We live in an improved world where female empowerment has finally started to take rise and be given the attention and kudos it has been denied for too long. This is simply all sorts of wonderful, truly. The stakes are high and the road is long for all of us out here, and it’s in this enlightened atmosphere that I begin to feel better about the direction society in general is headed. In the midst of much of this I can’t help but notice the imagery of Troy Colby. While we have never met, I imagine him to be the sort of person that would be a great friend if we didn’t live far apart and lead such different lives. Definitely the “let’s grab a beer together” sort of dude. So while being a “dude”, it’s interesting to me to find him bringing up a very real and thought provoking issue for men - fatherhood. The idea of fatherhood is alien to me personally, but fascinating to experience through the vision of Troy. I think that his struggles as a parent in the midst of a family unit are intriguing and something I can learn from. Most especially in this age of empowerment for women, with the persistent idea that men are still supposed to be hunter/gatherers and not seen as what some may call weak. Honestly, weakness it is not - quite the opposite in fact - as opening yourself up to a cruel world is a show of strength and bravery that most men would not think to reveal.
Troy’s work is filled with emotion, pathos, and most especially, vulnerability. He takes us on a ride through the reality of the modern family and the questions that persist within. He creates this with an unflinching view of his own family and his role as the patriarch trying his best to come up with some answers. The role of a parent has never been easy, certainly, and Troy is about as honest a soul as one can be in this capacity. So while we live a few states away from one another, and I can certainly admire him and his work from afar, I can also find out a little better about what makes him tick with a few questions…
Troy was born in rural Kansas in 1975 and currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas. His work and research explores the delicate balance of family, fatherhood and the outcome of the family photo album. Motivated by intellectual and psychological inquiry of these intimate topics, Troy photographs his own family as a means of understanding the emotional qualities that come along with fatherhood. It has become his means of understanding while creating an honest interpretation of the idealized family album.
He received his BFA from the Academy of Art University in 2015. His work has been seen in Black and White Magazine, Lenscratch, Feature Shoot, Plates to Pixels, The Photo Review, Fraction Magazine, Der Greif and FotoRoom.
Michael Kirchoff: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Troy. I appreciate the time involved and think it best to start at the start, and find out where your passion for photography originated from.
Troy Colby: I have always loved the medium of photography. It was just growing up in the 80’s to low middle class family; access to a camera was not something that was easy. We were required to take a photography class in Jr. High, but it was all tech and nothing else. Not knowing what I was doing, I had fun photographing my skate friends at the time. So I really had no idea what photography really was until I chose to go back to school for Film Editing. I was hooked when I had to use a 35mm to capture film stills for my short film for a class. I just dove head first into the photo courses and have yet to really look up. I have always been into the arts, but mainly drawing and movies. Once I was shown how to use photography and some of the greats, I fell in love. It’s a part of my daily life and is always in my head.
MK: Are there any specific influences, either within, or outside of the photographic world that helped shape your path early on?
TC: One the biggest influences photographically has been the work of Michael Garlington. He taught me the power of creating an image through a few conversations we had and spending lots of time viewing his work. I am also influenced by all of those who I have meet along the way. I just really love seeing new work that is honest and heartfelt. Of course I have a soft spot for those working with their families as well. Outside of the photographic world I am a huge music buff and have music playing pretty much from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. When I have time I love sit down and catch up on all of the movies I have yet to see.
MK: What is at the core of your work? Is there a theme that runs through everything you create?
TC: Lately the biggest core of my work has been family. In taking that notion of family further, I am exploring the fragile nature of being a father, artist and husband. I really feel all of this is a delicate balance that can be fleeting or all come crashing down at any given time. In some ways it’s a direct reflection of the stress of raising a family in a time where everyday seems like everything around us is crashing down.
In thinking of everything I have created, I think it is safe to say that all of the work has been a direct reflection of my current mental state at that time. I just used to mask it, hide it or use more conceptual ways to show this. Now I am just open about it. I have opened up that scar to show everyone. I think we could a benefit with being a bit more honest and forthcoming with each other.
MK: The majority of the photographs I have seen from you stem from the relationship with your son and your role as a father. It appears as though this was originally a way for your to engage and process this role, with the photographs slowly becoming more of a collaboration over time. Am I correct in this premise, and how has your relationship with your son evolved because of it. Also, does your wife occasional appearance make it more of a family affair?
TC: Yes, it has definitely become collaboration. I have always used my family in my work over the years. When I used to use our middle son a lot, I always thought of us as a team. When I stumbled into photographing my youngest it was more on the documentary approach and he wasn’t always willing. It has slowly changed to where it has become a family affair. It was a natural way for the work to grow and it only made sense to explore this. I have even let my youngest take on the roll being behind the camera and capturing me as he see fit. For a project as such I really think that they all have to be on board to create this work. Even though I am only showing how I view fatherhood and family through my eyes, they understand that this view and outcome is important to me.
MK: How do you think the bodies of work that you have created over this time with your son be regarded in the future by him? Does this concept alter or direct what you choose as final selections? Has there, or will there have to be, a coming to terms with how either of you is portrayed by the other? Is this simply a facet of fatherhood or do these projects make it more of a unique situation?
TC: This is a tough question. I have often wrestled with all of this. For me at this point in time, the work has become my family album. Like many, I quit taking snaps of my family. I am able to curate this work to show family as I see it and not this idealized mundane social norm of what family is suppose to look like. For we all deal with many of the same problems and emotions. It’s just that many chose to hide behind selfies and memes. I would rather my family see this work and appreciate it. It was Thomas Laskowski that said, “Life is what happening here and now. There are way more Mondays than holidays.”
I don’t know how he (my youngest) will view the work in the future. I worry about it to be honest. We spend a lot of time together; we have since he was born. I only hope that I have done well in explaining to him my why and how for this work. I know our oldest that helped me many years ago, just thinks the work is cool and remembers us together making the work. So maybe photography or the practice of it together is our bonding time and maybe it will create a love for photography for him in the future. I can only hope.
MK: According to your bio, you were born and raised in a small rural farming community, and now reside in Lawrence, Kansas. I’m wondering how you feel that this environment has informed your process and your photography. Do you feel that if this upbringing were dramatically different, your images would be as well?
TC: Both locations had a drastic impact on my process. I know that if I was born and raised in this college town my work would be completely different. I was blessed and cursed growing up in a small conservative farming town being one of the few skater punks. The community and even my parents never accepted it. It set me up for that DIY, hard working mentality to just follow my heart and path, even though it has never been easy. My work that took place at my place of birth was more dreamscape, childhood playfulness and at times pretty dark. In looking back I can see it starting to shift as we started looking into moving. It started to become more about home, place and even loss.
Upon moving I lost all of the rural backdrops I was comfortable with using in my work. I had to find a way to connect with this new place. I explored it briefly in my work but it was through this exploration that my new direction actually started. So the move did cause me to look more inward at first on just my son, and then gradually my family. I would like to think that moving caused this and maybe even a combination of starting grad school at the time as well.
MK: All of the work on your website is in beautiful black and white - masterfully, I might add. Why strictly in this form, and do you ever see yourself moving into the realm of color? This is clearly another relationship, but I’m curious if it too evolves.
TC: Thank you for the kind words. I feel like I have a long way to go yet. I have always been attracted to black and white. There is just something about the purity of it. Plus, I like letting things fall black or seeing how low of light I can work with. Color wouldn’t be as forgiving. I have worked in color and don’t mind it. At this point in time I just don’t see the stories I want to tell working in color. But I should say never say never, you just never know what time might bring.
MK: Earlier you mentioned an interest in film making and editing. Do you ever see a return to that with your work? Perhaps an applied extension to your current projects from a motion-based perspective?
TC: I would love to visit that creative outlet again at some point. I think motion could be an interesting component to this work. It could be something that I work alongside with someone. I would have to learn all of the tools required and having someone else help me might make for an easier time in achieving the desired outcome.
MK: I believe that you have recently received your MFA in Fine Art Photography. I’m wondering how this continuing education has affected the work you were currently engaged in. Was it helpful, and do you see it changing how you will create images in the future?
TC: Actually, I will graduate this May (2019). One of the biggest reasons I went on for my MFA was to see how far I could go with my work and where higher education might take me, even though I am about done. I still feel like I am just starting to unfold this work. I have been blessed to have such great instructors that guided me, but let me explore every small space where this topic of family could go. My studies taught me how to use this visual language and even more about myself. For me it was helpful and I really enjoyed it, but it may not be for everyone. It gave me even more tools in my toolbox, but at the end of the day it is still up to me to create the work. Also, in getting my MFA I hope to share my love for the medium with others through teaching at some point.
MK: With regard to creativity and the projects you take on. Do you feel it is better to create work that fits a particular style for yourself, branch out and try new things, or better to simply leave yourself open to possibilities that happen organically?
TC: I am a big believer in creating work that comes from the heart. I also do think it is best to explore and allow the natural progression of things as well. Sometimes the best things happen organically, not from forcing ideas.
MK: Do you engage in or see value in social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram for promoting your work to new audiences?
TC: I struggle with this. I really do love Instagram, but I had to clamp down on who sees my work. I had some of my images reported to the “Instagram Police” before I locked my profile. Apparently, my son without a shirt was offending. I am not very active on Facebook for the most part. I might share a few things, but I don’t think I have posted an image for a few years now. I really believe there is a thing of just sharing too much. I struggle with both platforms for I am sick of seeing the idealized family life portrayed. It is only hurting all of us in the end. I don’t need to see your kid eating pizza or at Starbucks. Showing more of the mundane life actions make it seem like you are the perfect parent and things are just perfect. It gives this idea or notion that to be a good parent we need to be doing the same. To me it’s all too “safe” and I call BS, for no family is perfect.
MK: What other steps do you pursue in order to find an audience for your photographs?
TC: I am always paying attention to what is out there and who is looking for work. Though, I have really pulled back on submitting to group exhibitions in the last four years. I am a lot more deliberate in sending my work out. I have been taking part in Portfolio Reviews for the most part right now. It is nice to be face to face and form relationships. I know that this is probably not enough in the end. I don’t think there is any one perfect way to achieve all of this. I guess in the end it depends our end goals that we want to achieve. I would like to see this work in a book at some point. Either way I will continue to create images of my family despite the end outcome.
MK: On the technical side of things, what are the tools you are using to make your images? Are you a film, digital, or both kind of photographer? Does it really matter what you use?
TC: It really doesn’t matter to me in the end. I really think so many get consumed with the technical process, and at the end of the day the image is what matters. Sure you could argue that the process and concept together can make the image.That is true, but it is that end result that captures my attention. For my current work, it is all digital simply because of the fast pace required in working with my family. They are just tools that allow me to tell our stories at the end of the day.
MK: In speaking to future generations of photographers, do you have any words of wisdom to those setting out to make their own mark in the photographic world?
TC: I recently had an opportunity to work with a group of selected high school students on the subject of photographing their families. These kids are so smart, but yet have so many heavy topics already on their plates. Once they learn to tap into that emotional heart and connect it, with whatever process they choose, it will be amazing. You can show and teach all you want, but being able to open up those gates to your heart is something that each person has to do on their own. Figure that out and trust the process and yourself!
MK: What’s next for your photography? Any new projects you have in the works?
TC: I will continue working with my family as long as I can. I would love to see my children pick up this project once I become that old grandpa that cannot move. That’s my dream. But right now I am continuing on with this work and also experimenting with my childhood images. It’s still in the experimenting stages, but I am having fun with it. I have no idea if it will ever see the light of day, but it’s a change of pace.
You can find more of Troy's work at his website here.