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Interview with Troy Paiva

Troy Paiva's night photography creates a sense of a parallel universe. Places and things familiar but at the same time abstract and strange. His images of derelict planes, automobiles and buildings lit by moonlight and colored by imagitive flash and torch light are a great lesson in creativity and persistence.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I'm a life-long artist. I was that kid sitting in the back row drawing tanks and airplanes in the 5th grade.My teens and 20s were spent doing menial jobs in the printing trade. In my 30s I lucked into an apprenticeship type job with Galoob Toys and within 10 years I was a product designer and art director on the Micro Machines toy car line. Since 2001 I have freelanced as an illustrator, graphic designer, writer and photographer.

Where did you learn photography?
I am primarily self taught. In 1989 my older brother was in the photography program the Academy of Art in San Francisco. One of his classes was "Night Photography." Having a beer one night he mentioned that "You'd LOVE this stuff" and invited me to sit in on a few classes. Having virtually no photographic experience (and only owning point-and-shoot cameras) up to that point I came in from a different angle with no preconceived ideas than most of the people in the class. I immediately bought a cheap 35mm camera and tripod and started shooting with a couple of the instructor's (Steve Harper) hand-out exposure guides, just kind of winging it as I went.

As someone who studied design and illustration did photography start as just a creative outlet or was it with earning a living in mind?
Yes, it was purely a creative outlet for me. see, at the time I was heavily art directed at the Toy Company. I was drawing and painting as my job. The thought of going home and painting for fun was not gonna work for me. I was actually deseperate for a new outlet and night shooting came along at just the right time.

Which photographers have influenced you?
Richard Misrach, William Lesch, Jan Staller and Chip Simons. I owe each one of them a big debt for certain specific facets of my style. I really dig Burtynsky too. Simons 80s magazine work. This sort of thing. I adore his light-painted shots of people's feet and legs. He and Lesch were the inspiration for my light-painting. I sat there for hours deconstructing how they did their shots.

Have you had a particular mentor for your photography (you mentioned your brother previously)?
No, I really didn't. Steve Harper was the guy that taught the night photography class I mentioned earlier. But I never actually enrolled in his class. My brother snuck me along for some labs shooting in the San Francisco's Dogpatch industrial neighborhood at night, and I quietly sat in the dark in the back row for a presentation / lecture by the obscure (at the time) Michael Kenna. He was highly inspirational. As great a guy as Steve is, I never was actually at one of his lectures. I really didn't learn that much from him except to get copies of his invaluable exposure / film charts.

Yeah, my brother was an influence early on, but if you look at his night work compared to mine, our styles are vastly different. It's important to both of us to avoid stepping into each other's space . . . as much as 2 night photographers can, anyway.

I've been mentored at various times in my life by other types of artists and teachers, and my mom instilled in me a rare kind of freedom few kids get. I was not hammered into a mold as a child.

I just can't say as I ever had a photo mentor. I kinda did it all on my own.

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How important is it for you to look at the work of other artists for inspiration?
I'm inspired by all kinds of things. I'm always deep into SOMETHING, whether it's photos, paintings, music, writing, whatever. It's all related and very important to artistic growth on the most basic level.

The images we see on your website are all night photography, Why night photography and have you had any kooky experiences?
Because the night is the BEST! It's a forbidden time, a time when virtually everyone is asleep. I have a solitary personality and I have the world to myself at night. There's magic and mystery to the night and that shows up in the photography.

I am sure you must come across people at night who see this guy wandering around setting off flashes and shining colored flashlights and get a little confused or spooked - not to mention strange people you must see wandering around the sorts of places you shoot - have you had any particularly weird experiences?
You get a real cross-section of kooks. I've had mysterious figures wander in from the desert to tell me about alien abduction experiences, I've been run off by insanely pissed off, shotgun-wielding property owners, Had my ears chewed off by bored security guards and on and on. Just last night I was shooting in an abandoned (and supposedly haunted) hotel out in the middle of nowhere in CA's Central Valley when along comes this paranormal research group. They had a medium with them who was saying stuff like "I feel a presence of a man . . . a military man . .. . in this part of the building . . ." in super-serious, hushed tones while being shot video, and other guys wandered around the building in the dark with miners headlamps (which should be outlawed) sporting headphones and hand-held metering devices. It was like a scene out of Ghostbusters, they were SO serious, which made it that much more absurd. They left after an hour. About midnight a gang of teenagers came in and started drinking and busting the place up so that's when I slipped out . . .

Do you take any precautions for your safety or to avoid being arrested?
I generally prefer having permission from an owner or caretaker. Since 9/11 security is much tighter and the cops are less forgiving so you really have to tread lightly.

...and do you shoot other subjects?
Sure. I do some table top work and even shoot some events. Who cares? My other work looks like any other working-stiff / journeyman photographer. Between the locations, the night aspect and the light painting, my night work is totally different from just about everything else out there, so that's the stuff worth showing.

Tell us a bit about how you go about creating your night images - When you photograph a place are you spontaneous or planned?
I am VERY spontaneous. Yesterday about 3PM I found out I had wrangled access to a really cool location that I shot last night. It all happened very quickly. I know where I'm going tonight and tomorrow (depending on weather), but have no idea what I'll do when I get there. When I get to locations I have no set plan, I just get to work. I find it's best to not think too much- just let it flow, take what the location gives me.

Do you have a strict routine while working on a personal project and set goals for the number of images you want to shoot over a period of time?
No, I am very free about that. I have no restrictions or any real expectations for any given shoot or trip. Night photography is still my pure art outlet, so I keep it totally open, ready to head in any direction.

As a designer you are probably very accomplished at Photoshop so do you do much digital work up of an image (eg colour correction, sharpening dodging burning etc) or do you print them as you see them ?
Yes, I make my living working with PS.

Generally I see PS as the replacement for the darkroom with my work, so I use it to do the same things one used to do in the darkroom ie: dodge and burn, contrast adjustments etc. Occasionally I do some multi-exposure compositing, but always with images from the same tripod set up.

I believe that if photography is to survive as something separate from painting and illustration, it needs to retain it's inherent truth, it's sense that the image you are looking is an actual representation of what happened during that exposure. Taking the sky from another image and a tree from that image and a person from that other image sends photography down a slippery slope into oblivion. It's that truth that separates photography from the other visual arts.

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How much time do you devote to your art images?
A lot. I have no idea really because it fluctuates week to week. Virtually all of my night shooting happens around the full moon, so that time period tends to be heavy.

You have just updated your website with a massive number of new images which look fantastic. How important is your website as a means of promoting your art?
Thanks. Without the internet my night work would never have been seen. It's important to understand that the first 10 years I did this no one had any idea the work existed outside my friends and family. Once I put the work online in 1998 that all changed. People tell me I've become a sort of household name connected with night shooting and light painting.

Do you spend much time on the web looking at other photographers work and whose images or websites do you most enjoy looking and whose do you go back to time after time for inspiration?
I spend a lot of time goofing around at flickr. I see a lot of work, all different kinds, but tend to look at a lot of night work.

You mention Flickr which is a great site but i almost find it overwhelming. It's a great melting pot for photographers, new and old, and how do you see these types of sites influencing photography and have you been influenced them and by the new techniques like HDR?
The web in general and sites like flickr, youtube, myspace etc. are indicative of a larger trend- we are becoming a culture of content creators rather than a culture of content watchers. It's great in the context that everyone can be seen and heard now. and bad in that there is SO much stuff to look at now that it can be hard to separate the good from the bad. Also a lot of these sites are mostly about participation. If you want people to look at your work, you have to look at theirs, and these places run the risk of simply becoming cliquish popularity contests.

Truth is, I simply started using flickr as an inexpensive means of putting my gigantic body of work online because my lostamerica.com site had reached it's bandwidth ceiling. I really don't participate much there, rather my lostamerica.com site drives people to my flickr work.

Generally I don't participate in trends and fads like HDR. If anything, I seem to have really started one myself!

Troy Paiva, aka Lost America