I love talking to people who are smarter and more connected to the world than I am. It’s one of the reasons I started this site. Being around photographers like this is extremely educational and a big reason I had to pose some questions to Cat Gwynn. I must admit that I have known Cat for many (no way I’m telling you how many) years, but if I did not, it’s still a definite I’d be wanting to conduct this interview with her. I also have to admit that while solidifying my research in order to write these questions I found it to be extremely difficult, though I did not understand why at first. It took me much longer than normal, as I found myself becoming emotional in a very profound way. It has to do with letting go and being who you are I suppose…even when you feel uncomfortable or exposed. In a way I don’t actually feel qualified to be asking someone, especially someone I know, about the heavier topic discussed here. I cannot perceive the intricacies of what it is like to experience a life threatening situation, and then turn around and make such a positive out of it. But, you know who does? Exactly….
Cat Gwynn was educated in photography, film, and fine arts at Otis-Parsons Art Institute, and has completed numerous master workshops with such esteemed artists as Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Peter Witkin, and Barbara Kruger. Her artwork is collected and exhibited in international galleries and museums including the Lishui Museum of Photography in China, The Drawing Center in New York City, the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, and is sold through the Susan Spiritus Gallery. She has lectured at numerous institutions including Otis College of Art and Design, New York University, and Art Center College of Design.
Cat’s images have appeared on the cover of Artweek, and in numerous other publications including Artforum, Newsweek, and Texas Monthly. She is also a seasoned lifestyle and portrait photographer whose images have sold through Corbis and Getty Images for nearly twenty years. Her commercial clients include Apple Computers, Starwood Resorts, Discovery Communications, and T-Mobile. In addition, Cat has gifted her talents photographing pediatric patients for Flashes of Hope, a volunteer organization focused solely on funding research for children’s cancer.
Cat Gwynn’s critically acclaimed photo memoir, 10-Mile Radius: Reframing Life on the Path Through Cancer, was released in the fall of 2017 by Rare Bird Books. She is currently at work on her next photo book project, Cry For Me, where she captures the raw power of authentic masculine emotion in intimate black and white portraits, giving the viewer an opportunity to witness these men in the genuine strength of their vulnerability.
Gathering the tools and techniques she discovered along her own healing path, Cat developed 10-Mile Radius: Creating a Personal Map for Wellness, a powerful transformative recovery program which marries art-making into a daily mindfulness practice. She teaches the program at addiction recovery and personal development rehabilitation centers, working with patients to co-facilitate a shift in their personal narrative.
Michael Kirchoff: Every photographer experiences that spark that drives them into the direction of image making. How did you get your start, and what were your early influences?
Cat Gwynn: In my early twenties I was beginning to travel a lot and I didn’t own a camera and thought I should be taking pictures of these places I was visiting so I bought a Vivitar Tech 35. It was a fun little camera and I fell in love with pushing the button! The funny thing is that camera had a fixed 35mm lens and to this day I still feel the 35mm is the perfect prime lens. From the get-go I loved shooting photos and knew almost immediately I’d found my calling. Now, thirty some odd years later I can say with assurance my passion for this art form has never wavered.
True be told, my early influences have never wavered either. First and foremost is, W. Eugene Smith. I remember early on in my art school days in the late '80s going to see a show of his at the Temporary Contemporary that to this day sticks with me. His gorgeous compositions are dark and painterly layered with so much humanity. Another profound influence was one of my teachers, Mary Ellen Mark. I saw her work for the first time many years before I studied with her but it blew my mind. Again, like Gene Smith, I’m always astounded by how they were able to capture these unbelievable moments with such perfect composition. Another major early influence was Sally Mann. I was immediately drawn to her work. It too is painterly and a bit foreboding, yet there’s this beautifully imperfect vulnerability to it that makes her images more tangible for me. I recently saw her retrospective at the Getty and her brilliance continues to astonish me.
MK: You have an art background, but went the way of shooting commercial work, as well as a substantial portion of your business photographing stock imagery. What led to this decision, and did you feel that your background was being represented in this work in any way?
CG: I’ve always said, I shoot commercially so I can afford to make my own work, and often it’s the personal work that gets me hired. Clients respond much more favorably to work they see passion in. I don't sell myself sharing work I did for other clients, I land things because my portfolios show how I uniquely see the world.
All the stock agencies that represent my imagery most certainly took me on because I brought an individual perspective to my photos. Most of my images are not ‘stocky’ whatsoever and over the years sold very well. I also was lucky during the stock heyday to work with some of the best art directors at both Corbis and Getty and while they may have been ruthless when they edited my work, they taught me how to conceptualize and execute dynamic advertising images.
MK: I know this is a very loaded question, but after the fall of stock image sales, how have you adapted, and has your experience with Corbis and Getty changed how you make images?
CG: Corbis was swallowed up by Getty a few years ago, as were a bunch of the other agencies that use to represent my work also. So, at this point, I'm only represented at Getty. Unfortunately, this age of the internet where everybody thinks images can be used freely has killed stock photography. Not to mention the agencies themselves killing it, once they went the way of micro-sales. I cannot put my time, effort and money into making the agencies money while I only make pennies on the dollar…literally. It bothers me how many photographers give it away for free somehow thinking this is a good business model. My work is worth so much more than that. So, this is my long-winded way of saying I really don’t make stock images for them much anymore.
MK: Now here's the heavy topic that requires a lot of ground to be covered. In 2013 you were diagnosed with breast cancer, and at that moment your life was forever changed. Facing mortality, a difficult treatment schedule, yet still needing to support yourself, you set forth to persevere. Surviving and coming out the other side brought out the project and subsequent book, 10-Mile Radius: Reframing Life on the Path Through Cancer. This is no ordinary photo book. What prompted you to put your personal trauma of battling cancer into words and images?
CG: The best way to cover this ground is for people to read my book! Seriously, it's a wonderful art book and also a great story about not only persevering but also the creative process and how to access that. You don’t need to be going through cancer to appreciate this book at all. It’s much more universal than that.
As to what prompted me to make this book, in my artist statement I say:
“I didn't set out to make an art project about my experience with cancer, but over time realized it was a conceptual way to show my quest for well-being and willingness to uncover aspects of the world that are normally overlooked. By being present with deep truth, I was opening myself up to my own healing, which allowed me to reclaim life in the most profound way.”
So, after sharing many of my images as I was making them on social media and getting such incredible response, and with the goading of my friends and doctors who felt I had an important story to share, I proposed this book idea to my publisher, Rare Bird Books, and they took it on.
MK: Do you feel the process of making a book of this work to be positive in terms of the collaborative efforts that had to take place for it to happen.
CG: Absolutely! Collaboration is handing over some of the control to others and it requires a leap of faith to do this…like I had to with the doctors that saved my life. But trusting that we all have the common goal of whatever it is we’re collaborating on is key.
Without question, the person I connected with most collaborating on making 10-Mile Radius, was my graphic designer, Kathy Martens. She poured her heart into this book and brought so much to this endeavor. Besides her gorgeous layout of the book, she herself is a good writer and helped me tremendously in editing my manuscript and was a great sounding board for ideas, helping me expand on some and keeping me in check on others. I am eternally grateful to her.
MK: Other than your book, do you collaborate with like-minded individuals on projects, or do you find it more productive to handle everything yourself? Are there any other collaborations in the past that have been particularly beneficial?
CG: I love collaborating with other people on projects! I am one of the Six Shooters, the photo collective I founded with Aline Smithson, Nancy Baron, Noelle Swan, Heidi Lender, and Ashley Stohl. Six days a week on our blog we played a daily game of visual telephone where one photographer responds to the photo posted the day before by another photographer with her new photo, that could be connected by subject matter, color, light, or gesture, and then the following day the next photographer responds by posting her connective photo to the photo from the day before, and on and on…. We kept this photographic dialog going for three years! It was a really interesting exercise and over time we built a beautiful collection of work.
More recently I had a blast working with three of my dear, very talented, buddies, Larry Law, Shepherd Stevenson, and Ben Hoffman in making the book trailer for 10-Mile Radius. I’ve known these guys for a long time and our familiarity and mutual respect made this venture so rewarding. And a few months back I did a really wonderful author’s conversation with my friend Deanne Stillman, who is an extraordinary writer about her seminal book, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, which I also shot a photo essay for, and our piece was published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.
MK: Tell us about Radiant People and why they are so lovingly portrayed in your images.
CG: The Radiant People series began with a gangbanger named Angel who I had to muster up the courage to ask if he’d let me take his picture. Fortunately, he agreed and this sparked the impetus for me to stop at the same spot every morning and ask a stranger if I could make their portrait. I feel the power of these images comes directly from the willingness of both myself and the person I was photographing to take a moment out of our day and bear witness.
As I wrote in my book about this experience:
“Asking to be seen and subsequently someone giving you permission to see them can be an uncomfortable proposition. But setting mistrust aside clears fertile ground for breaking through stereotypes. It allows us to see one another honestly. In this moment we are here, our hearts are connecting, and there is an energy that flows between us…life force.”
Now more than ever it is so important to have the willingness to see the other and create bridges to one another rather than build walls.
MK: Is there a pre-cancer Cat and a post-cancer Cat? One would assume that significant change has occurred in anyone suffering an experience like this. Would a post-cancer Cat be who you are from now on, or do you still feel change happening in your daily life and as an image maker?
CG: Definitely. I jokingly refer to my life now as, “BC – before cancer”, and “AD – after diagnosis”.
The BC Cat was less brave, judgmental of myself, and held onto the past and feared the future much more. This old narrative ran my subconscious and while I can appreciate the counterintuitive way this can be an emotional coping tool it was not serving me whatsoever. The AD Cat is more forgiving, empathetic and authentic, and certainly more courageous. The folks that know me best would disagree and say I’ve always been brave, kind and honest, which is true, but I’d contend it took facing my mortality to clear the trance of insecurity and move me towards a deeper sense of wholeness. Now, this all being said; the BC Cat still rears her ugly head from time to time and I have to mindfully let her know she doesn’t run the show anymore and settle back into the AD Cat.
As an image maker, this transformation of self has infused my work with more affirmation, pathos, and wonder. I tend to honor my clarity of purpose more fervently and pick myself up when I’m down, dust off the fears and keep going.
MK: What is it about your creative process that you feel is represented most significantly in your photographs?
CG: Observational joy, which is a direct result of present time awareness. Cancer intimately taught me the safety of being right here, right now; there’s no room for fear or remorse if you can be with what is. Capturing images, or making any type of artform honestly, is predicated on being directly in the moment and meeting it with your heart.
I make photos every day and share them regularly on Instagram. I call this form of creative journaling my Gratitude Practice In Motion. Some of the images I post get a fantastic response and others fall flat. For me it’s not so much about validation as it is about the openness to share my life and be seen for all of who I am rather than the edited version of how I’d like to be perceived.
MK: In addition to making books, shooting commercial and editorial work, and creating fine art prints, you have made volunteering your skills to the organization, Flashes of Hope, a part of your practice. This more than falls in line with your life and work experiences in 10-Mile Radius, but it is actually something you were doing before those events took place, is that correct? Do you approach this work any differently?
CG: Flashes of Hope is a phenomenal organization that brings in professional photographers who volunteer their time to make images of very sick kids, some of them terminally ill, for their loved ones. I started shooting for them because my life had been affected by cancer; I’d lost my mom and brother-in-law and numerous friends to the disease, and was always touched by the kindness people would extend to me as I grappled with losses this substantial. I felt a need to give back and connect to others who faced similar challenges.
So now, without a doubt, the AD version of myself approaches making photographs of the kids for Flashes of Hope more genuinely. I mean really, how could it not, right?
About six months ago I did a session over at Children’s Hospital and photographed a beautiful girl who was critically ill. I wrote a short account about our encounter:
“It was a rough night and she woke up sick to her stomach. Shortly before I came in to make her portrait a nurse removed the feeding tube from her nose. Faint sticky remnants of medical adhesive remain on her face. Eyes swollen, head distended; a myriad of tubes running into monitors, picc lines and a port keep her going. The patient advocate asked if she wanted a cap to cover her head for her photo. She softly nodded no. She sat up and in the haze of recovery looks straight into my camera and locked her heart with mine. I’m overwhelmed by her composure and sincerely hope in the years ahead she and her family will look at this picture and remark how far she’s come and has beautifully healed. Flashes of Hope 🙏”
MK: You have turned your experiences after publishing 10-Mile Radius into a recovery program for others. Tell us about that, and if this is also something that would be offered in terms of a photographic workshop?
CG: I’ve been teaching this creative practice and the process of mindful expression for the past four-years in addiction recovery, personal development, and cancer rehabilitation. Over the years I’ve seen the positive change in my students. Many still send me images and tell me how important this practice has been in cultivating their own voice and helping them to be more mindfully engaged with life.
I would love to adapt this program as a photographic workshop and offer students a stronger understanding of story structure, and of course any technical assistance they may need with their camera and post-production skills. I’d still bring a piece of the psycho/ spiritual aspect to it but would focus more intently on how to develop a personal style and create a body of work that is cohesive and tells their story authentically.
MK: I have always known you to excel at articulating your thoughts and emotions with your words. Anyone looking over your website, reading 10-Mile Radius, or simply speaking with you can easily experience this. Do you feel that this is also an important part of what brings so much depth and interest to your images? Is this a quality that you feel is necessary for photographers to engage with?
CG: I believe my images stand on their own without my writing, but the work I tend to make is often enhanced by my words either through an essay or a title. Photos and words should always be in service to a story, be it literal or figurative. It’s how you take artistic ownership of the power of what you are communicating. Some photographers are not writers and do their best to formulate intention in their artist statements, and it can be a struggle, which I more than understand. Good artist statements are hard to write. However, if you’re going to put your work out in the world you need to be able to defend it with clarity and engage the viewer with your process and offer something to contemplate. When I look at art I want to be informed, maybe be surprised, it might confirm a personal bias, or possibly let it change my point of view. Art may piss you off, render you indifferent, break your heart or make you laugh, but no matter in its unique way it needs to be a reciprocal connection.
MK: I’m going to be quite unfair and ask you to ask yourself a question. Is there something in your photographic practice that you feel others may often miss about you, or something that they simply don’t yet know?
CG: That’s a good question but to be honest I’m not sure? I love hearing other people’s interpretations of how they see and experience my work and I’m open to how this information can help me evolve as an artist. What viewers may not immediately pick up on is in the many bodies of work I’ve made, while they may be considerably different in subject matter, the one thing they all have in common is the power of presence and the courage it takes to face one another or in facing ourselves…me included.
MK: After all these years, what motivates you to continue making photographs?
CG: Pure and simple - making photographs. The joy it brings me is eternal.
MK: Any new projects you have in the works? I recall seeing some incredible work from you while jurying Critical Mass this year, called Cry For Me - can you give us a little insight into that?
CG: I started shooting Cry For Me shortly before I was diagnosed with cancer. It was, and still remains, one of the most profound series I’ve ever worked on. But the imperative of getting through cancer and the long road of recovery had to take precedence. Then, of course, 10-Mile Radius was born out of my illness and that project became my mainstay in terms of the time it took to create a book and get it out into the world. So Cry kept getting pushed to the wayside. However, over the years I still continued to work on it and have shot over fifty portraits, with about thirty or so being book and exhibition worthy at this point. I’m now in the process of writing a book proposal and beginning to set up shoots again to fill in the areas that need to be expanded on that tell a more accurate story of the power of masculine vulnerability. Given where we are right now socio-politically maybe these life interruptions I’ve experienced have played into the zeitgeist of this series favor? Goodness knows the world is certainly ready to experience men in the wholeness of all their being and let this cultivate a just and fair sense of compassion for all.