Scott Davis

How did you come to photography; what about it appealed to you?

I think like most people, my original interaction with the medium was as a casual snap-shooter. But even back in the day when I was using a Kodak Instamatic that took cartridge film, I was looking at the world and trying to record impressions of it - places I’d been and things about them that were memorable, not just proof-I-was-there. I can remember one picture I took when I was thirteen; it was laughably awful, of the crumbling battlements of Beaumaris Castle in Wales. But I saw something in that scene that was emotionally resonant to me, and I wanted to put it in an image. I just didn’t know how to do it at the time. 
When I graduated from university, I got into photography seriously. My original goal was to only learn enough to use it for subject matter for painting and drawing. But watching my first print emerge on paper through the red gloom of the safelight was a magical moment for me and I knew then and there photography was the end itself, not just a pass-through on the way to something else. My interest in the medium emerged at the same time as my understanding of my sexuality, and I wanted to use it to explore and understand it. My desires were shaped in part by other people’s images of men, and I wanted to reply, visually. 

Who or what was influential on how you see and photograph?

I owe a tremendous debt to my early teachers at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) where I took a series of courses to build the foundations of technical skill. I had two professors in particular, Jack Wilgus and Stephen-John Philips, who gave me so many great lessons in everything. From Jack, I learned the history of the medium, how to see in colour and not just black-and-white, understanding of how to look at light in a scene and the theory of illumination (there is only one sun!) From Stephen, I learned about posing models, conveying drama, narrative and emotion in a scene, and pushing my own boundaries if not other people’s.
Later, I had the opportunity to take a seminar with John Dugdale, the now-blind photographer famous for his 19th century style cyanotypes. Working with him, talking to him, and seeing his work was a truly inspirational experience. He gives you a sense of everything-is-possible because he’s overcome so many obstacles in his life that others would give up over (full-blown AIDS, blindness, partial deafness), and done it with such a sense of positivity. 
There are plenty of photographers in many genres whose work I love, but it’s been the people I was able to sit in a room with and have a conversation who have had the greatest influence.
I certainly think that’s the case for me with John Dugdale- meeting him and talking to him had a profound impact on me - it changed the way I think about making images. That’s also certainly true of my professors at MICA - whenever I photograph a nude I think back to my days studying with Stephen-John Philips and our lighting and posing sessions, and the conversations with him about narrative in the still image. 


Tell us about your early days photographing and how your approach has changed.

I think the biggest change is the dissipation of anxiety over what I’m doing. Technique is now a non-issue - I know how to do anything I want to do, and if I don’t, I know where to go and who to talk to to learn it. When I first started shooting, I was at least as preoccupied with whether I was using the right shutter or aperture as I was with posing and lighting. And working with nude figure models, well… it was certainly intimidating. Now it’s a total non-issue. I think my comfort with it comes through when working with models, and they are more relaxed as well, so we’re more productive on a shoot. 

Can you tell us about your relationship with your equipment. 

I think that like many photographers, I went through a phase of being a gear whore. I had to have not just a camera with a lens, but a whole system of equipment. And I was a brand-name snob too - if it didn’t say Zeiss on it, I wasn’t very interested. Now that I’ve matured, I’ve distilled down what I want to work with, and I’m keeping it really simple - one camera, one lens. Today, 90% of my work is being done with a Rolleiflex TLR. I can’t change lenses on it, and it’s been incredibly liberating. You just go out with it and see. No more indecisiveness and missing a moment because I was fussing with gear. And the limit of 12 frames per roll has also been liberating - it’s enough to go out on my lunch break and shoot a complete, small idea. It makes me be more critical of my composition, subject selection, and my work process at the same time that I don’t feel like I have to shoot for the sake of shooting, just to finish off the roll. 
Working in the studio, I still have a thing for large format cameras - there’s just something about working with a tool that ties you very directly to the earliest days of photography. Focusing and composing on the ground glass where you look at the image upside down and laterally reversed changes your composition - you have to read the image in a non-literal way so it’s actually easier to see line, movement, contrast and shadow in graphical form rather than as “Oh, that’s Bob, wearing a red hat”. It also, after a point, forces you to get out from behind the camera and see your subject and interact with them in the moment of taking the picture. With a view camera, when you’re taking a photo, you have to insert the film holder into the back of the camera such that it completely obscures the image from the lens. No point in hanging around where you can’t see the action anyway - so go talk to your subject and catch them in a raw moment.

What are your underlying themes and rationale for making photographs; what would you like the audience to see?

I want the audience to see what I see. I feel like I have something to say with my images, and I hope that by making and sharing them, at least one other person out there will catch the resonance and recognise something of it in themselves.  

It would seem that for photography there is a constant hunger for the new, whether that be equipment ‘style’ or computer work, or even subject matter. Can you talk about your relationship to the concept of the ‘new’ and how it fits your work?

It’s funny you should ask about that - being someone who continues to work with the tools he learned on and enjoys, I get accused often of being anachronistic, a dinosaur, out of touch with today. I really don’t think the tools I use in any way prevent me from creating relevant images. But perhaps I am out of touch and not ‘new’ - I still believe in creating images that are aesthetically beautiful, positively resonant, erotically charged.

Is there a perfect photograph? How would we recognise one?

I don’t think it’s possible to have a perfect photograph. You can make beautiful, amazing, shocking, emotionally charged, horrifying and/or en pointe images, but the closest an image can aspire to perfection is that the audience understands the message the photographer intends. They are certainly free to interpret more, but the photograph should be readable. A photograph that lacks Barthes’ punctum, a thing that strikes you, is a failure. Beyond that, I think perfection in a photograph is when the image and the emotion it arouses become interchangeable - feeling that feeling makes you think of the image, even without having it present in front of you. 

Talk us through the preparation for a shoot.

Before anything, have a solid concept of what you’re looking to create. Hunt down the materials you need to make it happen. Assemble the references you need to communicate that concept to the people you’re working with - I like to have samples of images to show to models to explain poses and convey emotional states. If it’s in my studio, get there at least an hour ahead to get all my lighting and backdrops and props set. Depending on what I’m doing, it could take thirty minutes to just pop some lights in place because I know my gear and my lighting patterns well, or it could take half a day to get the set created, test the lights and have everything ready when the model arrives. If it’s on location, I scout the location in advance to know the light. I want to see how the scene changes over time, to know when is best to photograph from which angle. Oh, and of course, double-check all your gear the night before, to make sure everything is working, everything is in its proper place to be ready to go, no batteries are dead. Nowadays, I also do random inventory checks on the film I’m using to make sure I have enough in stock. That gets done well in advance because I can’t just walk into any brick-and-mortar camera store anymore and find what I want. There are barely any brick-and-mortar camera stores left these days, let alone ones that cater to analog photography users. I can order most of what I use online and have it at my doorstep in a day or two, but some things, like the 14x17 inch sheet film, have to be planned well in advance as it must be specially ordered once a year. 

You have an extensive collection of photographs; can you tell us about your collecting?

My collecting sprang out of two related interests: the history of photography and a passionate interest in the United States Civil War period. The vast majority of my collection consists of cartes-de-visite (CDV) from the period 1860-1890. Highlights include some 30 or so CDVs by Mathew Brady’s studio, with a special focus on his images of circus people. I have most of his published images of Tom Thumb’s wedding (Tom Thumb was a famous little person performer in PT Barnum’s circus and one of the most highly paid entertainers of his day. His wedding was the Charles & Diana wedding of the 1860s - the receiving line at the reception was some 4000 people long, and President & Mrs. Lincoln extended them an invitation to the White House when they passed through Washington on their honeymoon). 

I have one CDV I love telling the story of, because it highlights the collecting process. I have a CDV that is entitled on the verso “Black Star, an Osage Brave”. It was taken in Fort Smith, Arkansas between 1881-1884. Stamped on the verso is a mark of a previous collector, Dr. Albert Leffingwell. Leffingwell was a physician in New York State who championed vivisection reform at the beginning of the 20th century. I bought the CDV on eBay from a dealer in Paris, France. So the image began life in Fort Smith, Arkansas, whereupon it traveled to New York, then sometime in the middle 20th century it was de-acquisitioned from the Leffingwell collection, and then made its way to Paris in the second decade of the 21st century, where I acquired it and it now resides in Washington DC. 

I also have a collection of cased images. Cased images were made from 1839 to roughly 1865, with the vast majority being made before 1860. Each daguerreotype and ambrotype is unique, which is part of the appeal in collecting them. You know that nobody else has your image. I have two Brady images from this period, one a 1/4 plate daguerreotype and one a 1/6 plate ambrotype in what is known as a Brady case (Brady invented this particular design of case which allows the ambrotype to be viewed from either side). This is one advantage of being a collector in the United States - there is such a vast treasure trove of images from this period here, so they are more affordable and more accessible. I’m drawn to daguerreotypes especially because they are such unique animals in the photography world - an incredibly delicate image, rendered in elemental silver on the surface of a silver-plated sheet of copper, polished to a mirror finish. You can’t view a daguerreotype directly because of the mirror finish - there needs to be a dark background and you view it at an oblique angle. All but the largest daguerreotypes can be held in one hand, so it creates a very specific kind of intimacy with the image, and by extension, the subject. 

I do own modern photographs too. I have three by Garrie Maguire, a Tom Bianchi artists’ proof (slightly damaged so I got it very cheap), perhaps four or five by Bill Schwab, a Detroit-based landscape photographer, a Greg Gorman, and a number of individual images from other living, working photographers with whom I’ve exchanged work. Most of my contemporary collecting has been in the form of monographs as collecting contemporary work can be extremely expensive. I have an extensive but not complete catalog of my books on my blog.

How does the collecting affect your making of images?

I think the biggest impact on my photographing has been from my experience of collecting the cased images, which were intended to be carried around and viewed in one’s hands, instead of on a wall. It has changed my thoughts and feelings about photographic intimacy. I now think about making small images, although I don’t practice early 19th century techniques. I love contact prints, and I aspire to make images that draw you in to them and make you block out the outside world when viewing them. It also helps me think about the life of my images after they leave my hands - where will they go and who will treasure and cherish them? 

See more of Scott’s work and words at

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