We focus in on the man behind the camera, Clay Burch, to talk self-taught photography, what he discovered after moving to New York, and Instagram.
When did you first pick up a camera and start taking photos that were beyond family or vacation photos?
Looking back, I realize I have always been drawn to photography. I got my first camera as a kid; a gift from my parents. I was probably 7 or 8. I would go out in the neighborhood on my bike and take photos of the other houses. When I got to middle school and high school, my interests narrowed and photography fell by the wayside. Shortly after moving to New York in 2010, I downloaded a little app called Instagram. My first post was on December 30, 2010. At the time it was nowhere near as popular; nothing like the powerhouse network it is today. I was posting mostly just life stuff; shots of the city, and friends.
I really started taking photography seriously about two years ago; shortly after my grandfather passed away. He was very smart with his money while he was alive and I was fortunate enough to receive a bit of inheritance. It felt wrong spending it on rent. So I decided that I would buy a DSLR and if I didn’t like it, I would just return it and get the money back. The first few days that I had the camera, I really surprised myself. I was so excited by some of the images I was making. I was hooked immediately.
What is your favorite subject to shoot?
It’s hard to choose just one favorite when you live in a city as vibrant as New York. There is just so much to take in here: the streets, the architecture, the lights, the cars, the people. I suppose if I had to narrow it down to one subject, I would say that people have quickly become my favorite. Everyone has a story and I think that photography is such a wonderful medium for sharing a moment from that person’s story.
Lately, a lot of my work has been centered on portraits of gay men. For several reasons, I think. One, I share the majority of my work on Instagram and there is a huge market for good photos of beautiful men. Two, I am gay. My sexuality was something that I struggled with growing up. The town I grew up in was a small, conservative, suburban town in Texas where there weren’t really any gay people. After moving to New York, I’ve discovered that the gay community is so vast and diverse and I have really enjoyed documenting it, meeting new people and learning about their experiences.
Where do you get new shoot ideas from?
Everywhere. Art, music, literature, poetry and other photographers. I am constantly looking for inspiration and new things to try, whether it be a new style, in-camera techniques, or new lighting set ups.
I’m currently working on a project inspired by the poem ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg. It explores the themes of sex, sexuality, drugs, isolation, and politics. I am really excited about where the series is headed.
As creative professionals, you have to be adaptable to what may happen during the shoot. Give us an example of a shoot that didn’t exactly go as planned and how you made it work.
Last summer, I met up with a friend in Chinatown to walk around and shoot. I didn’t realize until I got there that I had only brought one lens. A 1:1.8 50mm. At that point, I had only ever used that lens at home in my studio for portraits and was pretty mad that I hadn’t brought any others. So, I just decided that I would slow down and try to focus on people. Some of my favorite photos that I’ve ever taken are from that day.
With all of the self-professed photographers with digital cameras, how do you continue to hone your skill and your eye to keep what you’re doing special and professional?
I would go so far as to say that I am one of those self-professed photographers with a digital camera. I am mostly self/YouTube taught, and I try go to workshops whenever possible. I try to shoot as much and as often as I can. I think I learn something every time I pick up the camera for a shoot. Trial and error has been my biggest teacher.
How does social media, specifically Instagram, affect how you get your work to people?
Instagram is one of the most powerful tools I have as a photographer. I use it mostly for personal work. Not only is it a simple way of getting your work in front of a huge audience but it’s a fantastic way of connecting with potential models and other artists.
Describe the style of your photography in five words.
Honest. Clean. Thoughtful. Performative. Self-aware.
To see more of Clay’s work, head over to Instagram, Facebook and www.clayburch.com