From 2008 to 2015, Caitlin Teal Price photographed strangers sunbathing on New York City beaches under stark, immaculate rays. Shot from above with her medium format camera, her subjects lay back with eyes closed, presumably unaware of the photographer's presence. They exist for viewers to ogle and observe, to draw our own conclusions about their personal stories, to look without permission. Price recently published a monograph of the series, Stranger Lives with Capricious Books, which piqued our interest to learn more about her process and metaphors at work.
Jon Feinstein: How did this project start?
Caitlin Teal Price: I started the series in the summer of 2008, in between my first and second years of grad school at the Yale School of Art. The semester before I had become really interested in the idea of the stranger, specifically the presentation of a stranger and how an apposing stranger (me) reads into what she sees. I was fascinated by what I could I tell about someone simply by the way they looked, what they carried with them and how they presented themselves to the world. I suppose the surface of something and the way it appears is the essence of photography – so perhaps subconsciously I was attempting to get back to the roots of a photograph. Previously, the way I had been finding my strangers was by going from house to house knocking on doors. I would knock on a door and I ask if I could come in to photograph them. The knocking project was more exciting to me than the pictures were good, so I scraped the approach. When I found myself on the beach the following summer, I knew I had the perfect strangers to photograph.
JF: Why NYC beaches specifically?
CTP: I tried to photograph on other beaches around the country, California, Florida, Delaware, even other beaches in New York, but there is something undoubtedly special about Coney Island and Brighton beach. There is a wonderful rawness of people in New York City. On the other beaches I visited people were almost too put-together, it’s as if they were expecting to be photographed. The people on Coney and Brighton lay out as if nobody is looking. Some people just roll out of the Subway and on to the beach with what they happen to be carrying, sometimes without a bathing suit or towel. In addition, Coney and Brighton are packed full of people, and the people are incredibly diverse. This is something I paid attention to when choosing my subjects, I wasn’t interested in photographing the same type of person over and over
JF: What's behind the title "Stranger Lives"?
CTP: The series is about the lives of strangers, so it seemed fitting. But, some viewers may read the word “stranger” as weirder. Which is fine too.
JF: How close are you getting to your subjects? Has anyone "caught" you photographing them? If so, what's the response been?
CTP: I ask every single person I photograph. And about 50% of the people I ask say ”Yes.” It would be WAY to scary not to ask. I don’t photograph the people who say “No.” I don’t like the idea of sneaking a picture – especially in this scenario. In fact, I want to been seen. I specifically wear a red dress so that people can see me walking toward and away from them. I find that wearing the red dress is less threatening than my usual black. I am extremely close when I take the photograph, directly over them, in fact. I hover on my tippy toes while hand holding my Mamiya RZ 6x7 camera. I still use
JF: The light has a crazy, revealing quality to it. Are you using flash or are these lit by the sun?
CTP: They are lit by the sun. I photograph from about 12-2pm so that the sun is high and bright in the sky. Because I hand hold the camera I have to shoot at a 1/1000 of a second to avoid camera shake (due to the heavy camera + tippy toe hover). In order to get the sharp focus and depth of field I shoot with an aperture of F22. It’s all very calculated. The fine details are really important to the images, so I make sure the lighting elevates
JF: What draws you to look at+ photograph strangers in this specimen-like way?
CTP: Like I mentioned, I am really interested in the presentation of a person and what her body may reveal about her life. What stories do the scars, wrinkles and markings on the skin reveal? How does what she surround herself with add to the
narrative? The specimen like aspect offers us opportunity and gives us permission to stare and to wonder about the lives of these strangers.
JF: Are these purely voyeuristic, or is something else at play?
CTP: They are pretty voyeuristic, and I have to admit that what drew me to these people in first place was the desire to stare, but as the series has grown I believe that there is more at play. I really appreciate the leveling affect that the beach has, and that these images have. Even though there is a wide range of age, race and class in these photographs all of the people are viewed in the same way. Lying on their backs, eyes closed and from above. They become one, the work speaks to humanity as a whole and how despite all of our differences we are all very much the same.
JF: This might be an obvious question, but do you see any dialogue b/t this work and Martin Parr's Life's a Beach?
CTP: While both bodies of work were made at the beach, I see the approach and mission as different. And this is probably over simplifying, but to me Parr is specifically exploring the beach as a culture, while for me the beach is a place to explore people in a more general sense. I am not attached to the beach as a location where as I think for Parr it is central. I was (still am) more interested in the line between confidence and vulnerability. How our possessions and our personal presentation often give us confidence, but as humans we are inherently vulnerable. I am interested in the tension between confidence and vulnerability seen through the lives of strangers. When I think about it, I feel like this work may have more in common with Parr’s Common Sense series.
JF: On the surface, this work seems very different from your other series. How do you see Stranger Lives fitting into your larger practice?
CTP: Visually yes, Stranger Lives is very different from my other portrait work. But, the core ideas remain the same. I enjoy making visually different kinds of work, it keeps my practice fresh and I don’t get bored.
Bio: Caitlin Teal Price received her BFA in photography from Parsons School of Design in 2002, and her MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2009. She has exhibited in galleries both nationally and abroad and her work is part of numerous private and permanent collections including the National Gallery of Art and the Robert V. Fullerton Museum.