Rfotofolio had the pleasure of seeing Tracy Valleau’s work in person and wanted to share his work with our readers.
Thank you Tracy for sharing your work and words.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a 68-year-old fellow, married and living on the central coast of California. My mother was a very skilled painter, and I studied the fine arts in my youth – music, painting, literature . . . pretty much the gamut of the arts. I tried my hand at most of it at some point or another, but didn’t find my forte until I started getting serious about photography in my late teens and early twenties. Of course in those days, the question of photography-as-art was still debated. I actually did recognize that as the silly, pretentious argument that it was, and headed off on my own journey, camera in hand.
I just had no idea how different and difficult it would be to create art with a camera.
How did you get started in photography?
With a little tin 99-cent camera I bought on my first trip to Disneyland, in 1957. The camera used a very odd sized film, and no one, even as far away as New York, would develop, much less print, it. I was forced into doing it myself, so I built my first darkroom in an unused 5 x 5 wash-room, attached to our garage. (I actually have that camera today.) During college, I made a bit of money doing advertising and catalog photography, but that was a brief period of time. I decided I didn’t want to take pictures as directed by others, and instead wanted to reserve the camera for my own visions.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
Jay Maisel would be at the top of my list. Wynn Bullock. The usual lot of West Coast greats, of course. In other art forms, Jay Rothko, Richard Deibenkorn, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Shakespeare . . . where does the list end?
Did you have a mentor?
Oh, I wish I’d had one. I can’t help but feel some parts of the journey would have been shorter, if not easier. I’m basically self-actualized. I will say, however, that being a member of a group like ImageMakers, which has a number of famous photographers in it (and is the direct descendent of Ansel’s afternoon group) has help push me forward. Honest critique is wonderful, and in this fine-art world everyone is completely willing to share tips and techniques. There are no “trade secrets.”
My friend Al Weber provided guidance and encouragement when I was ready for it, although neither of us would call it mentoring. Perhaps it was encouragement.
If a book can qualify as a mentor, then Robert Adams’ “Beauty in Photography” stands out. I continue to re-read it, hoping that through osmosis I can absorb all that it holds. I don’t know how many copies of that book I’ve bought and given to friends.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you
Well, the iconic ones leap to mind: Steve McCurry’s, “Afghan Girl”,Dorothea Lange’s, “Migrant Mother”, Ansel Adams, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”, Edward Weston’s, “Pepper #30”. But I suspect you’re not asking for a list of iconic images since “iconic” is hardly “personal.”
The image that most influenced me is Otto Steinert’s “Pedestrian’s Foot.” It convinced me that the artist’s expressive creation could overtake the purely descriptive (or social commentary) nature of photography. There is no doubt that “Pedestrian’s Foot” is a work of art, and that opened a world to me.
If you could spend the day with another photographer living or from the past who would it be?
Can I pick two? Ansel for his technical skill and dedication to the craft, and Jay Maisel for his eye.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
Yes. In fact, the main reason I shoot is because I want to know what the print will look like. I’m (perhaps oddly) disassociated from the actual print, and when one comes out especially well, it’s almost startling to me. The print stands alone, apart from my creation of it. All by itself, it either works or it doesn’t, and when it does, there’s a surprised delight. That’s what I’m looking for, what I mean, when I say that, “I shoot to see what the print will look like.” I’m truly curious to see the result – the final print, and whether or not it works.
Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day for you.
For the longest time, I was a serendipity shooter, going out with little intent, and only a general feeling of “today is the day.”That still works for me, but as time has gone by, I’m finding a parallel course, where I go out with a particular image in mind, or a particular feeling I want to illustrate.
And real-world photography is half of my work; the other half harkens back to my fine-art training, and is done (mostly) without leaving the house. In my “Minutiae” work, I create very tiny graphics (about 1/4 to 1/2 inch) using pen and ink or watercolor, and then photograph and blend them with textures or other images, resulting in a print that can be over five feet tall.
I loved my time in the darkroom, and the act of creating a print. I’m one of those folks for whom the act of creating the print provides as much pleasure as actually taking the image.
My perfect day really depends on how well things are clicking: how closely my muse whispers in my ear, and whether or not I can hear her. On a good day in the field, images surround me and my vision is clear. In post, a good day is when Photoshop responds to my every whim and the prints come out as I’d hoped.
But overall, the best day is the day I learn something new or see something a new way.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
The biggest challenge is your next question: “What is next?”
I greatly enjoy trying to enhance my printing skills, color or B & W. For the latter, I use Jon Cone’s Piezography inks, and have a printer dedicated to it. I’ve chosen that because it removes the constrains imposed by using only three shades of ink, and instead uses eight. That said, it shows up every technical flaw, and requires more work in Photoshop to yield a great print. While I’m happy with my printing skills now, there is always room for improvement. I enjoy that continual challenge, so I’m working on it.
What is next?
I have no idea. That’s the joy of the journey of photography. If you’re asking more pragmatically, then while my work is already in a number of museum permanent collections, I’ll soon have my first solo show at an art museum. (No date has been set at this point.)
The very next thing I need to do is get representation. Being in museums is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
Meanwhile, I’m continually trying to push my art forward, looking for what’s next. “Minutiae” will keep me occupied for quite a while yet, and I’m curious to see how that shapes my future “real-world” photography.
To learn more about the work of Tracy Valleau please visit his site at, Tracy Valleau.