Space really is the final frontier for architectural photographer Art Gray, recipient of the 2014 Stars of Design Award in the Field of Photography from the Pacific Design Center during WestWeek 2014. He joins what the PDC calls the “best-in-class representation of creative iconoclasts” across a range of artistic disciplines—a class that includes the late famed photographer Herb Ritts, for whom Gray once worked.
Gray is honored by the award but seems unabashedly humble, more interested in talking about art, photography and architecture than puffing himself up with any blip of bluster. Sitting in the second floor common room of West Hollywood’s latest affordable housing project, The Courtyard at La Brea, Gray, with the curious artistic look of a sophisticated yet scruffy surfer, boasts about his friend, architect Patrick Tighe, for whom he photographed the housing structure. Gray has a penchant for giving back and has documented several nonprofit and environmentally innovative projects, often pro bono.
The 49-year-old, single longtime resident of Venice has traveled the world on assignment, producing many award-winning photographs and two breathtaking books. He remains loyal to Interior Design magazine, where his career was launched in 1996. He also shoots for Sunset and Architectural Digest, among other publications, and has started using digital videos as a new way of walking through and looking at space.
And it is space that keeps him enthralled—how people use and move through space, how light bounces off objects in space, how architecture defines space. As an avid surfer and a former gymnast-turned-stuntman, Gray is also keenly aware of how his own body moves through space. They are sensibilities borne of an imaginative childhood and a delight in light and nature intertwined with fortuitous circumstances.
“I grew up in a really small town in rural Western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. My mom didn’t drive. We lived really far out, and I had two older sisters—much older than me. So I kind of spent my childhood by myself, running around, mostly in nature,” Gray tells Frontiers.
Around 1975, Gray was smitten with some photographs his sisters brought back from a field trip to the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater house. “I was just fascinated that a river went underneath a house,” says Gray. “I think that was my first connection with architecture and nature. I was just this kid who spent all day running around in the apple orchard across the street playing in the woods. From that point on, architecture was a strong draw. Anything architectural was interesting to me. And also a ticket to somewhere else, somewhere different from what I was used to seeing. And I wanted to see more.
“We didn’t travel much at all. My family didn’t have a lot of money,” Gray continues. “But from early on, architecture was in my head. I think it was junior high. It’s kind of funny that I take pictures for magazines now, because if you sold a bunch of magazines in those magazine competitions, you won prizes. I won a camera—a Polaroid Land camera, which was amazing. You could take photos and they instantly came out. I’d never seen that before. So I used up a lot of Polaroid film taking a lot of pictures. However, architecture was still the draw, so I continued my education geared to architecture. At 14, I designed a house for my parents, which we had built—that was probably the best experience that I had with my dad before he passed away.”
The family moved to Michigan when Gray was 12, and he ended up going to architectural school at the University of Michigan. Halfway through, he took an elective photography class and had an epiphany. “You know when you see—you put the paper in the chemicals and the image comes up—to me I was hooked. I was like, wow! There was something about having it be so instant that was very appealing to me,” Gray says.
Three years into the College of Architecture—a goal for which his father had saved his whole life—Gray’s mother bought him a Nikon camera. “That was the start of it. At that point, I didn’t know there was a career in architectural photography. But because of all those magazines I sold in high school—I was always pouring through them, looking for the ultimate dream house for my parents—I discovered there was.”
Today, Gray looks for the intersection of art and technicality. “There’s always something interesting in how light hits things. I don’t know if it’s from all those years running around in the woods as a kid,” Gray says. “And the idea of how architecture works as a machine for living—how it affects every aspect of everyone’s life. Most people don’t really think about it, but to me it’s fascinating how people use a space. That’s one of the most interesting things when I’m working on a project. It’s interesting how people use spaces.”
Check out Art Gray’s Facebook page here.