Houston Cofield is a photographer and artist living and working in Memphis, Tennessee. He received his MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his BA in Journalism from the University of Mississippi. He is a fourth-generation photographer, all of whom have photographed the American South.
How did your interest in your medium begin and how did you arrive at your current style?
My grandfather and great-grandfather were both photographers, and growing up I was always very aware of cameras. The 8x10 camera they used to make many of William Faulkner's portraits is still sitting in my childhood home today. Its cast iron base and wooden frame is hard to ignore. Although cameras were very present throughout my childhood I didn't pick one up until high school when I joined the newspaper staff. I began photographing sports (involuntarily), but found myself much more drawn to editorial subjects. I continued studying photography and journalism throughout college and was influenced more and more by fine art photographers toward the end of my college career.
I ended up applying to a fine arts graduate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago to devote two years to the sole development of myself as a photographer. During my time in Chicago I found myself experimenting with different forms of storytelling and thinking of the camera less as a journalistic or documentary device and more as a tool to create visual fictional narratives. Given my background in journalism and fine art I think my "style" often lands somewhere in-between depending on the type of work I'm intending to create.
How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?
My immediate surroundings is one of the most important components to my work. I think challenging yourself to rethink the way you see your city, culture and your "everyday" is important, especially for photographers. I tend to be drawn to what I consider to be the quintessential stereotype of the American South, but that culture is disappearing and it is also a small part of what makes up the American South. I think removing yourself from a place your familiar with can be helpful in the way you approach your surroundings and is a great way to challenge your natural perspective.
How do you choose your subjects?
Recently, I'm finding myself drawn to people's hobbies or what they do in their spare time. I'm particularly interested in those hobbies that people devote most of their time and money to invest in whether that's drag racing, gambling, music or whatever: the things in people's live that they could not live without.
Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?
Bryan Schutmaat has been a good friend and influence on my work. I came across his early work on Tumblr when I was a sophomore and followed him closely throughout college and grad school. Seeing his hard work develop into successful publications has been really encouraging. I've had the privilege to work with Bryan and hear him speak about his recent work which has given me a lot of insight to what it takes to become a successful photographer and artist.
Another important influence on my work is Daniel Shea. Daniel was a year ahead of me in my MFA program in Chicago and sitting in on his critiques and sharing thoughts during studio visits was certainly an important time in my development. Observing Daniel's fine art and editorial work has also been motivational to my career as an artist.
Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of?
With my recent move from Chicago to Memphis my artistic community is a little slim at the moment. The good folks at Ain't-Bad Magazine have done a wonderful job of facilitating a community and dialogue among photographers and especially photographers in the American South which I'm really grateful for.
Where do you go to draw inspiration?
The internet is obviously a huge source of inspiration. Driving through the backwoods of north Mississippi is another and communicating and collaborating with other artists, especially non-photographers, is something I really enjoy.
Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?
I like to think I try to embrace any and all aspects of the Southern aesthetic, but of course I'm inherently biased and have to challenge myself to see in new ways.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
Without a strong physical community here in Memphis feeling "creatively satisfied" has been difficult. I think allowing yourself to devote time and energy to your work is important to finding creative inspiration which is something I'm still getting used to.
Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.
Recently, I've been photographing stock car drives in West Memphis, Arkansas, which has been a big source of inspiration for me. It has given me some insight to my own work and where I think the direction my work is headed.
I also have a long term project I'm beginning to work on which is a photo book consisting of photographs made by myself, my grandfather and great grandfather as well as written documents by William Faulkner and my great-grandfather. It's in the early stages, but something I'm eager to produce.