Her pictures show the world as the children and parents experience it in each moment – as though the photographer is not even there. This results in natural and lively studies, where the scenes are reminiscent of stills taken from a reality TV format, while making full use of the characteristic features of photography. Currently making a name for herself as a family documentary photographer, Grayson Morrow offers insight into this specialised work.
You call yourself a family documentary photographer. What brought you there? Do you think it’s easier to do such work now, or that it might be easier sometime later when you’re older?
I saw a question recently that asked: “What do you want to study behind the lens?” and maybe that’s a different way of re-framing why I’m specializing in family documentary and how I got here. I want to study people, family dynamics, and the love people have for each other – that’s why I specialize. Maybe the access to the families is easy because I’m in my early twenties and yearn for my childhood occasionally? Or maybe it’s because the older I get the more fascinated I become with love and relationships? Maybe it’s both.
What do you find the biggest challenge in taking photos?
The technical details. My coursework in school is very technical, so when I get behind the camera I want to feel everything as deeply as possible and fully immerse myself in the emotional realm, so I put technical on the back burner.
You seem to have a close relationship to your subjects – is that the case? How did you build up these relationships?
I don’t know most of my clients prior to our session, so the relationship and trust is built on the day of the shoot. Typically I walk into their home with a warm embrace, then squat down so the kids are at eye level to me and let them touch my camera.
Do you think it might be easier to get access to intimate situations because you are a female photographer?
Yes, yes, yes. I definitely have easier access to intimate situations being a female.
Do you walk around with your camera all the time or do you prefer to think before shooting? How did you prepare yourself for the Day in the Life sessions? How much time do you spend with the families?
I feel naked if I don’t have a camera with me – I typically have at least my phone camera, a small film point-and-shoot camera, or a Leica with me. I prepare myself for Day in the Life by telling myself everything will be okay and I’ll figure it out. Honestly, I get pretty nervous before a shoot, but once I get into my “flow state” nothing else matters except what’s happening in that moment. My shorter sessions are about 2-4 hours long, and my longer ones are up to 8-10 hours.
Do you have any photographic role models? Who had an influence on how you developed your own way of seeing?
A few of my photographic role models are: Steven Meisel, Niki Boone, Nan Goldin, Frederikke Brostrup, and Tim Walker. When I first started in fashion, Tim Walker had a huge influence on me – I would study the way the models moved, the set designs, and the lighting.
Speaking of stylistic elements, what would you say is your thing?
My favorite stylistic elements right now are layering with people and shooting wider than 35mm. Layering is like a puzzle – my engineering side coming out –, and seeing layers come together to form a pleasing composition is very satisfying.
Please describe why you mix colour images with black and white ones? It’s an interesting mix.
I read a quote that said something along the lines of “if color doesn’t add anything to the image, put it in black and white”. If I put it in black and white and the image feels dull and lifeless, I change back to color. However, I naturally gravitate towards black and white because it shows contours and lighting so beautifully.
Let’s focus on three series: Greensboro, NC, Brooklyn, NY and Pilot Mountain, NC, all produced in 2018. Please explain something about how the situations were.
Greensboro, NC was a first day of school photo shoot for a family – I had the privilege of being there before the kids were awake, and ran down the halls with them to their classroom. In Brooklyn, NY, it was a young family transitioning between apartments in NYC, who were living in an Airbnb at the time. And for Pilot Mountain, NC, I was attending a small southern wedding located in the mountains of North Carolina. These images are primarily of the bride and bridesmaids getting ready for the ceremony.
How do you prepare to go out in the field for your Day in the Life sessions? What’s your visual approach?
Ah, this is a hard question because I think it’s primarily intuitive. If I had to put my visual approach in words, I would say it’s a dichotomy between control and surrender. The controlling comes from me positioning my body and hands to alter the angle and technical parts. Surrendering comes as I watch the light and the movements of the people before me.
What projects might you follow up with?
In the future, I would love to merge fashion and documentary together, and shoot brands and editorials in the same way that I document families.
The equipment used was a Leica CL with Vario-Elmar-TL 18–56 f/3.5–5.6 Asph.
Born in Greensboro, NC, in 1995, Grayson Morrow moved to New York City in 2014 and attended Parsons The New School for Design (2014-2016). After leaving Parsons, she got a job as a nanny in NYC igniting her love for children and families. Shortly afterwards she interned with TED talks and Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C. to work in healthcare design. Morrow moved back to North Carolina and currently attends North Carolina State University in Raleigh studying Engineering, while also working as a family documentary photographer.
I have one question. How did you handle shooting in the school with other kids? As a former newspaper shooter, I always had to get with the school administration after shooting in a school to make sure each child that was identifiable had a parents’ permission to be photographed. In film days, it was a little tougher but it had to be done.
Grayson Morrow (Photographer)
Hi Richard! I had permission/signed contract prior to the shoot from parents and administration to document. Good question!
Good work. The thing I love most about intimate family work is how it ages. In a couple of short decades these families will see these photos in a completely different light, and for the rest of us, they will recall family, fashion and habitats from an era we didn’t realize had slipped by.