I met Tarrice for the first time as one of his muses. Alright, the term muse may be a stretch, but in my mind, all the quasi duck faces and blurry selfies I had taken in the last few years had prepared me for that moment, in front of his camera, when I would experience my first ever photoshoot.
I was in desperate need of pictures that didn’t look like a precursor to a prison line up, so I came to Tarrice’s personal studio on a mission to work (werk). His calm demeanor, hilarious rants, and amazing southern accent put me at ease, and we made photo magic.
As we got to know each other, I discovered his journey from a poor Memphis boy raised by a teen parent, to becoming a freelance photographer intertwined in one of New York’s most loved and hated mysteries - the Fashion industry. Tarrice started out in 2006 and has shot portfolios for numerous models and entertainers including Anthony Burrell (celebrity choreographer) and Rob Evans (model/judge on America's Next Top Model) among many others. I had the pleasure of sitting back and taking in his opinions on life, his thoughts on rollerblading in the hood, and making a way out of no way:
Your grandma seems to be a big influence in your life.
Well hell, my momma was 13 when she had me. She gave birth to a sibling pretty much. My grandparents were a big part of my childhood. My granddaddy brought me my first camera. When I came home and told him I wanted to do this photography thing, and I wanted a camera, he took me that same day to the camera store, and just told me to pick it out.
That’s amazing. I've always believed the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” to be true. I was raised in a single parent home and my grandma was always there, like a second mom. It’s so important to remember the influence an entire family can have on you.
Right. My family used art to keep us together. My mom understood that her boys liked art. We were latchkey kids, so my mom taught us how to make hot dogs on the stove, and told us to draw until she came home from work. Drawing, for me, because I was a really shy kid, was an escape. Being creative and being in the arts was sort of like a world I can control. I got to be important. I didn't feel important at school. I was a little bitty dude. When I graduated from high school I was 4'11'.
Oh my gosh you were so tiny. You were like the black Tom Cruise in size.
Girl yes! I weighed 70 lbs when I was 18. The fashion world was so dramatic at that time, it inspired me. It seemed like anything was better than my real life in South Memphis, you know sitting on the porch watching crack heads walk by. I wanted to be part of the world of beauty.
So art/fashion/beauty was an escape and a way to control your surroundings because you felt out of control. But it seemed like your mother, considering she had you so young, did a decent job with pushing your dreams.
I think she was a good example because she really stressed education and school. Punishments were writing book reports. If we did some really fucked up shit, we knew we was going to the library, and we had to sit in the attic and read for two weeks. You had to read all the books and write about them. She would read the books too and if your shit was wrong, you got an ass beating.
That's the worst punishment I've ever heard. You had to do a book report and there's still a risk of getting a spanking??
Mm-hmm. I spent a lot of time in the library when I was a kid. The library was a three-hour walk from my house. The hood library was shitty and it didn't have anything about art in there. So I would walk three hours to the main library, the Memphis Public Library.
You didn't have some roller blades or something you could have used to cut that time down?!
You didn't rollerblade in the hood! I tried skating in the park, and got into a fight, and I couldn't even win because I couldn't even stand up. That was an easy situation to fuck up your shit.
Noted. No rollerblading in the hood.
Especially with those raggedy ass sidewalks, you really gon’ hurt yourself. And if you ride your bike, you gon’ get it stolen. So no, I walked. I didn't know how to ride public transportation so I walked. My mom read a lot. That's all she did and what she made us do for punishments. My granddaddy barely had a junior high school education, but he read a lot. Everybody in our house read.
It's funny that reading was used as a punishment for you but you still walked three hours to the library to read! Let’s back up a bit. How did your inspiration for being in the fashion industry even start? You were telling me earlier, you saw Calvin Klein on TV…
Yes, Dateline did a special on New York’s fashion industry, and they covered two designers - a new one and an established one. Calvin Klein was the established one and Marc Jacobs was the new one. I was watching the program, and it was just so fascinating. I thought to myself “Oh my gosh, these guys are around all these beautiful chicks and doing all this cool stuff; I want to do this.”
Also, I wanted to see what I thought was beautiful [in the fashion industry]. I didn't see a lot of black people, people who looked like my mom, and cousins, and friends, and my neighbors. I wanted to show folks what beauty really was.
I can understand that. Your surroundings shape your idea of beauty and if you don’t see that reflected in media, that’s an issue. So you first wanted to be a fashion designer but shifted to photography, why did that shift happen?
My sophomore year in college I took a photography class, just so I could learn the basics of it. I was always taught that knowledge is power. It's harder for people to fuck you over if you know something, so I felt like I wanted to be able to talk to a photographer about what I wanted as a designer. I took a class and fell in love with it, especially with the fact that photography was much more instant than designing clothes.
Yeah, like crack (laughter)
How did you start building your photography portfolio/work?
I went to University of Memphis. College kids were the best to model because they didn't have anything else to do. They really didn't. After classes were over, you're just chilling until it's time to go to your part time job or whatever. A lot of my models were athletes and friends, so they weren't going to say no. My best friend was a model. She was with Elite [Model Agency]. So every semester I would do a photo project for school, and she was in involved in it. When people saw her stuff, they knew what she looked like “unglammed”, so they were like, 'well if he can make her look like this, he can make me look like that too.'
After building your portfolio, how did your career jump-start?
I just came to New York City in 2006 and did it. The first day I was here, I sent all the agencies emails stating that I'm a new photographer in New York, and I sent examples of my work. I requested meetings with the agencies. When they saw the work they wanted to meet me. By the end of that week I had already started testing agency kids. I just didn't even think about how I was supposed to do this, I didn’t have any set procedure.
That’s bold! At this point in your career you pretty much shoot fashion models?
Models, actors, dancers, I shoot whoever. Whoever is interested with working with me, or inspires me. I don't have limits. It's funny, I've met fashion photographers where you put somebody in front of them that's not a size 0 and they don't know what to do. They don't know how to shoot real people. And that's how I learned. My friends were my models when I started and they were regular people.
With shooting so many types of people I’m sure you’ve had some starstruck moments. Who are some of your biggest OMG-I-can't-believe-I'm-taking-a-picture-of-this-person moments?
Oh my gosh, the first person that had that moment for me was when I shot Bruce Lee Roy from The Last Dragon. When I was a kid, I used to watch The Last Dragon and pray to god that I would be him. I felt like if I was Bruce Lee Roy, my life would be perfect. I saw him on social media and contacted him, but I didn't expect a response. He wrote me back, and had me come to the gym that he owned in Manhattan. I was such a fan, I was like oh my god, I'm sitting here with Bruce Lee Roy!!! When I left the shoot I was so excited. I called my mom and was like, "Momma guess who I'm shooting?!! I'm finna shoot Bruce Lee Roy!" She was like, "Who?" I was like, "From the last Dragon momma!" She was like "That's nice.." And then she was like "Where the pictures at? You ain't shoot him naked?"
Ha! Your mom was a trip. What would you say is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since you’ve started your career?
Everyone wants everything quick now, I call it the microwave mentality. They don't care about quality. I'm stubborn so quality is everything, and you just got to wait. It's sort of like old people and cooking. My grandma is not going to use the microwave to cook anything.
Not even to reheat something?
The microwave is for warming up old coffee. My grandma did try to make a turkey in the microwave once, and she left that bitch in there for like two hours. When she realized you can't cook a turkey in the microwave, she was like "Naw."
Well then! She was like ‘if I can't do something like a Turkey in the microwave I don't want to use it at all.’ How has social media affected your work and industry?
Social media was the best thing that happened for me. Luckily when I came to New York, people were already familiar with my work because of the internet and social media. I used to have an online magazine, which got pretty big when I was in college. People knew me from that. It makes you more accessible globally. People from all over the world are familiar with my work. That wouldn't be the case if there wasn’t social media.
That’s such a powerful thing. I always ponder about how the world would be if Oprah had Twitter when she started? Or if Martin Luther King Jr. had Facebook? How would that have changed things?
It would be a mess. It's a good thing they didn't have that.
Right? There would be the KKK liking lynch pictures, 105 likes.
I don't know maybe the Civil Rights Movement would have been more powerful if they had social media on a more global scale.
So are you working full time as a photographer currently?
I have what I call a Clark Kent. I work for FedEx as a side job because that kind of supplements my income. But it also allows me freedom in the industry, where I can choose the type of people I work with and the type of projects I want to do. I am not pigeon holed to working on a particular project or people just for money or for survival. Having a “Clark Kent,” allows me to be super in my field of choice.
Is that how you've always structured it? Was that out of necessity or choice?
It was a choice. I could have easily come to New York and focused on photography only. I didn't like the idea of having to take a project or work with certain types of people just for money. I like working with people I like, but I didn't want to be broke. I want to be able to eat what I want to eat and do what I want to do. My Clark Kent has healthcare. I can get sick, shit!
Well some people would probably respond to that set up with, “Photography isn't a viable path so you have to have a second 'real" job', but the way you're doing it seems like purposefully structuring your life to have more creative freedom of choice?
Yes! It's a balance. I like my day job. I like being around regular people. Normal people, that don't care about photography or fashion. That shit is so not important to them. I think that keeps me connectable to people. Models like working with me because they can relate. They think “I can let my guard down now. I can eat Doritos, he's not gonna call the agency and tell them!” type of thing.
I can’t with you. Doritos?? What's been one of the biggest challenges you've faced, since being an independent/freelancing photographer?
The biggest challenge is conformity. The pressure to do things the way everyone else does them. It's harder to break the system, when everybody is just trying to make it, you know? Nobody wants to take a risk, unless somebody else takes a risk, then everyone else wants to get up on it. It's sort like those two girls Coco and Breezy making those sunglasses with all the spikes and shit on them. Nobody was paying attention to them, until celebrities started wearing the glasses. It took two years after they did that for Vogue to even do a feature on them. Ya'll late! To me, that told me, how the formal fashion industry is so not on the cusp of what's going on.
The internet has made the fashion industry fall behind. Before the internet was around, people needed the magazines to tell them what trends were coming up. They don't need the magazines anymore. The blogs feature that shit the minute the show hits the runway. You can watch the shit as it happens, you don't have to wait three months for The September Issue [of Vogue] to tell you what Fall fashion is. By the time that happens, it's over. We've already seen the collections a million times and aren't interested anymore.
We've probably already tweeted about it, instagramed, and facebooked about it before the magazine even came out.
Yes! It's sort of like the fashion industry is trying to figure out how to coexist with internet technology.
I have one a final question for you that I ask a lot of people because I'm still grappling with this idea. Do you think that purpose and passion have to be a part of what you do in your job, or is it something you do outside of work?
Photography is my chosen field, so it should be passion infused. And my FedEx job, the passion about that is being around people. I couldn't even imagine just doing something just to pay bills without there being something about it that you like. I love my FedEx job, because I like the people that I work with. If I never had this job, those people I would have never met. Those are the best people.
They make New York great to be here. I don't have family here, and it's sort of like they've taken me in as their family. They invite me to Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations because I can't go home for the holidays. If I never worked this job, I probably would be on crack heroin or something right now. I do understand why so many fashion people are so drugged up because fashion is so draining and hard, you need something. I’ve found that balance for myself.