JONATHAN CHERRY: What did you want to be growing up?
TARA WRAY: First I wanted to be a mountain climber but my mom was afraid of heights, so I decided I wanted to be a writer instead. I wrote a short book in the 4th grade called The Dragon Who Lived at Mt. Rushmore. It was 40 pages long, handwritten. In the end the dragon woke up and realized he was just a regular boy, not a dragon after all. I didn’t know/care if it was good or bad, I just loved writing it. There was a certain electricity I remember very distinctly that came from making words into stories. It was very pure. Wish I could get that feeling back!
JC: Who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
TW: I’m inspired by the winter weather. I love a melancholic winter scene, I find it comforting and full of storytelling potential. Luckily winter lasts almost year round in Vermont.
JC: What are you up to right now?
TW: I’m working on a photobook called Come Again When You Can’t Stay So Long. It’s a follow-up to Manhattan,Kansas, my 2006 autobiographical documentary about rekindling a relationship with my mentally ill mother. The new book documents my return to Kansas after a long absence to visit my 86-year-old grandmother, who had been a key character in my film. The book explores themes of attachment and avoidance, as my grandmother, in the declining years of her life, and me, a new parent, confront the shared grief over our broken relationships with my mother, from whom we are both once again estranged. It reflects my ambivalence about the meaning of family, mothers and daughters, and autobiographical art. It’s really good and if you buy one it comes packaged with a DVD of Manhattan, Kansas.
JC: Have you had mentors along the way?
TW: Oh my god, yes! When I was in the 4th grade it was my teacher Mrs. Lojka. She let me call her at home to discuss books and life stuff (I remember calling to tell her that I read The Witches by Roald Dahl in one sitting and had she heard of him?). She was the first person who really encouraged my writing. When I was 13 my neighbor was an 80-year-old woman named Grace Muilenburg. She was a writer who spent her life studying Kansas and its limestone. I found that so inspiring, that you could find one thing and devote your whole life to it. We took long walks almost everyday from the time I was 13-15 and just talked. She encouraged me to write. Then when I was in my early 20s I went to Russia for two weeks to study with Aimee Bender. She was my hero at the time when it came to short fiction. She encouraged me to start submitting my work to magazines, which I did. But I wasn’t patient enough/good enough to write a novel and I burned out, and that’s when I decided to start making movies. I enlisted people who had made movies before to be my mentors: Michel Negroponte and Alan Oxman. Now Tammy Mercure is my photo mentor. She’s been holding my hand through the bookmaking process. Not only does her work inspire me but her excitement for life and making pictures is infectious. And she’s insanely productive. I’ve been lucky to have so many people along the way that have been willing to answer my questions and look at my work. Most recently I went to Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom for Socially Awkward Storytellers and not only has Alec been extremely helpful and gracious in helping with my book, I met some incredible artists while I was there who I’m sure will be lifelong friends and compatriots. So, yes, mentors.
JC: Where are you based right now and how is it shaping you?
TW: Vermont, baby! My husband and I moved here in 2007. He’s originally from DC and I’m from Kansas. We came to Vermont from New York City to make Cartoon College. We originally planned to stay a year while filming and then go back to the city, but we fell in love with Vermont and didn’t want to leave. Then our twins came along in 2010. This is where we want them to grow up. I will say that it is tough to make a living here though. Josh spends a good deal of time in new York – he works as a film editor - but we both agree that it’s more important to live a quiet rural life where the boys see grass and cows and dirt roads than a big dollar life in a shoebox in the city. I love that my closest neighbors are horses.
JC: One piece of advice to photography graduates?
TW: Find a mentor who’s doing what you wish you were doing, reach out to them, see how they got there, and then go there yourself. And make pictures. Always make pictures.
JC: If all else fails - what is your plan B?
TW: Go back to making documentaries, I guess. Or become a cheese maker, or a baker. But I don’t see myself ever not making pictures, even if it’s just pictures of dogs and my kids. Having a camera with me is like having my feet with me. Can’t go anywhere without ‘em.
JC: Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community?
TW: It’s absolutely important. Making art only for and with yourself can induce loneliness and frustration - I’ve tried it.