RORY WHITE'S BIO
THE SHORT BIO-A BRIEF DESCRIPTION BY CAMERON CONANT
Rory White has emerged as one of Nashville hard working photographers, but nearly ten years on, he’s still the same hard-working kid who once posted an advertisement in a photo lab that said, “Photo Assistant Available – You are the Boss – You Say ‘Jump’ and I say ‘How High?’ I do not speak unless spoken to.”
Today, Rory (also AKA RORSHAK) is usually the one doing the speaking, sometimes playing a photographer in a music video (as he did for country star Jimmy Wayne), or in a reality show (Next Superstar, Gospel Dream), though more frequently playing himself: a wholly original artist who loves telling stories.
Rory's eye for theatrical images and bold colors was honed as a model in Singapore and at Middle Tennessee State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in photography and also produced an acclaimed collection of images depicting the bizarre world of urban legends (“The Alarmist Series”). Since 2009, Rory has focused on entertainment photography, pursuing an eccentric collection of independent musicians, visual artists and writers to photograph. He has developed techniques as progressive as the artists he photographs, often working with his subjects to “alter the (initial) image by hand with crayon, honey, tape, coffee, or whatever else we have on hand, and then we re-photograph the image itself. Its a way for the artist to integrate themself into their own image.”
White has the work ethic and desperation of a man not far removed from the life of a day laborer. Never-mind that he’s photographed comedian Chonda Pierce’s Platinum-selling DVD covers, CMT's Next Superstar finalists at Graceland, Gospel Music Channel's Gospel Dream finalists, and served as first assistant on national photo campaigns for Bridgestone, Ruby Tuesday and Eastman Chemical Company – White treats every job, no matter how big or small, as if his life depended upon it. Rory sums up his philosophy with the belief that "in this age, even the biggest stars are reduced to a thumbnail image. I aim to make even their thumbnail as potent as their art."
THE LONG BIO-A LONG MEMOIR BY RORY
I used to landscape for $8/hour. I was an adult trying to pay bills and rent, and my employer recognized that he needed to keep a staff, and that he had to pay us enough to be able to get by. In wintertime, daylight is short, and therefore the landscaping hours are too. Once the list of client's houses had been winterized, the boss had to get creative. One time, he took me to a yard that was lined with 50 feet of monkey grass and handed me a pathetic pair of hand clippers. Each time I squeezed them shut, they got stuck, and I had to flip my pinky around to pull them apart. They had interchangeable blades and were guaranteed for life. He swore by them and bestowed on them a pet name, but they made me just want to swear. It takes a long time to trim 50 feet of monkey grass.
I needed hours to make money, and he needed an employee to stick around till springtime. He didn't have enough clients to keep us engaged in legitimate projects, so he left me with 50 feet of monkey grass and drove away until lunch. It took me a few hours, and I earned $8 dollars for each one. He was able to keep an employee through the cold season.
I'm inspired by people who make work for themselves even when work doesn't come in.
I've assisted a number of respectable photographers, and keep a close association with a few in particular: Kyle Dreier, who specializes in food, and John Scarpati, who is an advertising and 'rock and roll' photographer working in the land of country music.
Kyle Dreier spends his own money to set up a studio day regardless if he has a client or not. He has an seemingly inexhaustible work ethic. During the slow months of the year, Kyle presses on with a mysterious sense of urgency. Maybe its a sense of duty to his 3 boys and wife at home, or a home mortgage. Kyle has an instinct for the seasons of promotion. He used to put the American Airlines in-flight magazine together, and was familiar with how photographers would solicit themselves to the art-buying industry. When times are slow, he amps up the presentation, He'll bury himself in a personal project and come out with a masterpiece. His portfolio never gets a chance to digest, with new images being introduced every month. Its his fire that caught on to me and made me start scheduling creative shoots whether I felt like it or not.
When I was 13, my brother would return home from college every other week, and with him came his ever-increasing CD collection, which I would absorb just like I had absorbed our fathers LP collection: by spinning the disc and reading the covers from front to back. I was a junkie for the music, as well as the cover art. From my earliest years, I can remember admiring the space-horse cover on Steve Miller's Greatest Hits album. I would push a matchbox car through the air like a space ship and keep setting the needle to the record's groove that played "Jet Airliner." The Beatles white album was plain on the front cover, but had tons of pictures on the inside. John Lennon appears blue, wearing his definitive round glasses, and the image somehow makes the music sound more psychedelic. One weekend, my brother returned with a new Rush album titled "Rolling the Bones." I fell in love with Rush's cover art, and my brother had about every Rush record to date. I remember "Moving Pictures", "Presto", and "Rolling the Bones" as being personal favorites. I started to draw squares on paper and started drawing my own CD covers. I remember having a few CDs whose covers I didn't like at all--so I just drew my own versions, cut them to size, and slipped them in front of the original. Most of my drawings had monstrous faces, with saliva and snarly teeth. I think I had an insecurity issue with making beautiful things, and strangely, I am still making depictions of faces with a darker twist.
In high school, I pulled my father's old Pentax K1000 out of the closet and learned how to make "bulb" exposures. I blacked out my bedroom and invited friends over to make double, triple, quadruple, and quintuple exposures with an ancient flash that had survived the 70s. We made photos of ourselves holding our own heads in our hands. I felt the magic of photography. It was like exploring a black art.
My father was put in charge of assembling the annual report for his employer, Eastman Chemical Company. As a junior in high school, I was invited to have dinner with the photographers that he imported who were shooting images for the report. I met heavy hitters like Gregory Heisler, Theo Westenberger, and Jerry Burns. They were dynamic people with fascinating stories. I remember Theo reciting tales about shooting Steve Martin by a pool (one of her most recognizable images), Arnold Schwarzenegger in a bathtub, and Heisler's story about shooting George Bush's Time magazine cover (the one with two George faces attached to the same pair of shoulders!) After college, Jerry agreed to meet with me during a visit to Atlanta, and fed me a full fledged lunchtime meal made by an assistant who was also a magnificent chef. He shared his portfolios, and set me in the right direction.
Somehow, entering college, I forgot that photography could be a legitimate career. I ventured into related paths, art and video production. My folks moved to Singapore during my freshman year of college. I made visits to Asia during the summer. Peter Lau, a model-turned-fashion photographer, stopped me at a coffee shop and asked me if I was modeling in town. I wasn't, so he put an agency card in my hand told me I could get work. He was right, and I enjoyed a few intermittent years of modeling in Singapore, where my long blonde hair and blue eyes were a novelty. I remember being on set for a catalog shoot and watching time pass while the crew practiced their craft: moving stands, designing the set, gathering light meter readings, loading film, etc. I felt more useless than useful, and wanted to be on the opposite side of things, facilitating the production. As a model, I wasn't accomplishing anything towards a long-term personal vision. It didn't feed my creative spirit to carry a portfolio around with pictures of myself taken by someone else. I came to terms that I am a creative person with a creative soul. I began to believe that a creative person needs to create, or else he or she isn't healthy and balanced in the mind.
So when I returned to the United States, I left the video production studies for the quiet, focused world of photography. As soon as I dipped a freshly exposed sheet of photo paper into the developer and saw an image develop, I was a redirected man. I had returned to the 'black art'. The creative side of me had found a new place to percolate. I discovered that I fancied technical things, as well. Photography was a world of stimulation for my heart and mind. My kitchen table was loaded with photo books from the library, and I was thinking critically about Kertesz, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, and tried to emulate their work and philosophies while shooting assignments for class. Then came classes dealing with color film, and I fell in love with 'Fuji green', Velvia film, cross-processing, and discovered the wonders of shooting with expired infrared film (it was the only kind of infrared I could afford!) Anything that made the world look different and peculiar struck my fancy.
In my college years, I developed a vision for making conceptual photographs that had over-arching plots. One series I developed was "The Alarmist" series: pictures depicting horrific scenarios inspired by fear-ridden emails that were saturating cyberspace at the time. Most of them were forwarded to me sincerely by a loving relative, describing banana bacteria that would devour one's flesh on contact, or poisoned rat feces residing on the top lip of a coke can, or gang initiation activities that were putting suburbanites on guard. It was wonderful fuel for an outlandish image.
My first assisting job was with a very generous, warm spirited photographer. I describe him this way because, a few jobs into our relationship, I fed him with not one, but two empty Hasselblad backs during a shoot. It was after lunch, and I swore to myself that I had reloaded all the backs prior to lunch. When the first one came back empty, my heart sank, and I whispered in his ear "that entire roll needs to be re-shot, the back was empty." He took it in stride and re-shot the last 12 frames, the model patiently re-tracing her poses. Then he handed me the second back, and sure enough, it was empty, too. I whispered in his ear, "that one was empty, too." Later on, driving to our next location, he told me how fortunate I was that he wasn't one of the many temperamental alcoholic photographers in town. I agreed. He stopped calling me for jobs. I made a note to always keep a Clif bar handy and keep my blood sugar even on a shoot, and maybe I would think clearer. (I've noticed that just before lunch and mid afternoon are dangerous times on shoots. There seems to be a late morning sugar drop and an after lunch drop in acumen, both which can be remedied by having a small bite of carbohydrates.) My inlet into the commercial world of photography was closed off. I put a small note card on a bulletin board at the city's best photo developing lab, Chomatics, which stated: "Photo assistant available. You are the boss. You say "jump", I say "how high?" I do not speak unless spoken to."
After graduating college, I didn't know what steps to take in order to make photography pay the rent. I peddled my handmade college portfolio around to a few photographers, dressed in my best 70s retro outfit and wearing a pony tail. My neighbors since notified me that they had given me the nickname "Fabio." One photographer told me directly: "Photographers are insecure, and they don't want to hire other photographers to assist them. They want assistants. Do you want to be a photographer or an assistant?" Another photographer responded to me: "Nashville is a small town. When you are put on a job, you've got to be your best. If you do poorly, word gets around." That's all he said. I wondered if he had already heard about me from my first assisting assignment.
So I went into landscaping, and substitute teaching in the schools. My card remained on the bulletin board at Chromatics. Five years later, I received a message from John Scarpati's first assistant, Joe Burlingame, who was looking for a second assistant to help on a shoot. We made a positive connection over the phone, and I worked with focused intensity on the shoot, with a Clif bar in my pocket, re-playing the comment in the back of my mind, "Nashville is a small town, you've got to be your best. If you do poorly, word gets around." The job was a success, and a few months later, I was invited to help on another Scarpati shoot. I finally made a visit to his webpage, and saw that he had shot a number of ad spots and some rock bands and country singers, but at the time the page had tons of images, so there were a few gems significant to this story that were buried in the depths of his html.
Scarpati is "off the grid" in regards to the rest of the Nashville photographic world. He made his name in Los Angeles in the hey day of the punk and glam scene, and shot a pantheon of rising stars. His name was packing a punch, but his life was about to enter a new chapter. Born to his family was a baby girl with a three chamber heart. She was named Cyan. A heart is normally built of four chambers, and so the doctors forecast that there would come a day when Cyan's heart would be too small to power a fully grown body. The Scarpati's pulled up their Los Angeles stakes and moved to Nashville, where they could be in close proximity to Vanderbilt Medical Center, and Cyan was placed on a list to receive a heart transplant, for which she would wait 15 years.
A few years into our working relationship, we were still only professionally acquainted. I stuck with the assisting mantra: "I do not speak unless spoken to", for fear of being put back into the wilderness of landscaping and working as a substitute teacher.
Scarpati's house is also his studio, and there are parts of the 'studio' that I felt were his personal space and off limits to me. One day, I was commissioned to go fetch something in the upstairs loft, and to my surprise, his loft wall was covered in gold and platinum records-including Rush's "Presto" and "Roll the Bones" albums. Suddenly, life seemed to have order to it, and I felt like I had entered my own professional promised land. How curious it was to have admired these album covers so emphatically as a teenager and, by some strange order of events, be given the opportunity to work with the artist himself. I decided that my assistance to Scarpati was the equivalent of attending graduate school, and I was going to refine my knowledge of photography by being a servant in whatever capacity I could.
The professional title for one who helps another photographer is "assistant". I have always been a churchgoer, and was taught to attach value to the concept of servant hood. So in the back of my mind, when I hear the word "assistant", I equate it with "servant" and suddenly there is a nobility attached to the role. This makes being an assistant a morally relevant activity for me. This philosophy helps, because the assisting work keeps coming.
I still keep a Clif bar tucked away in my cargo pants' pocket.
Motivated by Kyle's work ethic and constant forging of portfolio masterpieces with food, and Scarpati's career accomplishments and visionary approach to portraiture, I decided to split my time assisting by crafting my own portfolio. With each new shoot, I share with my mentors, and absorb the advice as it comes. We've become three iron blades who sharpen each other with each assignment. We each have our own vision, but all have a mutual insecurity of becoming irrelevant. So with each shoot the bar is raised a little higher, and the vision focused.
In the mid oughts (i.e. 2005, 2006), MySpace blew up and demanded that anyone who joined provide a profile picture. I carted my camera around to all the parties I could, candidly photographing the attendants as I would shoot a wedding reception, except I would shoot 'from the hip', and use a flash in my hand as an immediately alterable light source. I'd drag the shutter and shake the camera and catch people making the most ecstatic faces. The pictures would be online the following morning, and I kept recognizing my work being used as people's profile photos. The affirmation encouraged me. I realized that most people don't have a defining image of themselves, even artists. After photographing the party scene for a few months, I started to receive requests to make individual portraits, some for albums, some for authors, some for comedians, but all of them ended up as profile pictures on MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. In the new age, the demand for an iconic profile picture is unending. Anyone with a web page needs interesting web content, which means great pictures.
Nashville is saturated with artists, especially of the musical sort. Everyone in the field needs a strong, fresh web presence, as well as a great album cover. In the digital age, an album is judged by its cover, even if its the size of a thumbnail image on iTunes. I set out to make my name by making images pop out of their thumbnail-sized constraints. They had to be dramatic, to feel big, and to present the artist as being the second-coming of Elvis to the islands of Hawaii.
So I created RORSHAK, and started to make images of my favorite local artists. They are independent, talented forces whose craft is still secret from most of the world. I think they are the cream that will rise to the top and that their path will lead them into the world's spotlight. Its a blessing to get to call them friends and to integrate their faces into my work. I invented a term for the craft: "iconography". I put "RORSHAK, ICONOGRAPHY" on my web page, and people said, "huh?" So now its just: "RORSHAK". Hopefully people see it as iconic, whether it be printed at 16"x20", or simply as an iTunes thumbnail.
Especially notable in the RORSHAK portfolio is a series of images that are made 'organically': meaning that the image undergoes my own special photo process where I photograph an artist, print it out, and the artist and I share the task of manipulating the print, altering the image by hand, with crayon, honey, tape, coffee, or whatever else we have on hand, and then we re-photograph the image. The results incorporate both of our 'thumbprints' and are exciting representations of two creative minds working together.
A few years ago, I was cast to play a photographer for a Jimmy Wayne music video. The producers liked my extemporaneous dialogue so much that they used the raw audio from the shoot and fused it into Jimmy Wayne's video. His record company "Big Machine" records had me return to play an FBI interrogator for an in-house novelty film. The Gospel Music Channel caught the Jimmy Wayne video and had me come in to be filmed as the photographer and to photograph their winning contestants as part of the reality television show "Gospel Dream".
As this journey continues, I have been able assist Kyle in making menus and ad campaigns for O'charleys, Ruby Tuesday, Wok Hay, and tons of regional restaurants, as well as architectural work across the southeastern United States. With Scarpati, I've assisted on shoots for a number of major label releases and an especially notable ad campaign with Bridgestone tires.
Personally, I photographed comedienne Chonda Pierce's last two platinum selling DVD covers, comedian Torry Martin, pop singers Betsey Long and Misty Rae, variety group The Bucket Boys, rock artists Mikky Ekko, Philos, The Branded Sons, Michael Hughes, Cory Basil, Todd "Toddzilla" Austin from JonesWorld, Laws Rushing, Michael Shoup, Caleb Collins, authors Cameron Conant and Rusty Whitener, and artist Donny Smutz, among others. Most of these artists are young independent acts making headway with small creative teams, using the channels of iTunes, Facebook, Bandcamp, etc. I've been thankful to be a part of their small beginnings, and hope that their image is always a step ahead of their career.
As I look at what artists choose for their albums, I sometimes feel that our best work isn't represented, but that's why I have my own portfolio to share;) In the next few years, I hope to garner attention with the RORSHAK portfolio, both as a resume and as a gallery-worthy collection. Perhaps the artists that I have invested in will be recognized on a wider platform, as happened recently with Mikky Ekko, whose RORSHAK image appeared in Paste magazine recently. My career is leveraged in the careers of others who's talent is promising. The elements seem to be in place for us all to prosper as one unit. My belief in this end inspires my work ethic and fuels my enthusiasm. I keep a blog with fresh stories of recent shoots, and feel that the stories in themselves make my career a success for their sheer intrinsic charm.