It’s probably been said somewhere that the person who asks questions knows more about what they’re doing than the person who never does. This must be true of Houston Cofield, a local photographer, who at just twenty-eight years old has his photography featured in publications ranging from the Memphis Flyer to the New York Times.
If anything has contributed to his success (aside from his natural eye for the unusual), it is his curiosity. Houston is constantly asking questions, to himself, to others, or to the light in an impossibly golden photograph. He answers every question with an unanswerable one, leaving me walking away from our conversation with more questions than I came with. What defines a photographer? How does one photograph sound? What story is this place trying to tell? How do you make a picture of a lawyer in his office “sexy”? All of Houston’s questions were things any strong photographer should ask themselves daily, but most of them were questions that should be asked by any and every artist. Looking at Houston’s work, you find answers to these questions about art and story and light.
Houston is a native Memphian, who is currently working as a photographer for the Daily Memphian. Ranging from professional, to personal, to otherworldly and strange, his photography captures a broad and multifaceted approach to the American South. One of his recent projects The Ditch pieces together a thorough profile of the Memphis Riverside International Speedway, or “The Ditch.”
“Right across the old bridge, if you go into West Memphis and hang a left there’s a dirt track there that’s been around since the 1950s and I was immediately drawn to just the timelessness of the place. It hasn’t changed, they pray before every race, they sing the national anthem, it’s really strange.”
By paying a fee of $30, Houston found himself in the pit, where drivers, mechanics, and cars rush in and out preparing for a race. After a few visits, he was able to get into the pit for free, and the pictures began developing a story of their own. “It developed into this sort of documentation of the racing, of the pit, what happens in the pit, drivers working on cars, portraits of drivers. As I started to make this book, I started to focus more on the aura of what happens there: how do you photograph sound? How do you begin to think about more of the atmosphere of the place as opposed to just straight documentation of a man with a wrench, for instance? Or how do you get at this sort of grittiness of the track, or the twisted metal, or the masculinity that’s so apparent in the sport, or this sort of heroism that comes with a race and these sort of big muscle cars?”
One question caught my attention. “How do you photograph sound?” Well, you can’t, but there are ways to represent it according to Houston. “It’s obviously impossible to photograph sound but there’s a way to make an image that’s a little more punchy or noisy, or that has a little bit of that atmospheric feel to it… looking at the lights, and when those cars come around the track, throwing up all this dirt, trying to put the lens right in that, trying to be right in that atmosphere. So I think some of that kind of evokes a little bit of the aura of the place.”
“I feel like I’m sort of going back to this place now, and reinterpreting all of this and making my own layer of history to add to this area. It’s becoming a sort of fiction book in a way.”
It’s in places like The Ditch, where a location holds its own story and mystery in its imagery, that Houston finds himself most drawn to. I asked him about a place where he finds consistent inspiration, and he told me about a forest in northern Mississippi. “There’s this area in Mississippi that my grandfather photographed a lot, and William Faulkner also wrote about. There’s this area of wilderness, this big pine forest that Faulkner labeled “The big woods.” Inspired by this mysterious forest of pine trees, Faulkner wrote a collection of short stories based on his experiences there. The book, published in 1955, was titled The Big Woods. Those woods were flooded in the 1930s, along with a small town in the area. After photographing the woods for a project in grad school, Houston left them behind for a while but finds himself still drawn to the story within the place, saying “What I was doing in grad school doesn’t feel like the right interpretation of the place. It might have felt right at the moment, but it’s not really the work that I would make now. I want some sort of mystery to happen… There are so many layers of history in this place. There’s the fictional history of what Faulkner wrote about this place, and the people he imagined and made up, and it all came from a real physical history of the place… I feel like I’m sort of going back to this place now, and reinterpreting all of this and making my own layer of history to add to this area. It’s becoming a sort of fiction book in a way.”
What does Houston find hard to photograph? Himself. Well, his family, and the parts of his life that make him himself. “The challenging part of photography is to photograph yourself and your family. How do you photograph your mother who you’ve grown up with for years? How do you see that person in a different way?”
While Houston’s best work focuses on the mysterious and unfamiliar, he consistently tries to turn the lens around, and focus inward to discover his background in a different light. “It’s really fun to photograph these subcultures, but in a way, I am an observer of them, and it’s easy to see their strange and interesting parts. If I were to turn the camera on my own family, or the culture in which I was brought up in, that would be much more challenging. That’s part of what I’m working on, but I don’t want to give too much of it away.”
After spending a few years studying photography in Chicago, he was grateful to see another perspective on the world, and after returning to Memphis, he felt he gained another perspective on the city that he was becoming too familiar with.
“Being removed from the south ultimately helped me come back to take pictures of it with this new way of seeing. If you’re too a part of the culture you begin to not be able to see it anymore.”
When I asked him for any advice for aspiring photographers, he emphasized the importance of spending time in a different city, a different culture, or a different community. “If you’ve grown up in Memphis, grown up in this area, I always encourage someone to move away for a few years, to see a new perspective.”
Currently, Houston is working as a photographer for the Daily Memphian. “It’s a big part of my career at this point and something I find really interesting. I don’t plan on leaving, and I really like it so far. It allows me to do a lot of freelance work, so I shoot for any other publications I want as long as I can fit it into my schedule. Right now I feel like I’m in a really good spot. I suppose one day the dream would be to travel and shoot pictures for big national publications, but at the same time, I go to New York sometimes and talk to people who are doing those things, and they’re really distracted from making their own art at that point. So maybe I have it. Maybe this is my bread and butter. Just living in Memphis and shooting for this [publication], and being able to make art.”
While he feels that his art and his editorial work don’t necessarily fall into the same sphere, he tries to find ways to bring the two closer together, aiming for seamlessness between the two that he finds in the work of other artists. “That’s the dream, that’s the magic point, to make work that you get commissioned to make, that is also artwork that speaks to your own ideas about the world and ideas about things that you’re considering in your art.”
Though separate, Houston feels the two spheres of his work only grow closer together as he continues to work on his art, and exploring his own style within the guidelines of editorial work. “I find myself referencing Bloomberg Businessweek, and the Wall Street Journal and all these publications that are a little more financially focused as a resource for me to become inspired… because it can be such a bleak environment. Going and shooting an attorney in a grey office is just not sexy at all. But that’s what I sort of love, the challenge of making something interesting in those really crude conditions.”
This push to make art and grow as a photographer, even on the most uninspired and dreary assignments, is part of what has helped Houston grow as a photographer. He takes every assignment seriously, as a learning opportunity, and a chance to see something new. Of course, he encourages all aspiring photographers to adopt this attitude. “I think it’s easy to be caught up in the mindset of “Man, I’m having to shoot these stupid events to get some money so I can make my art.” But if you’re shooting some event at a country club or something, go in the kitchen and photograph the chef or something. Use your access to make some weird work, you know? Shoot the pictures of people all day and get whatever the client wants, but use your access to make some weird shit too.”
“So it’s all this balance of making a personal work and putting it out there to people who you think might give a shit about it. And if someone does, you’re just extremely grateful and you’re like wow this is really cool, you like this stuff? That’s really great.”
Another piece of advice for photographers: look at other work from other photographers. “To be a good photographer, you have to look at other people’s pictures. Not to copy it, but to just appreciate it and study it.” Every photographer is influenced by another hundred, according to Houston. “There’s this lineage of photographers being influenced that dates back to photography’s inception. People have always been copying each other, but then we turn around and go some other route. There’s influence, but there are photographers that are thinking about their contribution to that lineage: from your own style of shooting, your own technical way of approaching subjects to the content that you’re making, just what you’re interested in.” Ask yourself questions about what the photographer is doing behind the camera. “How the hell did they do that?” or “How in the world is this person posed in this way, how do you gain that amount of trust to just make a stranger lie flat on their back in the middle of a park?” Letting yourself be fascinated by that kind of thing is important. You gotta really love it.”
In light of these tips, Houston’s latest project, Quartet, is a strong catalyst in the local photography community.
Quartet is a zine co-produced by Houston and three other local photographers (a quartet of photographers). The inspiration behind the project came from Houston’s love of other photographers, and his perceived need of a strong community of photographers sharing and talking about their work.
“We want this to be something that only encourages the photo community and artist community to begin to talk about each other’s work and to share work with each other, and come together, because I don’t feel like we’re doing that enough in Memphis, and I’d like to see more of it… And I think Memphis is pretty good for that… and maybe the community isn’t as large as a place like New York or Chicago or LA but you can feel like you’re more a part of it, you can contribute to it more, you can do things that haven’t been done here that have been done in other places, so that’s what I enjoy about Memphis.”