William from Springfield, Pennsylvania, opens his interview telling us about his desire of turning a self-taught photography passion into a job. “Photography simply started as a hobby”.
Hi William, let me welcome you to Pellicola!
It was a hobby but was it just your curiosity or the influence of a friend that got you started?
I took some darkroom photography classes a very long time ago, but then the medium lay dormant for about 15 years or so. During that time, I had obtained a degree in graphic design – a subject that never completely fulfilled me. I like to refer to myself as a “failed designer” because photography came back into my life and it’s been a constant ever since. I taught myself more or less, with the unconscious help from the photography community here in Philadelphia, as well as acquiring as many photography books as possible and learning that way – my “textbooks of life”! By the way, the work’s origin lies in quite simply exploring and documenting; there isn’t much else to it. I enjoy making pictures and discovering and recording new things as much as I can.
Looking at your various projects, When the Neighbourhood’s Not Looking literally brought you from home, in Springfield, down the South Jersey coast, until you came back via Delco. Did you like the idea of an opening work based on familiar places and decide to combine them with an “on the road” series?
When the Neighborhood’s Not Looking contains around 6 years of work made on my home turf. I grew up just outside the city of Philadelphia and when you grow up in Philly or the surrounding Pennsylvania suburbs, you have a 100% chance of spending some, if not all, summers on the Jersey coast. I have lived in the city for the past decade or so – and so these three locations became the framework for the project and subsequent book.
Quoting Erik Bader’s words about his project, William explains the link with his territories that so clearly appears in the shots: “Delaware County. Philadelphia County. Camden County. Cape May County. These are more than just maps, they are the truths we hold to be self-evident. Billy Cress was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He lives in the city of Philadelphia. He has been to New Jersey. These photographs are the evidence”.
You often photograph people walking down the street – men and women illuminated by the sun – highlighting the spectacle of everyday life. The bright colours of the clothes, like those of the street signs, give life to the subjects. The gestures – a child holding the hands of two adults, a woman sitting on a bench, another waiting behind her flower stand, a well-dressed man on the phone and yet another idling on a chair – all acquire something of the theatrical. What are you trying to capture through your camera lens?
I don’t know what I’m trying to capture until it presents itself to me. I know I’m going out for a walk – and I have my camera ready, but I’m simply waiting for something to pique my interest. Whether that’s someone I find interesting, fascinating architecture, an odd occurrence, something humorous, cleverly ordered, and so on.
William’s photographs portray reality exactly as it presents itself to the observer – scenes where the lives of the inhabitants are made present in each detail. His guide, counsellor and friend as regards lighting, shadow and colour is he, himself, alone in each and every moment …
The only viewer I’m trying to talk to is myself in the moment – and I’m trying to work out the problem of making an interesting photo of something that I saw. Because seeing something you like and making a photo of that thing are two very different things – at least to me.
What about your book When the Neighborhood’s Not Looking published by the independent AINT-BAD magazine? In your introduction we read: “This is the poetry of no-space, of no-where. And yet, as each image reveals, we are somewhere. To merely exist is to possess meaning”. What is essence of your work? What is the central focus of your monograph? Does a shared theme relate to each volume or does each present a topic that gives food for thought?
AINT-BAD reached out to me about making a book of one of my projects and it had come along at a great time as I had been already looking to make something in 2019. They seemed like a good fit and I had a very good experience. The book overview nails it on the head: “In writing, the idea is to show, not tell. A photograph often does both. Yet the photographs in this book neither say nor show. They merely are. The peripatetic peregrinations of an ordinary life, they function just like our own lives: they start, they stop, they snap, and they continue. They are the stillness in between moments, the points between A and B, those average places where people are born, buried, and born again, with miles of lives in between. The graveyard in this book is the graveyard where the photographer’s family is buried, where the photographer too will one day be buried. A conclusion already written. These images are how we get there”.
Down the Shore –What is the origin of this project based on dwellings of all sorts that have attracted your attention? Did you look for buildings with something more to tell than their external facade? Or did you put together disparate material collected over time?
Southern New Jersey has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember because I vacationed in these beach towns, mainly Sea Isle City, NJ, every summer growing up. Down The Shore was (and is continuing to be) shot over the off-season months of these seasonal destinations. I pick up the project on Black Friday every year and work on it on the weekend until March. Down The Shore is partly about collecting and preserving the dying old homes and structures of the Jersey coast in still photographs. As well as simply documenting what it’s like in the off-season on the coast.
There are no human figures in this photographic series. Apart from buildings, the protagonists are the trees that inhabit the space with their unpredictable forms given by nature. Why this choice?
I like to capture the glimpses in which human beings are in dialogue with the environment without taking control and overpowering it.
What about your photographic technique, how do you prefer to work?
At the moment I am working entirely on film. Currently with medium format.
As a self-taught artist, was it hard to find your path, to affirm your artistic personality and transform a hobby into a profession? What would you recommend to those who are ready to take the same risk?
It’s certainly a challenge. But what drives me forward is the challenge. Every so often I get a photo that I love and that facilitates more and more energy and willingness to make more work. I’d recommend to just make as much work as you possibly can and fight through the bad stuff until you have a revelation or breakthrough. It will pay you back emotionally and artistically.
Is there anything special you would like to recommend to our readers? Is there something or someone that has been a fundamental source of inspiration for you? An author or a documentary, an experience or an artist who was a revelation to you?
Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, and too many other photographic influences to mention here … the entire Philadelphia photography community.
Thank you so much! I hope you have enjoyed sharing your personal experience with us!
Interview by Costanza Francesconi
Images © William Cress