Ezra Caldwell is one of two people who initially inspired me to pick up a camera with any kind of purpose. His documentation of existence, with its frank honesty and beauty has had a profound affect on who I am today. It’s strange that someone on Flickr, who lived half a continent away, could leave such an indelible impression on your soul. But that’s just the kind of guy Ezra is.
Ezra’s story is both inspiring and heart wrenching. A Dancer, Bicycle Fabricator, Sous-Chef, Photographer, Husband, and Ass-Cancer veteran. Yep, cancer. His story reminds you to not waste a breath in vain, to rethink your priorities, and live your life to the fullest.
Where did photography start for you?
My older brother started taking pictures when he was in high school. This is back in the dark ages. There weren’t even color screens on computers, let alone digital photography.
He was shooting black and white film. Nobody shot color except for snapshots really, and I admired my brother and tried to do a lot of the things he did.
When I went to high school I found this little closet which had, at some point, been a dark room. I sort of resurrected it, getting what chemicals I needed to get. I figured out how to get pictures on to paper by reading books from the library, all self-taught. It was sort of alchemy. This was pre-internet, so you couldn’t just Google “film developing” and get pages and pages of instructions. It was really sort of magic to figure it out. I shot with a Pentax K1000 in high school and made some pictures. Mostly garbage, but that was, for me, the beginning of taking pictures.
Later I graduated to a Canon AE-1. Looking back at some portraits I took in El Salvador when I was 18 years old, they’re actually beautiful. With a more critical eye, twenty years later, they are very good portraits. I mostly feel like I wasn’t a good photographer though. I don’t really think of myself as a photographer even today. I’d never list “being a photographer” as one of the things I do. Occasionally someone pays me for an image; but this isn’t a livelihood, this isn’t a profession, this is mostly documentation. I’ve gotten better, I’ve developed a level of craft with it, but I feel like that’s all a pretty recent thing. So it’s surprising to look back and think “Hey, twenty years ago I took a few good photographs!”
I pretty much dropped it all through college. I shot with an Olympus Stylus just because it could fit in your pocket. What a fucking lens, a great little camera for what amounts to a disposable. You could take it rock climbing and drop it and not care too much. Not that it was easy for me to get $100 back then but it was better than dropping a Leica. I think I still have negatives from back then. They were all snapshots. It wasn’t photography, just documentation.
You say you’re not a photographer, yet I know you have a gorgeous collection of cameras and have a passion for capturing what you see. Is it fair to say you are a photographer, just not a “professional”?
Being a photographer is one thing, and it may be a cliché, but with someone who’s a good photographer you can hand them any piece of crap camera, and given a bit of time to get used to it, they can use it for what it’s good for and make nice images. Maybe they’ll make the best images on cameras that are suited to their eye, their way of shooting, but someone who is a photographer can use any tool you hand to them.
My camera collection is much more of a gear-head/object-lust thing. It has to do with the beauty of objects, of engineering, and the experience of use. Without any question my best “tool”, the best camera I have for executing what I want to do is a digital SLR. I shoot a Nikon D700. It’s an incredible camera, and it’s the first digital camera I’ve owned that I’d venture to say has a soul.
My favorite 35mm film camera, at least my favorite auto-focus 35mm film camera, is the Nikon F100. I think it’s the nicest film camera that was ever made, at least where SLRs are concerned. And the D700? It’s kinda nicer. The focus engine on it is more advanced, but it doesn’t step into that world of feeling “electronic-y” — it still feels like a real camera. I own all these cameras because they are beautiful, both as objects and as things to use, as tools. They slow you down, which is sometimes nice.
I was shooting with a lot of film, 35mm and medium format, in the early days of digital photography. I’d bought digital cameras over the years as they were developing. In the early days it was something that allowed me to have a lot of clicks: you could take a ton of pictures and they had a really tight feedback loop. You’d immediately see what you’d done on the screen. Great feedback, a great learning tool. But the quality just wasn’t that good. Digital cameras weren’t taking beautiful images. It took a long time for digital cameras to make nice images.
So while I was shooting a lot of digital and getting a lot of practice shooting, I was then turning to film cameras to make nice images. What I noticed was that my success rate on film cameras went way up when I was taking a lot of pictures on a digital camera. I was getting a lot of practice. It was like shooting Polaroids, only faster and cheaper. As digital cameras improved, I switched to medium format film to make nicer images and get more detail. Then at some point, around the Nikon D200, digital really caught up. At this point I think it’s kind of passed film on a lot of key issues: better at ISO, better at resolution. Unless you have an 8x10 or something, digital cameras are able to capture incredible detail.
If the tools give you too much control, you might end up doing exactly what you were trying to do, and that might not be very good.
But I almost feel as though shooting with the D700, I have too much control. I can make exactly the image I’m trying to make within a few tries. Whereas with film, you don’t get that feedback. You don’t know if you got exactly what you were trying to get. Sometimes that’s great because maybe what you were trying to get is a really dumb image, and the one you made kind of by what felt like a mistake is really quite beautiful.
I find when I look back at negatives. I’ll see one and think “Why didn’t I scan this? It’s beautiful!” but at the time it wasn’t exactly what I was trying to do, so it felt like a failed image. I go back years later and I realize it’s an incredible image, a really beautiful photograph, and I was dumb back then, I didn’t realize it, I didn’t see it. So if the tools give you too much control, you might end up doing exactly what you were trying to do, and that might not be very good.
After a couple of years now of shooting almost all digital, I’ve rolled back around to film. Lately I’ve been shooting a lot of 35mm. The images I’ve liked most from the last few months have been shot on a Voigtländer Bessa R2A with a beautiful, bright, 35mm lens on it. It’s slow to use, hard to focus — especially if you’re used to something like a D700 — but there’s a quality of accident to it. It’s a nice camera.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a town called Putney, Vermont, in the southeast corner of the state. It’s a town of 1,200 people. I grew up out in the woods. I’m not sure what else to say about the place.
I thought I’d never leave the country and somehow for college ended up in Philadelphia. That was a great starter city. Almost directly after college I moved to New York city and have been here ever since. I can’t at this point not imagine living in a city.
I’ve left Putney behind. But I named my dog Putney, always as a reminder.
What was your path after leaving Putney?
I knew I was going to take a year off after high school. I think everyone should, honestly. Frankly, even the people who know what they want to do, maybe especially those people should take a year off and have some real life experience. I just don’t think that 18 year-olds who have never had a life outside of school can be held accountable for knowing what they want to do in the world.
I wasn’t particularly active in a college search. My college advisor was really on my case about applying to schools. She gave me a book and I applied to the first college listed, which was the University of Alaska. I applied to their Fairbanks campus and was accepted with a scholarship before they had seen my transcript. Once they saw my transcript, they wanted to pay for my housing as well. It was the kind of thing where I just had to fly myself there. They were desperate for people from outside of Alaska. So once I was accepted I didn’t think about it again.
I took a year off. My plan was to either get a job crewing sailboats, island hopping around the Caribbean, or to go somewhere in Central America and be helpful.
And you went with being helpful?
I’d taken some Spanish in high school. As it happened we knew a kind of crazy hippy lady who had been in El Salvador for a number of years traveling around with Guerrillas filming essentially from the perspective of the revolution. Somehow we heard from her and she said come on down.
I spent six months basically living in squalor. It was incredible.
I found my way down to El Salvador, to a Guerrilla refugee camp community. I spent six months basically living in squalor. It was incredible. For an 18 year-old it was a total shock to the system. To be somewhere where it didn’t even matter if you had money because there was nothing to buy, was just incredible. This community was purely a subsistence farming community.
Before I had left, my mom had convinced me that I was constantly making things and that maybe art school was a good idea. I had been kind of a hick and worked on construction crews. The idea of being an art student at the time just seemed rather hilarious. I thought industrial design would be a way to have a slightly more practical life at art school. I had heard about this idea of designing products. In El Salvador the only art being made was a shoemaker, a metal worker who made containers to hold grain, and a guy that had lost his hands and would paint the history of the town to be sold in the city. Going from that, which was very real, to Art School just seemed very indulgent and fake.
But that’s what I did. I came back and packed my bags and moved to the big city: Philadelphia. I quickly realized that the industrial design department felt a little too square. They were designing what stuff looked like, not actually engineering anything. They weren’t design the product, they were designing the shape of the plastic cover on them. It just wasn’t interesting to me. I realize now in retrospect that I was looking for was more of an engineering department, or an industrial design department that paid more attention to engineering.
So on a dare, I ended up in the dance department.
Were you that dissatisfied with the industrial design program?
It literally was on a dare. The industrial design program? I was pretty unsatisfied. The first year was taking a lot of core-classes. Drawing, two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design — fundamental classes that they had decided all art students should have under their belt. In two-dimensional design we had got into color theory, which involved staying up late into the night mixing acrylic paint trying to come up with 'primary blue' and then mix ten degrees of gradation between that and another blue… it was just fucking tedious, horrifying, useless work.
So being uninterested in the industrial design program led you to search for other interests?
I had this real issue that there was no athletic department. I’d been a soccer player in high school, and I was a pretty avid cyclist at that point — a spandex and cycling for exercise kind of rider. The fact that there were no real group athletic activities was really hard for me.
I had joined a pick-up soccer team. There was a note in one of the class buildings, this pink flyer with tear-off numbers on the bottom that said “Gay? Straight? Want to play the field? Come join us for pick-up Soccer!” So I was like “Great! Pick-up soccer, I’ll go!”
It took me about 15 minutes to realize I was the only straight person on the team. It took them about 3 weeks to notice. Maybe a little longer. They were pretty shocked when they realized. It was great though, it was exercise. But, it didn’t really fulfill my need for athletic activity and it also wasn’t with any of my peers, it was all people who were already out of college.
So, one night, someone dared me to take a dance class. A good friend’s roommate was a dancer and said “You gotta come take this Brazilian class.” So I did. I took a dance class and I left feeling exhausted, having had a fun time with a whole bunch of other people in a room. It felt more or less like an organized sport. So I started skipping classes and went over to the dance department office and said “Hey! I want to be a dance major.”
The woman at the desk said “Have you ever taken a dance class?” and I said “Yeah, I took one last night!” She just about ran me out of the office. They were pretty angry. It was a bold thing for me to do that at this kind of school. On the East coast there were only 3 or 4 conservatory-style dance schools and this was one of them. But they said “Well, there’s an audition on Saturday, so come to that.” They’re telling me this on Thursday.
I told my friend at the admissions department who had tracked me down in El Salvador “I’m thinking of switching to Dance” and she says “Are you kidding me?” I said “I think it would be pretty cool. I’m going to an audition on Saturday.” She replied “Well, you can’t do that. Drop/Add ends on Friday. You won’t be able to switch. You’ll have you do the rest of the semester in Visual Arts and then try for Dance next year.”
She called up the head of the Dance department and told her “Listen. Drop/Add ends on Friday. You have to see this kid now. I think you’re really going to want him.” And the head of the Dance Department said “OK, send him over!”
So the day after my first dance class I had a solo audition for the head of the department in my bike shorts and nothing else. I was in padded bike shorts, took off my shirt, and like skipped around the room and did all this shit she asked me to do. She said “OK, come to my office tomorrow.” I thought she was going to tell me to go sell shoes or something. Meanwhile, I was skipping classes to do all this.
The next day I went to her office and she asks me “Are you serious about this?” I realized I hadn’t actually thought about it. I just knew I needed a substantial change. So I said “Oh yes, very serious.” She said “You know it’s not all fun, right?” I was like “Oh no, not all fun” but what did I know, it seemed like fun to me. She said “OK, here’s your schedule” and handed me a schedule. “You’d better go get some dance clothes. You have class in 20 minutes.”
I walked into my first class, which is the second semester with all these guys have been there 2 months already. The class is being taught by this guy Wayne St. David, who had been a choreographer for Solid Gold - an absolutely flaming, fabulous guy who walked in and was like “5, 6, 7, 8!” and everybody started dancing.
It turned out it was a 45 minute choreographed warm-up they’d learned in the first semester. No warning. He just counts off and everyone started moving. He never taught the warm-up again, so I spent the entire semester moving the opposite direction from everyone else. In the final he took a look at me and said “Honey, you’d better be glad that dance is a visual art!” He passed me because I was cute, you know? It was a total coup. But my senior year I finally relented and was willing to be in his annual Spring concert. I had booty shorts on and it was sort of the school joke because I just couldn’t move that way.
So that was the switch to dance.
What happened after college?
By my senior year I had my shit together and had caught up. I was one of the only people in the class who was working professionally in Philadelphia and had work lined up after school. It became a career.
I took a little time off after my first year of professional touring. I realized I just hated touring life: waking up in a hotel room and having to call the front desk to remember what city you’re in. I’m too much of a homebody. I like cooking for myself. I just hated it.
So I stopped and kind of landed in New York. I’d been in and out of New York for rehearsals a lot and it seemed like a neat place to be. My mom had a colleague in New York who was kind enough to let me crash on his couch for six months. I stopped dancing and got a job working in a cabinet shop for a year, building kitchens for rich people. But it really gave me that feeling that I’d wake up one day and be 50 years old and still doing the same thing.
I decided to give dance another try. I applied to a Masters program in England, got accepted, and went to school in the North of England for a year. After that, I came back to the States and began teaching in NYC. I had a nine-year teaching career. By the end of it I was training professional dancers.
As soon as I quit, it became pretty clear to me what I wanted to do.
It took a lot longer to get out of it that I thought it would. I’d tried to leave 4 years earlier and they offered me a salary with benefits. I was earning a decent wage for teaching about 9 hours a week. I was also doing things outside of class, planning, mentoring, but it was essentially 9 hours of work each week. I told myself I’d just treat it as a job. I thought it would give me the opportunity to do other things I was interested in, which was mostly true. I spent a lot of time playing pool but I also started taking pictures again. I had enough free time that I was figuring out how to develop at home, how to scan stuff; what my system was going to be. But finally about 5 years ago, I was able to extricate myself from teaching and run away screaming.
Is that how you got into bike fabrication?
During the last 4 years of being a teacher I was just 'showing up' for work. I’d been trying harder before. I had my own dance troupe, I was trying actively to be an 'artist' in the dance world, but I was showing up on a bike. It’s how I got around the city and I wouldn’t say I became a zealot, but certainly an enthusiast and an evangelist. I was trying to spread the word about bike riding. How it would improve the quality of your life. It was a better way to get around, it was faster, and you got to see and know the city so much better. Instead of popping up somewhere you actually got to see the city as you rode through it.
A lot of my students who were athletically-inclined to begin with, thought this was a good thing. They’d have me find them bikes. I’d say “What’s your budget? Give me the highest number you can think of and I’ll find you the nicest bike I can for that money.” So for people with lots of money I’d buy them a frame, then build up a bike for them with all new parts. For people on a tight budget, I’d find something on eBay that I could slightly adapt to be a good city bike for them. I was sort of styling bikes. At one point I was in a bike shop and overheard someone talking about how cool it would be to have wood fenders. I thought “I could make wood fenders!” I went home and made some. That became a side business, Fast Boy Fenders. I was styling bikes for people and making bike accessories.
As soon as I quit, it became pretty clear to me what I wanted to do. I always describe it as one of those “leap and the bridge will appear” moments. It took me about four days to realize “Why not build bikes?” I’d considered it before when I was building fenders, but I thought there were so many people already doing it that it was too intimidating, so I just stuck to fenders. But this time, I figured “I’ve never met a material I didn’t like, so why not metal?”
You’ve gained a reputation for being very transparent with your photography. Have you always been so willing to open your life to the world?
In high school I tried taking pictures that were really beautiful, and I sucked at it. At some point, around the Olympus Stylus, I decided I just wanted to document my life. I just wanted to take pictures of whatever I was cooking. And this was before Flickr, before blogs; I just started doing it, keeping shoeboxes full of images that I could look back at. It was a fun project, I liked doing it.
That really became what I did with the camera: to document life. That’s always been and continues to be the thrust of it: taking pictures of what’s going on around me. And I guess in the process of doing that a lot, they have a higher success rate as images — those images are becoming nicer images, and every once in a while you can pull an image out of the context of the documentation of my life, and look at it and think “That’s a really beautiful photograph.” I think every so often I am producing things that are pieces of art, as opposed to simply documentation — not that there’s necessarily a distinction.
But I hear the honesty aspect about my photography, this notion that “It’s so honest, so frank.” I think it’s important in any documentary making that there is editing 'in the eye' — for example, I don’t take pictures or show pictures of my house when it’s super-messy. People have this impression that I’m so honest, so open, and yet I’m not showing everything. I suppose I am showing a fair amount of stuff that other people wouldn’t and maybe that’s what people are reacting to. I guess I’m finding beauty in places that others might find too honest, too ugly. I’m thinking mostly of the cancer shit: I was putting up pictures of myself in pretty bad shape.
How does it feel to share your cancer story so publicly? Do you ever go back and look at the images?
Honestly, it’s a little hard to look at the photographs. I was going to do a shared show with a fellow cancer-fucker at one point. I cherry-picked from that Flickr set. There are almost 100 images over the last 4 years: getting sick, treatment, getting better, remission, getting sick again, getting really sick, getting better — the idea was to put all these up chronologically in a big grid with a key next to it with individually pinned-up notes of what each photo was, maybe the date, the title of the photo, or the caption, whatever. It didn’t happen because my co-conspirator was in treatment when the show was supposed to happen. She just couldn’t do it, so we bailed. But the photos are still printed, they’re in a box and could be nailed to a wall anytime.
The last four years have fundamentally changed me. There’s no question. The pictures are an incredible reminder. Memory really is merciful. You tend to forget the things that are really traumatic and painful, and that’s wonderful. You don’t need to focus on what it felt like to be in treatment. You come away with some great life lessons, but you don’t need to remember the discomfort. So looking at those photographs, I get a little nauseous. Looking back at them now, I think I have some sense of what it would be like for other people to see those images.
Some of them are beautiful. I love all the nose-bleed pictures and various pictures of me with blood on my face. Blood is a beautiful color. But there are others where I really look bad. I was really sick.
Has your experience over the past few years given you a different perspective you might not have had as that brash 20 year-old?
When I went to art school I was really conflicted about the idea of being an artist. Whether it was because I was afraid guys on constructions crews would make fun of me, or because I’d been living in El Salvador and the whole idea of being an artist felt self-indulgent I’m not sure. Over time I’ve come to a place where I think that “art” is really important. We remember pieces of history by the wars and the art. Art is what’s left; it’s what ends up defining culture. Products do as well. If you include the design of things as art, that’s what culture is about.
I’m trying to figure out how I can be willing to think of what I do as art, instead of: “I’m not making art, I’m just documenting my life and some of it’s pretty good.” The same with the bikes: “I’m not making sculpture, these are practical, you can ride them around.” I’m trying to step away from the need to justify it through some degree of practicality. I’m trying to figure out how I can be a practicing artist, rather than a craftsman.
Part of it is because I’ve come to appreciate art so much. For me, it’s exalted; it’s the closet thing to a religion. Art is what’s important. But then, who am I to call what I’m doing “art”? Having it be “practical” is a good place to hide. But if you really want to make art, at some point you have to acknowledge that you’re an artist.
I’ve noticed lately is that it’s when I get sidetracked by something that interests me, when I’m really turned on by it — I have a really A.D.D.-thing — when I allow that to happen.
Do you think that goes back to the “slowing down” that a mechanical camera forces, versus the fancy Nikon?
Definitely. See, I’m trying to figure out a way that I can actually make a living by getting distracted and following my gut. By just making what turns me on because maybe it’s become exciting again. But it’s really tricky, and I recognize that there are a lot of people who would love it if that was their job.
It ends up inevitably being related to being sick, the very real knowledge that I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around. Maybe I’m fine? I’m looking at my watch, thinking “How much longer do I have before I’m in treatment again?” I’m at a stage in the disease where the treatment options become a little bit palliative; at some point they’re just sticking a finger in the dyke.
It may be a cliché, but everyone should live that way. Everyone should be aware that your time is limited: pay attention. Don’t fuck around. Life is, in fact, too short.
Let’s talk about your support system, your family.
Interestingly, I went into this with a girlfriend and some “cling-on” friends from the dance world, roommates I didn’t love living with, a tenant who owed me lots of rent — not a really cohesive scene.
I’ve come out the other side of it with a wife, my parents living a block and a half away, and two people sharing the house with us who I adore. We all eat together every day if we’re in the house. It’s an amazing scene. Some of that is coincidence, but some of it is certainly a level of cohesion that happened around being sick and wanting to have the right environment. We got proactive about getting the right people into the house and the wrong ones out. My parents were planning to move to New York around that time anyway. I think they closed on a house right when I got diagnosed. It was kind of spooky that it happened all at once.
It’s been really amazing. If I wanted, there was always someone to walk me to my treatments. Most of the time I didn’t want it, but people were always around. A lot of friends as well. A different crowd of friends between the two years of treatment, but there were always people around which was really great. There were always people to feed.
I have no idea how I did that, but I think there wasn’t one night in the entire nine months of treatment that I didn’t cook for whoever was around for dinner, which is just insane. I was very sensitive to the fact that I was a burden on that community. People were spending a lot of time taking care of me: picking up after me, getting drugs from the drug store for me. The one thing I could do that actually had an impact, that was so easy for me that I could do it while sick, was make dinner. On the days I felt good, toward the end of a treatment cycle, I would make movies about it, because I did have the energy to do that every once in a while.
I don’t have the energy to do that now; back then I was lying on my back for 22 hours a day, hopped-up on narcotics, then I’d pull my ass out of bed to do the grocery shopping and cook some dinner. That’s all I had to do.
It’s been a brutal four years.
Daniel Ezra Caldwell died at home on May 24, 2014, after six years with cancer. He was cared for by his wife Hillary and other family and friends, with the support of the hospice team from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.
To read more about Ezra and his life, please visit EzraCaldwell.com »