INSIDE THE GLASS studio at The Pratt Fine Arts Center, Julie Conway was spending $300 an hour, with her team under pressure and heat to create a slew of watermelon-size globes, while I was getting paid a whole lot less to cover Julie Conway.
And then one of those fiery glass orbs happened to fall into pieces (as glass can do during the hotshop process) after being yanked from a bucket of cold water.
This was one of those assignments when I was going to have to not only get great photos, but also empathize with my subject.
Conway, a lighting designer and glass artist, had the globe dipped in the water for only a second, to create cracks encircling the piece. But now she would have to start the complicated and lengthy glassblowing process all over again. She had just begun and still had at least 20 more pieces to go.
I’ve been covering artists of all sorts for more than 35 years. For my high school newspaper, I keyed in on musicians at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, in Washington, D.C., where I’m from. In college, I made my documentary project on a painting major. Later, I roomed with a sculpture major from Delaware and a painter from England.
Visually speaking, I see my job as push-button simple, with some-strings-attached creativity. Covering an artist like Conway is humbling because she navigates a world of artistic process that produces amazing ideas that sometimes conflict with implementation.
Yet, she pulls it off. I witnessed Conway rework an idea to better fit a spiral staircase. During my multiple photo shoots with her, I was constantly reminded of my own medium’s limitations. First off, my work doesn’t drop jaws like Conway’s does. And documentary photography is hemmed in by a lot: journalistically and otherwise. Conway’s vision is seemingly without limits.
But I do feel a creative kinship with Conway in some respects. We both inhabit a world that is fast, hard to control and dependent on others, while requiring infinite decisions and dealing with changes, logistics and technical issues. Our aims find similar results in saturated beauty and light. And Conway and I are both dependent on having our work accepted and presented. In my case, photos are edited to fit into a newspaper, while Conway’s concepts in metal, wire and glass usually need to fit a client’s or architect’s desires, or inside a spiral staircase.