Underneath This had the enjoyable and soulful experience of interviewing grey doolin. According to grey’s biography, grey is a transqueer photographer, writer, and artist currently living in Cincinnati, OH. Having lived in various parts of the Midwest for most of their life, the rolling hills; big, open sky; and tucked away forests live in their body and serve as the inspiration for most of their work (and reason for getting up in the morning). grey writes an ongoing column for Original Plumbing, the online trans culture magazine, titled “The Spaces Between,” and is particularly fond of cold, rainy days. You can find more of their photos and words at greyspacephotography.net.
Please describe your path to becoming an artist.
My path to becoming an artist has been very nonlinear. I’ve always loved writing, playing music, and taking photos; I’ve always been really fascinated by people and their stories, too, which is why I ended up pursuing psychology in college and then as advanced degrees. Being a psychologist or an academic seemed like a more “respectable” career path than that of a writer or photographer, meaning that I would probably make more money. There is a deeply-rooted story in my family about money equaling worth, and it doesn’t even matter if the work is enjoyable. You make money because that’s what responsible adults do.
I recently decided to leave my graduate program because I was really unhappy and had all but severed my relationship with my creative self. Three years ago I was introduced to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and it transformed my life. I began writing every day and creating things and spending a huge amount of time outside. It was also a very difficult time in my life as I was making many foundational changes, and I credit the amount of walks I took on helping keep me okay. The Artist’s Way woke me up and gave me a safe framework within which to build a relationship with myself again. In retrospect, I knew I was unhappy in school at that time, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the structure that had held me up for so long. I spent the next couple of years really building my life outside of school so that when I finally decided to leave, I had a little more of a foundation. I had spent thirteen years pursuing a career as a psychologist, and I didn’t know much outside of that. I got involved with an awesome group of queers in Madison as part of LGBTQ Narratives, an activist-writers group, and my involvement there led to many great relationships and other community projects.
My creative work in the Madison queer community helped solidify that I am much more than a graduate degree and that my heart needs more space, time, and ongoing creative work with like-minded people to survive than was possible in graduate school. My identity as an artist is still very much evolving–both the creative work and how to be an artist in the world. It’s been a steep learning curve.
How do your creative passions of photography, visual artist, and music differ from one another? How are they similar?
My creative expression, however it manifests, comes from an intuitive, grounded, embodied place, and I trust that intuition to guide what form or “product” that expression takes. My preferred medium tends to happen in phases: for the longest time I solely identified as a writer, then I began writing songs and focused on music for a while, and now I have really shifted my focus to photography. Although I still write, play my guitar, and create other visual art, my primary artistic identity is as a photographer currently. All of the shifting around could be the Gemini in me, or it could be that I have finally settled into my preferred medium.
I feel the most vulnerable when performing my songs in front of others, so when the band I was in, The Sweetness of Gone, was doing shows 2-3 times a month, it took a lot of energy for me to get on stage each time. I couldn’t make eye contact with people most of the time and tended to turn away from the audience when playing. But my love of creating music with my bandmates and sharing that with others was greater than my fear.
My writing is the form in which I feel the most control, both in the process and the output. Although I tend to be quite vulnerable in my writing as well, I have had much more experience sharing it with others and it involves the “mind” more than my other creative work, by which I mean: there is a structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a point I am trying to convey. There is also a point I am trying to convey in my photography, but it is much less conscious most of the time. Unless I am taking photos for a specific project or for an event someone has asked me to shoot, most of the photographs I take are because the image or scene or moment caught my eye or tugged on my heart, really. I have no formal training in photography, so as I stated above, my intuition guides my eye.
All of my work feels vulnerable on some level, and I have really been working this past year on allowing my work to exist on its own and to believe in its inherent worth, whether or not anyone else validates that for me. It’s been a challenge for sure, especially when money enters the mix. It is hard not to equate selling prints or products or the number of Facebook likes with the value or worth of my work.
You have written, “I am most drawn to images of the natural world because I believe it is in those spaces that humans are most accurately reflected.” Can you elaborate upon that?
Absolutely. The primary reason I prefer to photograph images of nature over human subjects is because there is a purity there that is difficult to replicate in the human realm. There is no ego. There is less complication. There is unadulterated beauty. In nature I am able to see that which is often difficult to see in others and in myself: a deep, unconditional love and goodness. This is not to say that bad things don’t happen in nature; tragedy strikes, animals attack and kill each other. But not because of shame. Not because of hatred. Not because of a fear that is unique to humans.
How do your personal identities affect your art?
My story, which informs my identities, is intricately linked to my art. I see the world through a White, middle class, able-bodied, Transqueer lens. And within those identities are the layers of growing up in the Midwest, Pentecostal, working class, and female-bodied, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even include my relational experiences and great losses and celebrations. All of that to say: every ounce of who I am shows up in my work.
What are your creative inspirations?
The natural world, animals, relationships, spirituality, people and their stories, injustice, other artists’ work.
How do you decide when and how much to edit your work?
I intentionally do not highly edit my photographs. I might make small adjustments to the light or shadow of a picture, but that’s really it. I don’t own Photoshop. I don’t know how to use it. I am not particularly fond of it. Making extreme digital corrections to an image is not photography–it’s digital artwork. When I see highly edited photos, I have a strong aversion to them because I am afraid that that is what people will think “good” photography is–perfection. Photos with a cosmetic touch feel really hard to relate to–the desire for perfection takes the heart of them for me.
I feel like there is a certain culture amongst photographers where they compare their DSLR cameras and equipment and have debates over RAW versus JPEG formats, and I say: who cares? Take a picture. I am still shooting with a Canon PowerShot SX20 because I can’t afford a nicer camera right now; I use GIMP shop, which is a free, open source graphics program to add watermarks to my photographs; and I use Picasa to edit my photos when I do edit them.
I’m sure some of my reactivity comes from my insecurities about not having formal training–I still have a lot to learn around technique and being able to talk the language of a photographer (whatever that means). And it probably also stems from a fear that being authentic in this world will not be as rewarded as knowing how to play the game. Much like I am working on allowing my work to exist on its own and to believe in its inherent worth, I am working on trusting that the only way to show up is in a real, authentic, and vulnerable way.
What has it been like working on the Trans* Reflection project?
The Trans* Reflection Project is in the very beginning stages, but I am really excited about it. I am hoping to meet some wonderful people, hear some great stories, and take some awesome photos. I plan to begin putting the call out for participants within 150 miles of the Cincinnati area within the next couple of weeks. I have been talking about this project since October of last year, so it’s time to get things rolling. I’ve realized this past year that I am great at dreaming big and less great at putting things in motion.
How does a sense of place affect your art?
As part of the LGBTQ Narratives group in Madison, I often got the feedback that my writing conveyed a sense of place very strongly, which I agree with. I think I have always found comfort and connection in the natural world, so despite where I am, whether the landscape is new or familiar, I am acutely aware of my surroundings and how whatever is happening is situated in those surroundings.
I like all of your photography but am especially drawn to your piece, “Waiting.” What inspired that piece?
Once a year I like to take a “solo retreat” to some natural space I love for several days. A couple of years ago I traveled to Lake Superior, which is a very important and spiritual place for me. I even have the outline of the lake tattooed on my right calf. At that time in my life I was struggling a lot with intimacy and being fully vulnerable in my relationships, especially with my partner. I knew my heart was about to open in a way it had never before, but I was feeling super resistant to it at the time, wondering why I needed to change at all. I was walking along the beach one day and came across these birch trees buried in the sand, their texture made smooth by water, sand, and wind, and I deeply envied their existence.
This particular tree inspired a song I wrote on that trip called “Keep Moving.” The first stanza is:
I woke up one day
and decided I was tired of change,
like a birch buried in the sand
its roots pointed toward the sky,
I was prepared to lose my texture in the wind
frozen in place while I slowly died.
How is your relationship to your work different when it is published and/or featured in a gallery?
The main difference between my relationship to the work that I share and the work that I don’t is the amount of breathing I have to do when sharing something with the world, whether it’s a piece of writing, a photograph, etc. Because my work is very intimate, intricately linked to who I am and, therefore, vulnerable, I am still getting used to sharing it with the world and feeling okay with that. Some pieces are easier than others, but my mind can come up with insecurities about anything.
What advice do you have aspiring artists?
You will feel fear, but don’t let it get in the way. Keep showing up, even when it feels difficult. Find the people who see you, support you, and love you; let the others go.
On what projects are you currently working?
In addition to the Trans* Reflection Project, I am currently working on a project called “Succession.” A close friend of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and she asked me to photo document her journey with the disease. The project is deeply intimate and explores the process of death and rebirth and the intersection of those with gender identity/expression. So much of the narrative around breast cancer is by and for cisgender females who identify as such. We are hoping that “Succession” starts a new conversation around breast cancer and gender, in addition to documenting my friend’s process with her illness. Stay tuned for photos from both projects to be up on my website soon.