of the National Park, Fort Mason, Building C, in San Francisco, and is available for viewing on Indieflix.

In 2013, an art book publisher, Arion Press, invited me to create images for an edition of the classic novel “The Day of the Locust,” by Nathanael West. The story is set in Hollywood in 1939 so I made photographs as stills from a movie I might have made from the book. That is a letterpress edition, the pictures are tipped in, very special. It sells for $650.

And you’re also a writer and playwright, can you tell us a little about that?

In 2008, I produced a play I wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville at Grace Cathedral. My first project there had gone so well that they again trusted me to do something I had never done before and pull it off. The run was sold out.

I was asked to do a reading of short stories I’d written at Z Space, a theater in San Francisco. The series was called “Out of the Box” and when I was introduced it was said that they could find no box in which I fit — everything I did was out of the box. In 2014, I created a play from “The Day of the Locust” and directed an evening where the “actors” in the pictures performed at The Mechanics Institute Library. One of my stories was published in Narrative Magazine.

Did becoming a mother yourself change your relationship to your work?

When I had my first son, I was a writer, and I had to stay up very late for deadlines. Even though I produced, I felt I had writer’s block for the entire ten years which included the first three years of my son’s life. I did find it extremely difficult to write late at night and get pieces in on time.

So I began getting up very early in the morning, before he woke, and getting my work done. I need to do what I have to before I can play so I was then ready when he woke to make cut out villages and dress up in costumes and read stories. I did have a sitter come for twelve hours a week when my son was six-weeks old, and that built to twenty hours a week as he got older and used to her. This is before he started preschool at three.

The joy I found in being a mother gave me the drive and the confidence to try something new. As a writer I was practiced in the word, “No,” but when I turned to photography I decided it was essential to say, “Yes.” Having a child made me want to succeed. I had to live up to a standard for him. In a way, my sons became my audience.

They would notice and be influenced by what I did so I wanted that to be good. I needed to bring something to the table, not just what I had tried, but what I had succeeded at doing. Of course time was always against me. One reason I became a photographer was that it was easier to fit in shorter time blocks.

What has been your experience in balancing being a mom and your creative work?

My photography business really started and took off when my first of two sons went to preschool. So I got brilliant at getting around the — making a drop across town at a film developing lab in the time it took for soccer practice or doing a shoot while he was at a birthday party or making him a model for a brochure. Though my older son remembers me leaving him late at school because I had forgotten to pick him up. I remember it as him being old enough to walk four blocks home but he wanted me to pick him up instead. I used to say that you couldn’t get me to an event unless there were three reasons for me to be there.

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2001: Exhibition at Jernigan Wicker Fine Art, “Tango in San Francisco.”

I did a series of pictures of people doing the tango and for that I would put my children to bed and go out around 10:00 pm when the dancing started. What I hardly ever did was travel or go out with friends.

Have your children also been involved with your work?

My children were both involved in my work. My older son was a great model though he was very difficult about it. I’ll never forget the time I had four of his friends and him doing a toy company ad when they were about four and he wouldn’t smile and he said angrily, “You want me to be Barney?!” My best pictures of him were when he was pouting.

My younger son was naturally good with people and mechanical so he came with me on shoots and helped from when he was two.

He was one of the “actors” in The Day of the Locust” project. He came home for Christmas this year and shot the ballerinas for the promotional video for the book. He has been very involved in my work.

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My son Zachary kicking me during an interview for a short film about my being a photographer who takes her kids with her to work. Filmmaker: Tory Stewart, 2000

 

What are your biggest struggles?

My biggest struggles are around technology. Nothing makes me crazier than trying to work with computers.

The lowest time for me as a mother was when I was making a video with podcast a week and my older son’s bedroom was next to my office so he could hear me at 3 a.m. screaming in agony.

The people who hired me wanted the shows to be made by one person. They said it was because they wanted our personalities to drive the authenticity of the shows. But the digital recording devices were all new so they were extremely complicated still and getting them to work and then work with one another was a trial.

All my money went into equipment. If I didn’t get a movie up each week I wouldn’t be paid. And when I did get one up thousands of people saw it and I heard from loads of people which got me all excited to keep going for another week. Then our bosses decided none of us had a big enough audience and they wanted us to fix it. How?! My son hated me during that period, understandably. And then the company was sold and our page was folded immediately.

After that I wrote my first play. I wanted nothing more to do with recording devices. I was a much more available and happy person while writing the play and producing it.

Do you have any other project coming up?

You will have guessed by now that the answer is yes.

I have been working on my second play for five years. I have had some readings in New York and in San Francisco and it is ready to be developed. I am trying to get it read by a dramaturge. I wrote some short stories for an application to a fellowship that I just learned I did not get. So I will write more, try to have them published in literary magazines, and in a collection eventually.

My ideal would be to have that collection illustrated with my photographs — fictions I make for the book. I taught a class last fall in illustrating short stories with photographs. That was a great experience and I would like to do more of that. I am illustrating A Christmas Carol with an all black cast – I don’t say “African American” because this is an English story. I am hoping to place that with a publisher. I have taken many classes in self publishing and I may go that route at some point.

I am right now applying to make a film. Can’t say more about that right now. My next presenting film series starts in May!


Want more? Read Lucy’s account of the bumpy road as she took Balancing Acts from a photo project to published book.

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