PPD Master Series: Anne Day Rises from the Ashes

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday February 10, 2016

Like many photographers, Anne Day’s passion for photography began at a very early age. Her interest first blossomed in high school and then grew while a student at Georgetown University where she was a literature major. The school did not have any photography classes, so she took photo classes at the Washington, DC’s storied Corcoran Gallery of Art. “I was studying art but I was really impatient and I liked the instant gratification of watching that image come up in the developer,” she says. “But photography was always something that interested me.”

After finishing school, her photography passion led her to a career that included shooting public relations assignments in New York, journalistic assignments around the globe, architecture, weddings and portraits. Among her more impressive accomplishments: Day was an official photographer at the last four presidential inaugurations (and contributed to the official inaugural books), she covered the release of Nelson Mandela for Reuters in 1990 in South Africa (where she spent four years living off an on from 1986 to 1990), was the primary photographer on seven books about architecture and also work on nine A Day in the Life books. Her photos have been published in published in Time, the New York Times, Le Monde, Washington Post, Newsweek and Vogue—among many others.

After 30 years of world traveling and kicking around a lot of “weird” (her word) places, she and her husband ended up settling in a small town in northwestern Connecticut where they raised their three children. There Day built a successful photo business shooting, among other subjects, weddings, architecture and portraits, in addition to her own fine-art work.

Then, on an October night in 2013, the unthinkable happened: her home caught fire in the night and burned to the ground. She and her husband made it out (though she broke her back jumping from an upper-floor window), but her close friend and housemate did not. Day also lost her home studio and nearly her entire career’s worth of photography. “I lost every single book, every single item of clothing, every single camera—every possession that we had and more. And I lost all of my hard drives from 2009 to 2013.”

While such a horrific event might easily have sent her spiraling into depression, Day says the struggle to restart her life has saved her from that. “I was talking to a friend about the fire the other day and she asked if I got very depressed over it and that’s how crazy this whole thing was,” she says. “I still can’t believe it happened so I never get depressed. I have so much momentum just trying to get back on my feet. I haven’t really had time to reflect on the hideousness of everything that happened.”

Recently Day, an Olympus Visionary, took time to talk with writer Jeff Wignall  about her lifelong passion for photography, the tragic night of the fire and the long road back to normal for both her life and her career.

                                               Anne Day (Photo ©David Burnett)

PPD: How did turn your interest in photography into a career?

AD:  When I was in college I applied for an internship at Rolling Stone and I got it and I made prints for famous photographers. After about two months, I realized that I couldn’t live as an intern and have no income, so I started working for an art dealer who hired me to photograph his paintings. At first I thought, oh, that’s easy, I’ll just take them out on the roof and stand over them and shoot them in daylight. But over time I learned how to become a very good photographer of flat art and paintings. I actually still have a little side business doing that.

I was always taking pictures for myself and then I got hired to do a book about the Library of Congress. I shot the whole thing with a rented Hasselblad. But I didn’t know anything about shifting or tilting, so if I had get a straight-on shot of something on the wall, painting or a medallion or whatever, I got on a hydraulic cherry picker and I had two Library of Congress guys standing there to make sure that I didn’t fall. I would just go up to the height of the subject and take a straight-on shot. Eventually I learned about things like tilting and shifting and I worked for an architectural photographer and so I started shooting architecture, as well.

PPD: You’ve also done quite a bit of journalist photo reporting, how did you end up doing that work?

AD:  At the time I was spending a lot of time at the New York Public Library and the public relations office there ended up hiring me to shoot all of their events, so I did a lot of what I call “grip-and-grin” type shots. Through that work I met a lot of people other non-profit public-relations people and in the 1980s I ended up doing work for places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the New York Historical Society. I did tons of that kind of work.

After that I started shooting weddings and I made a good living at it but what I really wanted was to be a journalist. I just couldn’t figure out a way to get paid to do that type of work. But I found that I could always kind of tag along with other journalists. I had a friend that was doing a story in Nicaragua, for instance, and I went along with her and she let me stay in her hotel. During that time I got Contact Press Images to develop my film and if they used any of my images they paid me. I had that arrangement with them on several stories, stories on Haiti, Nicaragua and South Africa. I was in Haiti in 1986 when the Duvaliers left and there was that amazing scene of them driving the BMW on the U.S. cargo plane and I was there to photograph that.

I would just pay my own way and then hope that someone would buy some of my pictures. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. I never really figured out a way to earn a living as a photojournalist. Between trips I was still supporting myself with public relations work and photographing art work and weddings and I did books about architecture. I did everything. I wanted to shoot these things events around the world because it was adventurous. During that time I also got to work on Rick Smolan’s book A Day in the Life of Japan  as an assignment editor and a photographer. That was in 1985.

PPD: What types of things are you shooting today?

AD: I’m back to being a jack-of-all-trades. I live in a very small town in northwestern Connecticut and I do a lot of shooting for architects and I also still do events. There are also a lot of private schools up here so I do work for their annual reports and admissions books and things like that. I also do some weddings, but not many. There have been years when I’ve shot 10 or 12 weddings a year, but these days I only shoot around five.

PPD:  What inspires you to shoot a portrait?

AD:  What moves me personally is light. All of the photographers that move me and interest me are all people that can articulate light. That’s what moves me and gets me excited.

PPD:In 2013 you suffered a devastating fire and lost your home, a dear friend, your home studio and most of your photographic history—an event most of us can’t even imagine. Can you talk about that night?

AD:  I can’t imagine it and it happened to me. I can’t even believe it happened. My husband woke up at four in the morning and he just said “Oh shit” and our house was full of smoke. I ran to get my friend Maria who had been our kids’ nanny and was now living with us, not even working for us anymore. She was a part of the family. Spencer, my husband, ran out of the house to try and put the fire out with a garden hose. We could tell it was outside because it was reflecting in trees. The fire was in the exact opposite side of the house from our bedroom. The fire was in the front of the house and we were in the back and the fire was on the first floor and we were on the second.

So my husband ran to get the hose to put it out and I ran to get Maria and call 911, but the phone was dead and she was running through the hall with me. In a matter of just seconds I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe. I thought Maria was right behind me because I could hear her coughing. I was on the landing between the first and second floor and Maria was at the top of the steps. I opened a window just to get some air and try to think about where to go and what do and literally I was choking to death. The window was so hot that I burned my hands. Even if you read descriptions of what it’s like, you don’t really know. One minute you can see everything and then it’s just totally black.

I stuck my head out of the window just to get some air but I still couldn’t breathe. Spencer was down below and he told me to jump, so I jumped out. I thought Maria was coming out behind me but she never came out. I thought maybe she’d run back to her room and she’d come out that way, so we ran around to the front and waited for her but within five minutes the house went from being slightly on fire to being completely engulfed.

PPD:Were you able to call 911?

AD: I had thrown my phone out before I jumped because I knew I had to call 911 and figured I could call once I got out of the house. By then I couldn’t find my phone and Spencer didn’t have one so he drove to the firehouse. The firehouse house had an alarm, but it was behind a locked door. So he drove to one neighbor and I drove to a different neighbor and we finally managed to call 911. But it was like 20 minutes between when we woke up when we finally called 911. By the time that the firemen got there all that they could see was a skeleton of the house and the flames.

PPD:It must have been a terrifying experience.

AD:  Yes and I broke my back when I jumped out of the window. I broke a vertebrae. The hardest part is that Maria never made it out alive and it is just such an unbelievable tragedy. The house was so badly destroyed they were never even able to determine a cause. Luckily my three kids were off at school.

PPD: What was the impact on your photographic career and business?

AD:  The entire house was gone and there was not one thing left. But my studio had been in the basement and there was one corner of the basement where I had one closet that was basically my entire photographic life up until the time that we moved here. The closet housed boxes and boxes of negatives and some slides and snapshots of my childhood and everything that was in that one closet was packed so tightly into these file cabinets that a lot of it survived.

PPD: How much of your photography survived and how did you manage to restart your career?

AD: Thankfully I was able to save a lot of photos and a lot of the thanks for that goes to the people of our small town. Our first selectman gave me the use of our old firehouse which was empty. We set up big plastic tables and every day people would come. My good friend Joe Meehan brought a whole gang of photographer friends to help too. Literally the whole town helped. People were going back to the site and bringing down file cabinets. I had a neighbor who every day would just come with file cabinets drawers and we’d go through and throw out the stuff that was completely burned and a lot of the stuff in the middle of drawers survived.

The firehouse is really what got me back on my feet because once I realized I had some negatives to save, I got completely obsessed and engaged. I’d be there every day from ten to four and every day I had at least two and sometimes as many as 20 volunteers helping me. I had friends coming up from New York just to help me. Friends that I hadn’t seen in 15 years came up to help us. Everyone pitched in. As my husband said, it was a horrible hideous thing to happen, but if it’s going to happen, it happened in the right place.

Amazingly, tons of family snapshots survived and we recovered a lot of negatives from family snapshots and the town supermarket still has them in their freezer. This is the most unbelievable town. Literally the day of the fire the supermarket sent a gift certificate for $500. The dry good store sent us a gift certificate. Everyone, the whole town, pitched in. We didn’t cook for a month, every night someone brought us a hot meal. We stayed at a friend’s house who was away.

PPD: Did the photo community get involved?

AD:  There were a lot of people from the photo world that helped. Bob McNeely who was Bill Clinton’s photographer lives two hours from here and he drove over and helped me. David Kennerly sent me a big bunch of beautiful signed prints to hang on the walls once we rebuilt the house. My good friend John Isaac came up with his wife the day of the fire and he just sat there and held my hand. He was just amazing. I always say John is my best friend but then I found out everyone thinks he’s their best friend.

David Burnett had shot a great photo of me about a week before the fire [see the photo above]. David and John Isaac and myself were together and we were shooting pictures of each other and I had all of those photos in my hard drive but I lost all of them—except the shot that David Burnett took of me with my camera. I had emailed it too him to show him how nice it was and that’s why I still have that photo.

PPD: What is your takeaway from this whole experience?

AD:  I don’t even really know what my takeaway from all of this is. I know I could not have gotten through this without all of the support from my friends. If we hadn’t lost Maria, it would be a completely different story. Then I could be all Pollyanna and rosy and cheerful about it, but losing her was just something I’m not going to get over. She helped me to raise my kids, she was an amazing person, she’d become a citizen and she was so proud to be an American.

PPD: You lost all of your camera gear, so how did you restart your photo business?

AD: Olympus was amazing. Only a week after the fire they called and asked what I needed. I told them I had nothing left, I needed everything. They immediately sent me two mirrorless bodies, they sent me every lens, two camera bags, a tripod, battery chargers, everything that anybody would need—even SD cards.

Restarting the business itself took a while, it happened slowly. The fire was in October and I really didn’t start working again until February. I spent the entire months of November, December and January at that photo recuperation project in the firehouse, saving the photos.

PPD: Had you been shooting with Olympus mirrorless cameras, did that happen before the fire?

AD: Yes, I was. I first began shooting with them because I was a part of the Olympus Visionary program and I got to try it all out. I first started with the E-1, E-3 and the E-5 digital SLR cameras and stayed with those until the OMD mirrorless came out and then I began working with that camera. I actually first started using mirrorless cameras with the first Olympus PEN E-P1. But at that point I still liked the feeling of having a big SLR at that point and I liked the lenses on the SLRs.

One of the things I loved immediately about all Olympus digital cameras is that, when you compared the color palette to film, they had the look of Kodachrome rather than say Ektachrome or any other film. In fact, I tried other brands of digital cameras and they always looked like Ektachrome to me, but Olympus has always had the very rich look of Kodachrome, which was the most beautiful film ever. The very first time that I used an Olympus digital camera was on the A Day in the Life of Africa  book project and that was with the old E-20 camera. Even then there was just something about the color and the look of Olympus files that were more to my way of seeing.

PPD: Are there any particular advantages of the mirrorless cameras that won you over from the SLR?

AD: I love, love, love, being able to travel internationally with two bodies and five lenses fit it all into a tiny little backpack. I can also use a very small tripod now. It’s just fantastic. I can carry everything I need and more in a tiny little case.

PPD: What is the camera and lens combination that you use the most?

AD:  The lens that I use the most is the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8 PRO, it’s always with me at all times. And so most of the time I’m shooting with the OM-D E-M1 body, that’s my favorite combination. I also carry an OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Those are always with me, whether they’re I’m working on a job or not, they are always there. The other thing I like about that EM-1 camera body, by the way, is that when I’m shooting architecture I love the flip out LCD screen. I like that the screen on that body flips out at waist level because if I have a camera on a tripod and I’m shooting an interior, instead of getting up and down off my knees, I can just flip out that screen and compose. I always keep the camera at waist level when I’m shooting interiors because that’s the best place to compose interiors from.

PPD: What lenses are you carrying with you most of the time?

AD:  I use the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO, the M.Zuiko 12-40mm F2.8 PRO, and the M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 II lenses.

For portraits I use the M.Zuiko 75mm f1.8, and it’s the most beautiful lens. It reminds me of the old Olympus 150mm f/2 which was my favorite portrait lens of my entire career. The 75mm lens is just spectacular on the OM-D E-M1. It gives you a beautiful soft bokeh and it’s crispy sharp. The photos are just gorgeous.  

PPD: One of your kids’ portrait series is called “Summer Lawns.” Where did that series come from?

AD:  That idea actually came from Dirck Halstead. Dirck had a fabulous magazine called the Digital Journalist and he was always running stories about Afghanistan and horrible war stories, really grim topics. Wonderful journalism, but very grim. He saw me presenting my photos of kids at a trade show for Olympus and he asked me if he could do a story with my work and they came up with the title,The Hissing of Summer Lawns from the Joni Mitchell song. Now I just call the series Summer Lawns.

It was Dirck’s idea and it really inspired me and it made me pull those shots together. My kids were young at the time and we were always at the beach or at a lake here in town and I was photographing them all the time. I just love pictures of kids in the woods and kids playing. I now have a whole other series of kids portraits shot in the woods called Kids in the Woods. I lost quite of few of those shots in the fire, but I still have a lot and I continue to shoot them. There’s one girl in that series that has bright red hair and blue eyes and I’ve been photographing her once or twice a year since she was five and now she’s in the 8th grade.

I love the way the kids in my town look, it’s all very sort of Norman Rockwell and very Americana. I’m attracted by that. The way that I see things is a little bit old fashioned. It’s almost like some of the kids that I’m photographing came from the 1930s and I didn’t live then but I have this sort of picture in my mind of the way that kids looked.

PPD: Now that you are getting back to shooting more, where do you see your photography going over the next few years?

AD: I would like to be much more focused on making fine-art prints and doing fine-art work. I would also like to have an exhibition of the things that I recovered from the fire. There’s a guy here in town that has been really helping me to go through the boxes and we’ve done it like five times. It’s been really hard to go through all of that work. If he hadn’t been here, if he hadn’t forced me to confront it, I would never have done it. But it’s going to be a while before I can have an exhibit, I have far too many other things going on. Our house isn’t finished, I don’t have my studio set up, it’s also emotionally very complicated. But I would like to have an exhibition and I’d like to write about it and articulate what I’ve been through. It’s still all so fresh.

PPD: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get into photography?

AD: I teach a lot of workshops. I teach up at the Maine Photographic Workshops. One of my students asked me once what he should be taking pictures of and I told him if you don’t know what you want to take pictures of, then don’t take pictures. That’s my advice! I take pictures because I have to, I can’t not take pictures, I’m obsessed. If I had to wonder what I should photograph I would get a different career.


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