After attending college in New York City for some time, I was convinced I would never move back. I instead saw myself as a photographer in a medium-sized city, embracing the small community there and engaging with other artists who chose that lifestyle over the hectic one of New York. However, I got an internship with a well-known photographer out of college that brought me here, and eventually became a digital tech and retoucher while mostly focusing on photographing my own work.
I look back at those first couple of years here and it feels as though I was just treading water, with my head barely breaking the surface. Every day in New York, especially being freelance, is filled with learning curves. Similarly, you are building your own ladder to climb - no one is setting up the next steps for you. Until I adjusted to these realities, I found it hard to focus on my creative work. As a twenty-two-year-old, you think those defining years are over for you, but I’ve learned that they probably never are.
The thing I’ve experienced about New York that has kept me here is that it truly is a “big city, but a small town.” I have created a community of people in and outside of photography who push me creatively. Once you establish a relationship with one person in the community, I have found that most communities are extremely accepting. One example of this is the network of comedians I have been able to photograph just by approaching one or two comedians I admire after their live shows. Once establishing myself a professional, I was able to expand this further and this has applied to other subjects as well.
Artists are lucky in that their professional and their personal lives overlap. A year ago I took up ceramics and shortly after that I began photographing for the studio I am a member at. The studio, Choplet in Williamsburg, has given me so many opportunities I only felt adjacent to before. Because the media and process of photography and pottery are so vastly different, the other artists I interact with bring entirely new perspectives. Discussions with these groups have been irreplaceable and have helped me grow as a person and an artist.
I very much believe that you are a sum of the people you surround yourself with. Some of my closest friends are writers, sculptors and ceramicists, and by expanding myself into some of these worlds, I have informed my photography by expanding myself. Beyond commercial success, my key goal in life revolves around my relationships and bringing compassion into them. By focusing on this, I feel as though I am able to make connections that are noticeable in my portraiture. My choice to be a photographer was founded in this idea. I wanted something that would allow me to surround myself with artists and intellectuals who I could constantly evolve with, or in the very least, support.
How do you feel about your name? Has the relationship with your name changed over the years?
I’ve never loved my name, mostly because it doesn’t match up with my heritage and it doesn't have much of a story. My parents went four days without naming me, in fact, and my mom chose a nine-letter name because my sister had a nine-letter name.
For a year in high school, I insisted people call me Toni, an abbreviation on my middle name which is Antonia. It’s sort of embarrassing to look back on now, but I do think it’s an interesting reflection of how difficult and important it feels to become your own person around that age. We’re constantly trying out new things for this same outcome, but I think few are as obvious as this.
I bounce between asking that people not call me Alex, to not wanting to be rude so not saying anything, to being upset I didn’t say anything, to employers becoming friends and them being upset that I never corrected them. It’s a strange thing being called by something you don’t identify as, but as a photographer and freelancer I am meeting new people daily and in the end I wonder, why do I even care?
What is something you believe everyone should experience in their life?
Last year a friend and I biked the length of Long Island, 100 miles, to the destination of Montauk. Seeing any landscape by bike was really, sort of...magical. The act of using your own strength and power to travel is a very fun challenge, and the slower movement through the terrain makes you experience the scenes in a brand new way.
What was your favorite moment today and do you have any favorite grounding rituals?
Because most photography is on hold, it is a blessing to have a ceramic practice as well. There was a transition in quarantine with my ceramic work. Typically, I throw pieces on the wheel, but being unable to do so at home, I have taken to hand building. A friend has been coaching me on sculpting a bust, but otherwise I have been mostly experimenting on my own with coil building. It’s been a pleasant practice of letting go because the form will never be as uniform as it is on the wheel. I also think it has taught me a lot about clay in ways I didn’t really understand just from working on the wheel. It’s such a crazy medium, and the more I know about its tendencies the closer I feel to my work. This week I have been doing a vase a day, starting it in the evenings and finishing it in the morning. Building something like this gives my day a bit more purpose. A couple of friends have requested pieces (I’ve never sold them until now, wanting to separate this art from finances) but making something for someone in mind gives me a little joy as well.
What are your work from home essentials? How are you coping with this new reality?
I am very lucky to have already worked from home often as a freelance retoucher for many years, so my apartment is well designed for it. I have a desk in my bedroom (far from my bed), the essential monitors and ergonomics (very important), as well as appropriate spots in the living room and kitchen so that I can mix up my environment and stand if I need to. I find this helps with the mental health aspect of being alone all day, which can be challenging.
On a regular day, I go to the coffee shop for a jolt and to experience some social interaction and I always make plans for the evenings, but honestly I’ve been weirdly content without seeing anyone this past month. There seems to be a difference in being alone because you have to be, and being alone because everyone else is occupied with their own lives. I’ve had some good success staying sane with exercise, home repair projects and making artwork. Although quarantining may change many things for the worse, I also think it is teaching us all a lot.
The only thing I wish I was being better at was reading - I have so many books on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to read, but I find it so difficult to focus right now. Instead I spend that time with my head and hands deep in clay, making as much as I can so that I can have a tangible body of work from all of this. I carve the bottom of each piece with my name and “Quarantine 2020,” because I think I will look back and the pieces I create will make sense in this context.
Any advice you can give to young creatives in and out of the current context of the virus.
I believe the hardest part of being freelance is learning to ride the waves. Before, this meant the waves of having work and not, of collaborators being responsive to you, of your motivation rising and falling. Coronavirus is a new one that none of us have experienced, but knowing we’re all in it together (professionally as freelancers) makes it feel as though the burden is shared.
I would also tell young creatives to take it all at their own pace. If it takes you a while to get to New York City, then a while to adjust, then a while to get comfortable as the lowest on the totem pole, then a while on that second tier and so on, that’s okay. People will tell you you’re not working fast enough, but what you’re focusing on and the hard work you’re putting in will give you other opportunities that you can’t anticipate on the tail end of it all. People may not be able to see what you see, so take that advice with a grain of salt. There are a lot of successful people out there who started when they were 30 and don’t even use social media to market themselves. There is a reason that before Photo District News shut down, they changed their “30 Under 30” list to no longer have the age restriction. In a lot of ways, taking your time means that when you get to the place you ultimately want to be, you are better equipped and can be more selective so that that success really looks like how you envisioned it.
Allow yourself time, because as they say, success is not a straight line, and sometimes the unexpected twists and turns will take you somewhere even better.
Photography by Ryan Jenq