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Elizabeth Huey’s Subjects Don’t Know They’re Subjects

"If they catch me, the photo is not that interesting to me."

All images by Elizabeth Huey.

Elizabeth Huey's photographs are energetic and so involved you could be forgiven for assuming they were choreographed. Predominantly a painter, her first experience of photography was casually snapping reference images in the Brooklyn neighborhood around her studio. Soon her occasional hunt for source material evolved into a compulsion, and a survival tool for managing isolated studio life.

VICE: Your work has a pretty consistent holiday/family theme—was that a deliberate decision?
Elizabeth Huey: Previously I was working on these pieces that had to do with the history of psychiatry and I just needed a break—I don't know if I decided—I think the work decided for me and I took a dive into recreation. Now I'm actually contemplating where those two intersect and ways depression is alleviated, or maybe even forms of psychosis are treated with recreation.

Some of your photos are of candid moments that aren't yours. Have you ever been confronted by the subjects in your photographs?
If they catch me, the photo is not that interesting. Usually I'll delete it. For me, when they appear naturally in their environment, are relaxed, and at their least guarded, I find them most interesting.

There's one particular photo I wanted to ask about. The large man carrying the inflatable whale. What's the story there?
I was on a residency in Cape Cod, driving down Snail Road. He was crossing in front of me and I just photographed him.

But you've photographed him numerous times with different inflatables.
Yeah, I have a number of them where he doesn't know I'm there and then I thought, you know what he's so interesting I'm just gonna go talk to him.

He actually took me into his house—it's kind of a weird picture of him where he's on his computer showing me his inflatable collection. I don't think people really liked them so much.

So what's his story?
He lives in Canada and he brought eight of them with him to Cape Cod. He has hundreds. I said, "Can you blow a few more of them up for me to see?" So I went back and photographed him with a rocket one. I mean it takes hours to blow those things up.

Are interactions like that why you moved away from painting and toward photography?
He was an anomaly. The interactions I have when I photograph are primarily non-verbal.

Painting can be really isolating and in a way. I can be in my studio for 12 hours and only see the delivery person. It feels like being a hermit in a cave. So to be in a situation and connect with these random people who I wouldn't normally connect with, I really appreciate photography for that. It's a way to be in the world but out of it at the same time.

Interviewed by Tom Fitzgerald.