Meet the Photographer/Actor: Joel Grey

Joel Grey


Joel Grey was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Pictures I Had To Take, his first monograph, published by Powerhouse Books in 2003, collected work created over a 30-year period. His second book, Looking Hard at Unexamined Things, published by Steidl in 2006, featured all new work, highlighting industrial sites, abandoned buildings, graffiti, wall art, detritus and public works from Los Angeles and New York to Berlin and Venice. For his third book, 1.3: Images from My Phone, Grey spent over a year shooting with the camera function of his Nokia phone and the result is a collection of photographs cut from diverse visual worlds: street art and still life, advertising and architecture, shadows and reflections, natural beauty and urban grit. Grey’s work has been the subject of solo shows in New York, Los Angeles and Berlin. His photographs are part of the permanent collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art and the New York Public Library. His life and career were recently the subject of an exhibition at The Museum of the City of New York, titled Joel Grey/A New York Life. Grey is also an award-winning actor in his spare time, best known for his Oscar, Tony, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award-winning performance in Cabaret.


Would you say your career in photography began serendipitously?

Completely! I took pictures as a kid, as a dad, and then as an actor who traveled, made movies, and saw places. Watching my children grow began the impulse to record what I saw.  It’s all really serendipitous. I don’t simply tell myself, “I’m going out shooting today”.

If Sam Shahid hadn’t perused your photos that were hidden in a shoebox, do you feel that you would’ve pursued photography seriously or published a book?


You said working with the camera phone has intensified your vision, how so?

The camera phone is just convenient for when I see something that interests me, I don’t understand, or that I’m trying to make sense of. Of course with the 1.3, because of its quirkiness and its limitations, the results would often be very surprising. There’s no control, so there were shots that were just, “oh my god, look at that!”

Are you a patient person?

Somewhat – I am combustible too.

Which photographer do you most admire or relate to?

Irving Penn, Manual Alvarez, William Eggleston, and Evans. Walker Evans’ Polaroid’s were an inspiration.

So you’re using digital, what differences do you see in your images between the two technologies?

I kind of know what to expect with my iPhone, whereas the other was always like a birthday surprise.

How important is collaboration to you?

Oh, everything. That’s what happens with Sam.

Is he helping you with this project as well as the new book?

Oh yeah. I was walking around one day and just took some pictures. I think I had injured my foot, I wasn’t in the show, and I obviously needed something creative to do. I shot a billboard sent him about six images with no plan. He said “that’s your next book.”

What is in the pinnacle of your photographic career thus far?

Everything; just the fun of it and the seeming growth of people’s perception of me other than an actor. People don’t really like when you do more than one thing.

Why do you think that is?

I suspect its envy. Some people can’t do one thing, so why can you do two? Or three? It has nothing to do with a plan; it’s just about what comes out of your creative insanity.

How do you think the sensibility of being an actor has helped you in photography?

I think that I’ve always been a visual person. When I create a character, I’m aware of the visual, I’m very influenced by what I see and by art. It’s just always been a very important part of my life. It’s in my DNA.

What advice would you give to an emerging photographer?

Oh, I wouldn’t. I don’t go by any books. I could give advice about acting.

What advice would you give about acting?

Tell the truth on the stage.

What painters do you admire?

So many! One of my favorite artists is Richard Tuttle. I also like Cy Twombly and Jim Dine.

You have amazing access to people and events. Have you ever considered doing behind-the-scenes photographs?

Never. It’s not my expertise. That kind of story-telling doesn’t interest me. My own story-telling is much more abstract.

Have you had any mentors?

Duane Michals. He’s amazing. He’s the greatest speaker without a piece of paper.

You say you like dark things and beautiful things. Can you give me an example?

I think that Arbus and Bacon are as dark as I go.

You say that you view photographs as little versions of plays, how so?

I see things like a proscenium.  I almost never crop. My printer has often said that I’m the only photographer he knows that only takes one frame. I see what it is, and that’s it! I don’t second-guess myself.

When I first read that you see photographs as little plays, it was interesting to me because your pictures have nothing to do with narratives.

They have to do with what you first see when the curtain goes up, or the last thing you see.

Can you name some of the photographers that you collect?

Duane Michaels, Manual Alvarez, Laura Gilpin, Adam Siskin.

Did Adam influence you?

Yes. Sally Mann is a wonderful photographer as well. A friend of mine was doing a book on flowers and Sam was their director. They liked my photographs and suggested that I be included. I had a dream when I was little that I was in a forest and instead of tree’s there were lilies of the valley everywhere. So I took a picture of myself at that age, put it inside of a real thing of fresh lilies in the valley, and that is what I used in the book.

What is your next book going to be called?

The Billboard Papers.

Why do you think you are enjoying life more now than before? As you see things with fresh eyes, what do you think the reason is?

I trust myself more, I don’t second guess.

Do you accept everything about yourself?

Who does? (Laughs) I’m pretty good on that subject, but I don’t think there is any finite place to get to.

Is there any habit that you have that you would like to break?

Eating, eating whenever I want to eat, whatever I want to eat. I love food, almost more than photography!



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