There are six million stories and counting in New York City, but the fact is, not enough of us slow down long enough to capture these illuminating tales. That’s where the young & talented photographer, Sean Tracy, comes into the picture (pardon the pun). He was born in this great city, and through his innate gift, he delivers stark and vivid imagery that speak directly to the soul of the observer. The remarkable thing is that he’s completely self-taught, and it goes to show that there always levels of artistry and insight that you just can’t teach. Check out our interview with Sean below …
I’m a New Yorker, born and raised, so my blood runs thick with the culture of my city …
When did you first fall in love with photography?
I can’t recall a moment in time where I fell in love with photography, but it is something which I have thoroughly enjoyed doing since I started playing around with the camera on my iPhone several years ago. It started as a true hobby for me when I got my first camera (Nikon D3200) which I still use today. The thing which I love most about photography is how we all alter perceptions of reality with our visions — no two people are going to shoot the same scene in the same light. I love how some photographs can be so powerful that they tell a story on their own.
I think photography can be a tool to do good in the world, and that is something which I would love to be able to do — a unique blend of journalism and photography. Reading an article may leave an impact on a reader, but a visual representation of what is being spoken about is much more visceral and leaves a much deeper and profound impact. When you look at what someone like Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York is doing, he is taking the art of photography to make real change across the globe — and I really admire that.
How did you develop your stark, black & white shooting style – did you go to photography school?
Well, recently I’ve just been infatuated with the idea of shooting black & white photography. I feel like in the absence of color, the objects in your vision become that much more pronounced. It’s only something which I’ve attempted seriously as of late, so I’m still learning the ropes, but I like the darker moods and emotions which black & white photography can evoke as well as the ways which you can still make a striking image even without bright and bold colors (for instance, the use of shadows).
Unfortunately, I did not choose to go to photography school when I got out of high school. It was around the time which I had graduated from high school that I started to become enamored with photography, but by that time I was only a beginner and thought nothing more of it than a hobby. I currently study Business and will be graduating in a few months with my Bachelor’s, but I’m definitely open to the idea of getting a second degree or taking classes in photography or film. I don’t think photography — or any skill for that matter — needs to be learned, as experience is our best teacher, but it would be nice to be able to learn more about some of the technical aspects. That is something which I really have never looked into. I enjoy the ability of being able to point and shoot but have never bothered myself with the technical aspect, fearing it would suck the enjoyability out of the act.
Your striking images narrate a deep love affair with NYC. Can you explain your relationship with this great city?
I’m a New Yorker born and raised (Queens!), so my blood runs thick with the culture of my city. I’ve loved living here since I was a child, and as much of a cliché as it sounds, there is nowhere in the world I would rather live. I love the way which the city almost comes alive with its own personality, a feeling I’ve yet to see replicated in anywhere else I’ve been. The city can bring the best and worst out of us at the very same time.
With my photographs, I try to capture the mood and essence of being a New Yorker from my own perspective. I’m fascinated and charged with learning as much about this city which I possibly can. If you don’t find me exploring my city, it’s probably because I’m sleeping. My favorite neighborhood in the city would have to be Chinatown — although I admit that Flushing has the superior Asian cuisine. I don’t just love to capture photos of the city, but I love to read, write, and learn as much as I can about it.
These days, it’s become easy for anyone to pick up a camera and call themselves a photographer – what separates the real ones from the posers?
I think that the fact that anyone can pick up a camera in itself is a blessing and a curse. Technology has made photography (and most art-forms) accessible to society, whether you are working with a Hasselblad/Leica camera or you are just shooting with your smartphone, the tools are there for everyone who wants to take part.
But while it has become accessible to everyone, it has kind of diluted the pool of photographers. It becomes hard to stand out because you will see everyone going around New York City (or any city for that matter) and doing the same five shots without trying to put creativity into it. Now I’m as guilty as any other because I’ve done tried and true shots others have as well, so I try to put a little of my personal aspect into my shots whenever I shoot.
I still don’t consider myself a photographer, rather someone who is fond of photography. I feel I will get there someday as I constantly practice and bring my camera with me everywhere I go. But until I can feel fully confident behind my camera, I would feel like a fraud to just label myself as a photographer and pass it as OK. This goes for anyone for that matter. I see people who had just started taking photos a few weeks ago labeling themselves as a “photographer”, and I think to myself — what does that make the ones who have been doing this for years? You don’t become something by doing it, you become something through hard work, dedication, and devotion. If you want to consider yourself a pro at something, you have to be willing to take yourself out of your comfort zone and explore uncharted waters.
The one rule I give myself is to not rely on the use of tripods and other camera gear much. The tripod saves me a lot of times, especially during the night time with long exposures, but I see a lot of people use it way too often and I think when you have so much gear you’re using it kind of blurs the lines of what you actually contributed from what your gear did for you. When it comes down to it, be true to yourself and who you are. I take photos and try to impress myself. I appreciate the feedback and criticisms I receive, but at the end of the day I want to create things which impress myself and make me feel happy. If you have a steady diet of hard work and dedication, you can be anything you want to be. Just don’t claim something when your heart isn’t fully in it and for the wrong reasons.
All that matters at the end of the day is the quality of your work — not your followers or any of that. I know people with way less followers than me who I consider way more talented at photography, and at the same time see a few with an insane amount of followers and work which isn’t up to par. Just do what makes you happy. You can tell who does it out of love of the craft and who does it to have their ego stroked.
What are the biggest life and artistic inspirations for the photographs you shoot?
I would say music is the thing which influences what and how I shoot the most. I usually plug in my headphones when I’m shooting, tune out the rest of world and let my music dictate how I shoot.
To date, what are some of your biggest achievements in your photography career?
Hmm… Well I haven’t been doing this for long and have only seen my efforts pay dividends recently, but there have been a few cool things I’ve gotten out of doing photography. I am working with one of my college professors on a book based on Central Park — his writing and the usage of my photographs. So that is something which really excites me and I can’t wait to hold a physical copy in my hands.
Apart from NYC, are there any other cities you would love to do photo essays about?
This has actually been something I’ve really been thinking about in the past several weeks. I just recently had the opportunity to travel to Chicago and do photography work, and I had the time of my life even though I was pretty sick throughout the whole trip. I love to travel, and as much as I love nature, I must say I love the urban setting. Chicago is a place which I felt like combined the best aspects of New York City and Boston (probably my favorite city I’ve traveled to), so I’d love to head back there when I get the chance since my stay was pretty brief. Aside from Chicago and Boston which I’ve already been, I’d love to take some time to get to Toronto, Montreal, Seattle and San Francisco when I get the chance. I haven’t been able to do much traveling in my life thus far (Chicago was actually the first time I left the EST time zone) so I’m appreciative that photography has given me an excuse to travel more and document my journeys.
Overseas, I’d love to go see parts of Europe and Asia. But if I had to choose the one country I want to visit at the moment, it would have to be Iceland.
Let’s talk about style and music – what are some of your fave fashion brands right now and what music artists/bands are you currently listening to?
I’m not just going to say this because I’ve recently done work for them, but I am in love with Palladium Boots right now. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have a grey pair which I love that are all I wear when I leave the house. In terms of fashion aside from footwear, I tend to not focus much on what kind of labeled stuff I’m wearing, but I do like Staple Pigeon, H&M, Adidas, and Ebbets Field Flannels.
In terms of music, I’m currently all over the spectrum. But the tracks which have gotten the most spins from me as of late are — Courtney Barnett “Elevator Operator”, Arcade Fire “Wasted Hours”, Blur “End of a Century”, Kanye West “Ultralight Beam”, Lou Reed “Andy’s Chest”, Tame Impala “Eventually”, Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”, The White Stripes “There’s No Home For You Here”, and Vince Staples “Jump Off the Roof”.
If there was one artistic icon (dead or alive) that you can spend a full day with, who would that be?
I would say this is definitely a very tough question! I spent a lot of my time in the past year working on a thesis paper focused on the history of art in New York City, where I spoke about The Armory Show (which was possibly the most pivotal moment in American arts), graffiti and street art and how they led to the rise of prolific art icons like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and of course in the contemporary setting, street photography and many of the photographers who I feel like are blazing the trail and setting the bar high for everyone else.
One of the people in the art world I would love to spend a day with would have to be Sebastião Salgado. Several months ago, one of my professors suggested I view The Salt of the Earth (strong recommendation), a documentary which focused on his life and career work as a photographer. I became enamored with his travels and style, and would definitely love to shoot with him one day — although he might have past that time of his life at this point. His black & white photography work is some of the best I have ever seen, and it partly inspired me to become more interested in shooting B&W recently. Pablo Picasso, Keith Haring and Kanye West would also be up there.
Lastly, can you give us any news on the exciting projects/plans you have coming up this year?
I have a few things I’m working on in the coming months. I’ve started creating content for a few brands (Palladium Boots, Just Porter, Happy Socks) and have several sets of photographs I’m working on revolving with the city which I’m trying get finished by the end of the year. I also am working on something which is going to fuse journalism, photography, and the arts — although I don’t know at this point if it will be done sooner rather than later.
My personal goal for this year is to just become more comfortable behind my camera, and hopefully save up the funds to upgrade to a better DSLR. I feel that the person is more vital than the camera, but my camera isn’t certainly doing me any favors either. Due to health issues, I haven’t been able to work over the past couple of months so my funds are basically drained. I’m just looking forward to getting back out to shoot every day and start saving up some money!
I have a few ideas for short films/documentaries which I’ve begun to flesh out my writing for, but I don’t want to act on it until I feel like I can produce it in the best quality available. I feel no matter what your passion is, you have to diversify. I love doing photography, but I also love and experiment with writing, marketing and film. Not everything is always going to pan out as you expect, so it’s good to make yourself as varied as possible.
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