Hobo #17 – Brooklyn, February 2015. I’ve always thought that ‘photographer’ was a very sexy profession for a woman, more so than for a man. As it turns out, Cass Bird’s photography is a modern and mischievous celebration of femininity. That’s a true statement, and one that sounds good, but I feel like the rise of Cass today is attributable to her personality, her ability to live in an intrepid way and so catch the exuberance of love and life so that her art, and the range of emotions contained inside, always appears to be an extension of moments lived.
Making the world a lot more like the way you imagine it, is at the root of what a certain ilk of artists do. But it’s not easy to pull off. Friendship looks like the central thread: Letting your guard down, our early years – blithe and happy, and the underlying ideal of resisting the strictures on everyday life.
Here then is Cass Bird, photographed by her longtime friend, Daria Werbowy.
Shawn Dogimont. — How did this experience go – switching roles with a supermodel, one who also happens to be a close friend? Was it the first time?
Cass Bird. — In a formal way, yes, it was the first time. I’m playful and collaborative when I shoot and get in front of the camera but there’s never been a photo shoot around photographing me.
— Did you like it?
— I liked it, I had a lot of fun being the subject. I find a lot of humor in being the subject and I’m a bit of an attention junkie so it feeds the beast in that way.
— Daria must have learned quite a bit as a model, in front of the lens. I’m thinking of certain actors that become directors and do it very well.
— I think it’s really great when a subject is taking it all in and actually observing everything that is going on around them. That’s unique and not everyone has that capacity because what happens a lot of the times, when you’re in that role, being the subject, is that you can kind of collapse around yourself and become self aware and self-conscious. Your awareness stops with you, with your body movements. Your experience is a physical one but when someone can stretch beyond that and see who’s in the room, how they’re moving, how the lights are being directed, it’s special.
— Are you someone that’s more comfortable giving directions as opposed to observing and being more of a fly on the wall?
— You know, I’m evolving as a photographer and with how I direct. In the very beginning, I would lose my voice and wouldn’t find my voice until after the shoot was over. And that was such a scary experience. When I started to be able to hear my voice, I’d get very excited about it and say “Oh I asked for that or I saw that and wanted this!” It was a process leading to having intuition in the moment and seeing things, actually seeing. I think for the most part it’s about generating and exploring a feeling, wanting to have an expression of our personalities. That for me is the sweet spot where I’m really engaged in play. A lot of time the play is about energies, like soft and strong and vulnerable and powerful. I used to reduce it to not feeling feminine but there are way more nuances than that.
— Have you identified a common denominator throughout your work?
— I can easily get turned on or off by the images that I make. It happens in real time when I’m shooting and then it happens in-house when I’m editing. I think what I am looking for is something that I can believe in. I look at pictures all the time, we all look at imagery, and a marker for me is “I don’t believe that” or “I believe that.” Photographers that I absolutely adore create something that feels like it’s a documentation of who we are, where we are and where we’re at.
— Which photographers or works speak to you?
— I love [Steven] Meisel, Juergen Teller, Viviane Sassen, the late Herb Ritts, Peter Lindbergh. Corinne Day is major for me. I believe their images.
— Who else inspires you?
— Poets. Reading Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver… And music, Stevie Nicks and Tina Turner. Right now I’m listening to Spooky Black. Do you know him? So beautiful, this awkward, white, sixteen year-old with a peach fuzz mustache. He’s from Minneapolis and he’s like swaggy but then his music is so deep and transcendent.
I also wanted to mention that my partner Ali has been a big part of my process and we’ve been together since the very beginning. She’s someone who’s always been able to remind me of who I am when I forget, which is often.
— You were already a photographer when you met?
— I wanted to be a photographer, we met in college seventeen years ago. I was more of a stoner than a photographer, [laughs] don’t put that in.
— You’re lucky. Can you trace back the process? At what point did you feel that you were well on your way as a working photographer?
— I guess today. I can finally admit that I’m on my way. I remember the first time I got a portrait commissioned to me from Interview, it was like a hundred years ago and I thought “Oh my God, this is it!” The portrait came back and it was terrible, and it ran really small and I was for sure not on my way. So I never define anything that is going to make or break me. I think [Creative Director] Sally Singer was a huge breakthrough for me, like [photography agent] Molly Logan she saw something and was able to give it an outlet. Molly was able to see that my work could be commercially viable, helped me exercise in that framework and that’s where I started to get these commercial opportunities. Jody Quon with New York Magazine was the first I think to give me an assignment that was amazing for me at the time. Sally Singer shortly after that. She gave me these massive occasions to work with really incredible subjects. I think that that was an undeniable breakthrough for me at the time. And then really I spent a decade, and I’m not exaggerating, just trying to find chances.
— In that time I imagine there must have been a lot of self-doubt as far as your career choice. Did you ever think “OK, maybe I’ve got to find another way to make money?”
— All the time, yes. My wife has an agency that represents hair and makeup and stylists that’s called The Wall Group. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had that conversation with her asking her to put me as one of her hairstylists because I’m good at hair. “Please can I assist? If I start doing hair, by this time next year I would start making money.” I wasn’t making any money. But she believed in me and said “No honey, it’s not going to happen, you aren’t going to be one of my hairstylists, this is going to happen for you. It’s happening.” She believed in me. I spent many a month in the fetal position completely paralyzed with fear and not knowing what the next step was going to be. I spent a lot of that time just stalking, fucking stalking photo editors and magazines and I got nothing in return, putting my work out there, emailing and sending my portfolio! I got zero.
— Have those same people reached out since? Because that must feel good…
— I can’t recall. Some of the people I tried to get in with, I still haven’t gotten in with. We find our people. I think that the people that weren’t interested me back then are probably still not interested in me for whatever reason. My photography is more visible now and there are more people out there attracted to whatever it is that I do, are aware and reach out and give me an opportunity to contribute to a magazine or to a campaign. I think that the people that saw something and liked what I did eight years ago were just waiting for me to get stronger at whatever I do, be at the level of what they were doing.
— I was really curious to ask about your family, because you’re raising kids, and how they affect your work, if it makes it harder or easier, if it informs your own tastes as a photographer.
— I don’t think it makes it easier, it only makes it different. You know, I kind of came into becoming a working photographer in tandem with becoming pregnant and becoming a mother. These things grew up in the same space. Before I had the kids I wanted to work, I wanted to be busy, but there wasn’t a strong current for that. And the thing is, with photography, you need resources to take pictures.
— Do you think it’s cheaper now to take photos or is it pretty much the same?
— It’s way cheaper. I mean we were using film and processing it. Ten, fifteen years ago it was different, Ali had to pay for my first editorial. I remember my first fashion story cost about $3,000! Just to process and print the film, that’s not even counting helping people show up to the set, feeding people, the location, all of that, just the film expense was intense. Over the history of photography it has increasingly become more accessible.
— Now do you think that this accessibility has devalued photography?
— It’s funny I just had this thought come to mind because I’m looking outside and it’s snowing. I don’t think accessibility has devalued photography but more that it’s lessened our ability to connect with nature and other human beings. If anything the culture of consuming images has placed a higher value on photography than ever before –everyone is consuming so voraciously because they feel it to be valuable. That’s why we are constantly staring down at our phones, scrolling through instagram. Does that make sense?
— Yes it does. How do you decide how to photograph someone?
— It depends on whom I’m photographing, if I have a relationship with the person and what it is I’m photographing them for. I love working with people that I’ve already worked with because I know what their rhythm and their threshold is. It was interesting for me being in front of the camera with Daria. I have a shorter attention span being in front of the camera than I do being behind the camera, and I already have a pretty short attention span to begin with! I’ve always been aware that there’s a really brief window to get someone to be generous in front of the camera, because you can’t keep coming at them over and over again. I mean you can be relentless but there isn’t going to be peaks and that’s what your looking for. What was the question? [laughs]
— Photographing Daria for example, you know each other so well, how do the ideas come?
— I try to just feel the situation. It’s not an intellectual process for me. You know how they talk about the reptilian brain, the fight or flight, where everything actually shuts down? I can get into that zone especially in the beginning. I pick up the camera and I’m really aware of how fast my heart is beating, that my breathing is erratic, how my limbs go numb, and that is every time essentially. My brain will shut down and that is part of the process. I drop into that zone and I finally have acceptance with that in a way. I’m always faced with my own pain and anxiety. I keep it slow and then I look for the moment when I can open it up.
— Can you cite a main influence? I don’t mean another artist, it can also be an event or a childhood discovery, something that is maybe responsible for you choosing this path and for what your photos exude. Is there anything like that that you can point to?
— Maybe that I am completely unemployable in any other capacity. [laughs] I had a really hard time, my start in life was difficult and I had a hard time, um, how do you say it? Performing. I had a hard time performing at school, I had a hard time performing at home, being able to be productive and successful.
— Did you want those things, did you think at some point it would be wonderful to be successful?
— I am not like a “I want to live off of the grid” kind of person. I’ve always wanted to, even from childhood, to make a contribution and feel a part of it.
— What was your childhood like?
— I had a really scary childhood, there was a lot of darkness you know. It was an unsafe childhood. It was unsafe in the home.
— Did you grow up in New York?
— I grew up in LA.
— When did you move to New York?
— Ten years ago.
— The one thing that I really take away from your work and that always draws me towards it is simply because you show models laughing and dancing or at the very least smiling. I find that so refreshing.
— Thank you. It’s funny I still look for the range of human emotion in my pictures but I like a smile. I do like humor and I’m more interested in exploring joy than I am darkness. I don’t explore a lot of darkness in my pictures maybe because when I’m not taking pictures I’m in an emotional hole.
— Do you have ups and downs, do you sometimes get the blues?
— Yeah, I definitely do. I can be pretty dark pretty often.
— I never would have guessed.
— It’s OK.
— You’re right, it is OK. Cass, what’s next? What’s on the near horizon for you?
— [laughs] A void?
— Emptiness. Most likely continue to work in my field, so that’s good. I got myself out of bed today so that’s really good too. I don’t have big master plans other than trying to show up for it all.
— I read this book when I was younger about writing. There’s an anecdote in it about a boy who was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then his father sat down beside him, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Getting up out of bed and knowing that it looks like you still have a job, I think that’s a pretty good start Mrs. Bird.
— [laughs] Yeah, that for me is the huge difference between now and where I was ten years ago and I’m really grateful for that shift. I’m more confident now that I’m going to continue to work and that there’s opportunity for me out there.