This article first appeared in Alt Variety in July 2012

By Tony Sokol


Brooklyn-based photographer Fred Cray is a committed artist, the kind that would set himself on fire for his art. He may also eat dirt, shock himself, cover himself in peanut butter or venture behind the adult curtain in a video store to photograph porn images. “I think commitment is really important on a lot of levels as well as being willing to sacrifice things for one’s art.”  Cray’s work has been exhibited in shows around the world including White Columns, The Brooklyn Museum, New Museum and The George Eastman House. Cray will work for years on projects to let them fully develop. He gets his inspiration from movies, literature, chance, other artists and world events and his photography can be reactionary, like his dirt-eating series. “I was watching the first attacks of the first Gulf War and thought I’d shave my head, paint myself black, and eat dirt,” he says. He gravitates towards work that makes him uncomfortable or provokes fear.

“I did set myself on fire, but I never felt in danger. I got burned, had a couple scars, and some patches of hair didn’t grow back on my head for several months. It’s not like I was really burning myself like a protesting monk. If I really wanted to set myself on fire I would have had a video camera going and perhaps really been harmed.” Cray shot the more disturbing images as self-portraits because he is not comfortable making others suffer for his work. “A couple years ago I was doing a series of self-portraits where I covered myself in food. Someone had said my work is always so dark. So I thought I’d do some sweet shots, marshmallow fluff, frosting, etc.” Those sweet shots soon evolved into sausage, cheese doodles, peanut butter, jelly, and ketchup. “The peanut butter was disgusting and I couldn’t get it out of my mind, no matter how many showers I had taken. I literally took at least 3 showers immediately after I used peanut butter.” The showers didn’t quell the nose trauma. The smell haunted Cray “for weeks, more than any physical pain would linger.” Crain doesn’t see pain as an overriding aspect of his work.  “Physical pain can be a metaphor for the psychological pain we feel. I don’t think I have any more psychological pain than anyone else.”

Cray abandoned two projects that dealt with discomfort and fear because they upset his wife to the point of tears. “I was thinking about running electricity through my body until I couldn’t take it or passed out. It was a video idea.” This was inspired by an incident from his childhood. “I got shocked as a child and couldn’t let go of the connection and had to be knocked down to break the circuit. The overwhelming idea was to explore what happens when pain goes beyond what we can handle.” He also considered videotaping his house burning down while he walked away. It would have served as a metaphor for his personal movement. “A couple times I lost just about everything important to me as far as possessions.  In retrospect that can be very freeing if one can get over the trauma. There’s something refreshing about thinking one can wipe the slate clean and start completely over. “

Cray’s work owes a lot to chance.  Very little of his work is planned in advance.  “Part of who we are is based on chance.” Cray used scratch-off lotto tickets in photographic collages and travel diary pieces “as a reminder of that element of chance.” He also used lotto tickets in Christmas cards he made for friends to see how they would react to that element of chance. “Some people frame them, never scratching them, other people debate whether or not to scratch them and other people have no reservations whatsoever about scratching them.” To preserve the purity of the eternal gamble, Cray sometimes laminated the tickets so they couldn’t be scratched. Another major project dealing with chance is what Cray calls unique photographs. These are unique, one-of-a-kind images that Cray has hidden in his travels around the world for people to find. Cray punched holes in some of the photographs to reinforce the element of uniqueness and to allow people to look through the photograph instead of at it.

Fred Cray graduated from the Yale Graduate School of Painting where he was discouraged from experimental works that mixed media. “That didn’t sit well with me, so I just left, literally in the middle of the night. I’ve always felt limited by traditional photographic-based work and wanted to push the boundaries, sometimes confuse the boundaries.” After a period of maintaining the boundaries between painting and photography, he found that “there is something I’m often trying to convey in the photographs, which are a physical sensation, almost a sense of weight. A lot of that comes from not painting anymore yet wanting to remain in touch with that sensibility.” He expands on the feel of paint through his superimposed images. He also moved to digital photography. Cray uses lighting only when it’s necessary or to make a piece or series about lighting or light. “Light is what carries the image to its recorded form.” He uses Photoshop to inset text and to process images, but not to create them. Though he doesn’t see photography evolving beyond digital, Cray feels that the art of photography is about change. “I like the idea of seeing how far I can go with something, so maybe I’m still trying to see how far I can go with photography.“

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Cray came to New York in 1979 and is working on a book project about 30 years of images made in and about New York. It follows the shift from film to digital. “Comparing early digital work to more current forms is a little like comparing 35 mm photography to large format photography.  I hear photography teachers complain about there not being anything left to teach about photography since digital has made everything so easy. One can buy a good camera and good printer and have fabulous looking work in a week. There is immediacy to digital work that’s so different.” Another reason Cray embraced digital photography is ecological. “We aren’t pouring acid and other chemicals directly down the drain. Hopefully, there should be a lot less physical waste and consumption in digital media than film media. I heard a teacher say his most radical students aren’t even making prints anymore, they won’t allow anything in physical form. “

Some of Cray’s works underscore his concern for how digital devices increase isolation. “People go to parties and text each other across the room instead of talking to each other. We don’t interact as much.  I had been working with other people’s self-portraits, blurring them, and calling them my own self-portraits. I stumbled on these women’s nude self-portraits. I only used the ones where the camera is showing as part of this book on digital devices. To me they are really creepy yet very personal. “

While making a book about movies, Cray rented porn films to photograph. “Those images really stood out from the other movie images, enough so that I felt I had to do a book about the porn images.” Once again, Cray’s camera captured the isolation of the technological age. “Lots of people are addicted to pornography and use it as a substitute for human interaction.” Cray shot these during the winter when he wasn’t photographing on the streets.  “The ones that were poetic, outrageous, or portrait-like were the ones I felt were the most successful.” Large adult only video stores had more categories, but they only sold the movies, they didn’t rent them out, so Cray didn’t expand into the sub-genres that he wanted to include for the sake of thoroughness. “The pornography work wasn’t that big of a thing for me, just an extension into another area. I’m hopefully done with it. It did make me feel uncomfortable working with it, mostly the walking into video stores and going to the porno section behind a curtain. Watching the clerks search for the DVDs while kids were waiting on line behind me. “

Cray’s work has been very personal. He doesn’t turn away from exposing his personal traumas. “Some of the most painful images I took may be the ones of my father after he died and then of my wife after she died (they died a few months apart). They are also perhaps the most personal images. There’s a self-portrait on my website where I have blood-shot eyes. The text is intentionally hard to read and says ‘there just wasn’t any way out.’ There’s a radio tower with waves emanating outwards with dust floating through the image. That’s actually my wife’s ashes. The text refers to a radio call, as if for help, and the ashes, that there’s no way out of dying.” Cray’s use of the ashes came about by accident after he opened his wife’s urn and saw what human ashes looked like. “It was very strange watching my wife die over the last few months and know that I was going to photograph her once she wasn’t breathing any more. There wouldn’t be a choice. I knew I had to do it. Fortunately I think I’m finished photographing people after they die, except a friend did ask me to photograph him after he died if he went before me.“