10 minutes with Robyn Twomey

Interviews with Photographers June 20, 2011 8:20 am

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

I grew up spending a lot of time after school in my mom’s beauty salon. I would sit under the dryer and look through magazines and stare at the women across from me who were looking in the mirror at themselves. When I was around 10, I would dress up and photograph myself and cut up all the pictures and collage them with pages of magazines. I’m pretty sure these were the seeds that fostered my photographic life, but I really discovered my love for photography in 1995 while I was at college (George Washington University). I delved into the technical side, processing my own color film, hand processing color prints and working on my own version of the zone system with my amazing professor Jerry Lake.

It wasn’t until I interned at Wired Magazine in 1998 that I KNEW I wouldn’t be able to tolerate anything other than photography. One of my tasks was to photocopy portfolios for the then photo director Christa Aboitiz. She introduced me to some of the most important image makers of our time. I originally griped about paying for 4 years of college to be sitting at the photocopier. But then I started seeing the stories, the voices, the powerful works from Andres Serrano, Dan Winters, Dana Lixenberg, etc. I soon realized what a privileged position I was in to have these intimate experiences and education from these masters. Those works resonated so powerfully, I finally felt a calling to the work I feel I must have been brought here to do. I was totally intimidated, but knew I wanted to work towards a life of visual storytelling. So I signed up for a full load of technical courses at City College of San Francisco, began assisting my ass off, and photographed every willing friend, their boyfriends, women in my mom’s beauty salon, family, retail workers, nearly everyone I encountered was asked to pose for me.


Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Tell me about your project, Medicine – how did you come up with the idea to photograph medical marijuana users? Was it difficult to get your subjects to agree to being photographed?

I was hired by Fortune Magazine in the fall of 2009 to photograph Medical Marijuana’s “High Society,” which was a piece mainly focused on a few of the more high profile dispensaries and owners. While I was at Harborside Healthcare in Oakland, I met 19-year-old Jordan who shared his story of leukemia and the benefits of cannabis with me. At the same time, the photo editor, Scott Thode, voiced concern about needing some client perspective to round out the piece (they were not a part of the original assignment) and he encouraged me to do that. At the time, I was just starting to flirt with video, so I asked Jordan if I could do a short interview piece and portrait session at his house and he was game.

It was Jordan’s story of struggle and survival that broke my heart and inspired me to find more stories. I knew it wasn’t the angle of the Fortune story, but thought it could be a great personal series. I was intrigued and wanted to share the scope and variety of the cannabis clients’ stories as I was getting educated on the myriad of people, ages, and different walks of life that depend on cannabis for relief.

At first, I tried to talk to patients directly, but most people were very hesitant and didn’t want to be stereotyped or discriminated against because of the frail legality around cannabis. So, I talked to a couple dispensaries and Harborside was the most supportive of the project. The clients who signed up from Harborside came with an activist spirit, they were excited to share their story and do whatever they could to help break down the societal stigma associated with cannabis. People tired of the cannabis backlash signed up with hopes their story would help educate and decriminalize cannabis. I was doing a lot of the shooting in 2010 before Prop 19, the initiative to legalize marijuana, and that propelled a lot of energy and excitement for the project.


Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey


You took an amazing picture for me a few years back of John Scharffenberger for Inc. Originally my editor had wanted the pigs on a seamless, but they ended up eating it. I remember your call that day and how everything was going wrong – there was a massive storm, the cows got spooked by the flash, the pigs were not cooperating – getting off the phone with you, I was totally in awe of your positive attitude about the whole thing. You ended up getting really incredible shot unlike what we had discussed – better. How do you keep up the can-do attitude when it seems like everything is crumbling at a shoot? How can an editor be most helpful when giving you an assignment? (err.. perhaps not asking you to photograph pigs around anything remotely edible??)

I loved that shoot! I was definitely worried when I saw the rain, but I came prepared with some galoshes. It started really coming down, so I asked John if we could go into the barn to do the shot. But there was no barn. That’s how freakin free range these hogs are! And they’re view was just breath taking. I remember you called to ask me if I had a less photoshopped version of the trees in the background, but I didn’t even touch the color!? Those moss trees in the Anderson Valley are just that magnificent. I strapped on the galoshes that day and got busy in the soggy pig poop. My assistant alerted me to the fact that we were wallowing in loads of muddy crap, yet it didn’t particularly smell bad, at all!  Happy pigs eating acorns with shit that don’t stink! I’m pretty sure I have a frame where you can actually see a pig laughing. And the prosciutto was like silk. Aaaahhh, yes, that was a fun shoot. Until I tried to set up a seamless and the pigs went in for the attack. They were ravenous for that paper!

I take a lot of pride in fulfilling  the assignment, no matter what it takes. Ultimately, it’s balancing my intent with the unpredictable elements of nature and the unforeseen elements of any given situation. Allowing those elements to enter is essential,  it’s those factors that reveal the magic that can never be directed. And, it keeps life exciting!


Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

What do you think the future holds for editorial photography, considering the push for apps and websites that rely heavily on stock photography?

There will always be a need for original photography. The more visually stimulated we are, the more that will dictate the need for smarter and more sophisticated visual pieces and stories.


Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Robyn Twomey

Any words of wisdom for the up and comers?

We all have something different to say. Make personal work that is important to you. Be prepared to work your ass off. I’ve been at this for nearly 10 years and still work more than 12 hours a day. Try to look at your work from the big picture of all the masters out there, and then see if you can impress yourself. And know it will take years, at least 10,000 hours, to master something. I often think of the famous Ghandi quote: “Learn as if you were to live forever, live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

(Robyn is based in SF & LA. See more of her work, here. See more from the series Medicine, here)

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