Identity, caregiving, art and giving back: An interview with Bob Carey
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Photography as a tool for dealing with grief, caretaking, and identity.
Brilliantly: I'd love to hear how you came into photography and about how you've used the medium as a way of exploring your identity over your many years as an artist and breast cancer caregiver.
Bob: When I was in high school, in 1975, I was a skateboarder. My friends and I would drive around in my dad's truck and look over the fences of foreclosed houses to find empty pools. Well, they weren't totally empty- there would be a little water and some green muck. So, we'd drain it, cut filter covers in shop class and then skate the pool. Skateboarding was new and a lot of people were getting hurt. Including me.
At one point, I broke my shoulder and was in the hospital for two weeks. My parents wanted me to take a break from skateboarding, and so when my dad brought me home, he suggested I use the money I had saved in the bank to buy a camera.
Brilliantly: I can totally understand that suggestion!
Bob: I bought a fisheye lens because I knew that I would be shooting skaters. It was incredible. After high school, I took a photography class at a nearby community college and processed my first roll of film. Making my first print was magic, the print appeared before my eyes. It made me realize that photography was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Brilliantly: I remember seeing an image appear on the paper in the darkroom. It's absolutely magical.
Bob: The next year, I took a commercial photography class, and my teacher eventually asked me to work with him, which I did until I went to art school and went back to commercial photography again after I graduated.
It was routine work that paid well. I would shoot 10 to 20 shots for the Wednesday circular in the grocery store until I picked Intel as a client. I was also shooting more conceptual images, which got me thinking more about art.
Brilliantly: Making work for class is so different than making art as your own practice, especially if you've found a way to make a living using the same medium.
Bob: At the time, Linda was going to school for graphic design while also working in an intensive care unit as a unit coordinator. We had only been married a year, and after my mom's death, I was just really focused on starting my own studio. My mom had passed away from breast cancer in 1989, after being diagnosed in '85. She didn't want chemo the first time around, and when it came back, it was everywhere. She had chemo but only lived for another year. It was super hard to watch that happen.
Brilliantly: Yes, seeing someone you love suffer is absolutely awful. I don't think we talk much about the impact of a disease like cancer on the family and friends of the person who is diagnosed. It takes a long time to process what happened, and who you are during someone's illness and then after their death.
Bob: One day, I was photographing a baby on a red background with some goofy fall leaves that I was hanging with fishing line. I was feeling kind of sad and was missing my mom a lot. I went into the bathroom with a roll of fishing line, I looked in the mirror and just started wrapping my head. My hair was kind of long, and so it looked like a pineapple. It felt like I was being held, but it was also uncomfortable.
I asked my assistant Jackie to photograph me that way, and then the next day, we shaved my head and did that same shot over. After that, I knew I had to keep shooting. I had never tried to create something with true meaning. It was the beginning of my ongoing portrait project.
Brilliantly: What an amazing beginning. I love that you were moved in that moment to start capturing your grief and identity. Did you dive full time into making art once you realized?
Bob: No, after long days of commercial shooting, I would do portraits at night. I shaved my whole body, my eyebrows, and I painted myself silver. The work was about transformation, and the reward mainly came in the darkroom because there wasn't photoshop at that time.
A while later, the Arizona State University Art Museum hosted an exhibition of my work. The exhibition included a short film projected large on the wall. In the film, I'm running naked down a desert road; my body painted silver. It starts close up, focused on my head. It's slow-motion, and my fat's bouncing around. At the end of the film, as the steady cam on the back of a truck zooms out, it shows me naked and falling. I fall in the dirt, which I did it three times, and end up bloody in my symbolic death.
Brilliantly: Having an exhibition is so validating, as is sharing that kind of intimate work with the world. It can also be scary to be so vulnerable and expose yourself to people's reactions to your work.
Bob: My dad, who came with my stepmother to see the show, said he was really disappointed in me— that I just looked so sad. I was like, "Well, first of all, you sent me to art school, and second of all, I am sad." He was sad because I was sad. He didn't understand why I was sharing my heartache with the world through art and felt like he hadn't raised me that way. I don't think my dad ever really knew how much my mom's death affected his kids.
Brilliantly: That breaks my heart, but I also know that culturally your dad was raised in a time where men were expected to be incredibly stoic. I'm sure he was moved- it would be hard not to relate to your work. That's the whole point about making art, right? It helps us understand everything better, how we relate to ourselves and the world around us.
Bob: Absolutely. For me, the thing I enjoy most is flying somewhere and getting a rental car, and driving away to find a spot for a photograph. Since we moved east, and since Linda was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I would sometimes have a hard time getting out of bed. But while I'd lay there feeling depressed, I'd put my covers over my head and would imagine being in India or Taiwan- picturing being in a different world and who I'd be in that place.
Brilliantly: When I was looking at the portrait you took at Niagara Falls, I was thinking about the idea of the sublime. And I was remembering that it was through the language of art that I can understand how small I am in a way that I find beautiful and sad.
Bob: Yeah. We are a nanosecond in geologic time. Think about that. I love to travel in Arizona, and I think about the landscape and millions of years ago. Making art in places like that is a gift, and I want to keep doing it.
Brilliantly: Our art is our legacy. Not just for you as Bob, but for culture. Archives are how we understand that past and many of them are visual. We go to museums to understand past cultures. And I think it's really important for contemporary artists to make and show your art and have it then be available for people to see and reflect on.
Bob: I totally agree. I'm collaborating with a performance artist right now in Manhattan. People really like to see that people are still making art during this time. It's hopeful or something during the pandemic, especially to look towards the future. I guess the same could be said about making art that's a documentation over the time of someone's illness. It's sad and hopeful.
Brilliantly: I'm thinking about you as a caregiver, and a husband, and the son of someone who died from breast cancer, and how isolating that might feel. I appreciate that you are an artist whose intention wasn't really necessarily about championing breast cancer awareness, but it's sort of been co-opted as such. How does that feel?
Bob: It feels good to help the men who I end up connecting within the breast cancer space. Usually, Linda is the one talking to people. But we're together all the time and in this together. It's a struggle in lots of ways, and I'm happy that my art can be used in a way that's helpful.
Brilliantly: And it's pretty amazing that you've used your work to do so much good for the breast cancer community through the Tutu Project.
Bob: The Tutu Project began in 2003: a happy accident, a retreat in the face of confusion and fear. The original image was black and white and had nothing to do with breast cancer until many years later when Linda was diagnosed with metastatic disease. I was asked to create an image for Ballet Arizona for an ad campaign. They wanted artists to create something that represented ballet, so I photographed myself in the tutu, which I kept. A few months later, I created another "Ballerina" image while Linda and I drove cross-country for our move to New York.
After Linda returned to treatment because of cancer metastasis in her liver, she shared my self-portrait with the tutu. The other patient's found escape and laughter in the images, and thus The Tutu Project was born.
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The Tutu Project provides partnership opportunities to esteemed breast cancer non-profit organizations that share our vision for an empowered breast cancer community. The Tutu Project™ grant application process, which releases grants once a year, is designed to create lasting bonds between our initiative and like-minded organizations that are doing good in the world. Through these partnerships, we're able to extend our reach and influence. They collect for and allocate funds to the breast cancer community for everything from transportation to food in the fridge, childcare, and utility bills.