F-Stop Magazine: How did you first become involved in photography and what led to you working in this medium as an artist?
Tammy Mercure: I happened into photography. I started at Columbia College studying
arts management as an undergrad. My third semester I took photography. The arts management major required taking a few photography, film, or art classes to “understand the artist”. The photo class was the most fun I ever had- Jno Cook is an amazing teacher- and I’ve never looked back. Photography is endless fascinating- at the same time it is easy and relatable to most everyone and also so complex.
F-Stop: The “Documentary” issue of F-Stop includes your project “Cavaliers” can you tell us about this project? What led to you creating this project?
TM: Cavaliers encompasses the photographs I have been making since 2008. The photographs are usually from events and the roundabout way to and from the events. I try to respond to what is around me and continue from there. I go in and out of interests within that, like extreme sports or things with animals. Then I try to make more meaning from grouping and presenting the images in different ways.
F-Stop: Can you discuss your process for making these images? Do you get to know the people and communities you photograph? How do you choose your subjects?
TM: I go in to places with my camera out. I walk around events and look for someone who stands out by having an interesting energy. Then I tell them what I like about what they are doing and ask if I can make a couple portraits. I’ll chat a little bit after if it doesn’t interrupt what they are doing. My laugh is loud, but I’m pretty quiet. Most events I like, I’ll go multiple times and will get to know people over time. Most activities that attract passion are pretty easy to relate to.
F-Stop: Do you have a favorite image in this series? If so, which one and why is it the image that speaks to you most?
TM: I have the bad habit of liking photos I just took so it changes all the time. In general, it is usually a portrait because people can really surprise me.
F-Stop: What is the intended “end” or “purpose” for the project? (i.e, book, multi media piece, etc)
TM: About three or four years ago, I stopped having a strict “project” and it was one of the best things I’ve done. Now I configure the photos many different ways. I’ve made books, ebooks with video and audio, and have written essays to accompany groups of photos. I like to configure the body of work in different ways.
F-Stop: What are you working on now?
TM: I’m continually working on Cavaliers. I am working on a new series of books about myths/legends of Tennessee. The first book is about the 1916 hanging of Mary the elephant in Erwin. I have six total planned. Some others include making the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge and the murder of Meriwether Lewis on the Natchez Trace. The books combine my new photographs from the town the event happened in, my archive of photos, and found imagery.
F-Stop: Who is Mary the elephant? and more generally how are you choosing of finding these events for your book series?
TM: Living in East Tennessee, I started to hear about Mary – it is still talked about. She was an elephant in a circus in 1916. There are many variations on the story, but the consistent elements are that she killed a trainer (a man just picked up in St. Paul who knew nothing about elephants.) and in outrage, it was decided Mary had to be killed. After various attempts, they hung her from a crane. On the gory side, I think it very much has to do with lynching, and on the bright side, Tennessee now has a huge elephant sanctuary that cares for former performing elephants. The things in the past still have ripples. I am finding the stories from people chatting and flushing them out with
folklore books and websites.
F-Stop: What photographers or other artists inspire you?
TM: There are so many great photographers. To name a few: Zak Arctander, Courtney Asztalos, Noelle McCleaf, and Stacy Kranitz. And I try to read as much as I can. A couple recent books that have stuck with me are Life After Life by Kate Aktinson, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.
F-Stop: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
TM: I tend not to respond much to what people say works since everyone’s circumstances are so different. I do have many photographers I admire for different aspects of their career and try to do similar things. For example, I love photographers who work just as hard whether people are paying attention or not, like Henry Wessel. I love that Paul
D’Amato and Bruce Gilden, both having worked for decades, are making the most exciting work of their careers at present. I love that Lauren Greenfield fought to go from photography to film and made one of the best documentaries ever with Queen of Versailles. The list could go on.