The Fashion Photographer Documenting Her Life Up-Close

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Self Portrait with Mae (2014)© Cass Bird

The first solo exhibition of her personal photography opens tomorrow in New York. We speak with Cass Bird about why it very nearly didn't happen at all

When I speak to Cass Bird over the phone, it’s 10am in New York. “I just have to warn you, I don’t do well on no sleep, and I’m sleep deprived,” she says in a drowsy Californian twang. Bird hails from LA but settled on the east coast in the early 1990s, before meeting her partner Ali a few years later. The pair have been inseperable ever since. They now have two children together, who, the photographer explains, are responsible for her minimal amount of rest the night before. “I went out last night and I got home at a totally reasonable hour. But then Ali and I had to process some child stuff. So we didn’t go to sleep and then we had kids in our bed and then I got kicked out of my bed and had to sleep in my kids’ bed. It was one of those nights,” she laughs. 

The Birds have established themselves as exemplary parents when it comes to rearing children and maintaining careers in a notoriously ruthless creative industry. To scroll through their Instagram feeds is akin to flicking through intimate photo albums that totally dismantle the heteronormative family unit. Closeness is the thread that runs through Bird’s photography and film, too. Working predominantly with fashion publications, she has shot everyone from Natalia Vodianova to Barack and Michelle Obama, each editorial or campaign maintaining a palpable sense of humanity. This week, she prepares for a debut solo exhibition of work at Red Hook Labs in New York, with a selection of personal images that have never been seen before. The show, titled Cass Bird: In Bed, explores the relationship between photographer and subject, with Bird’s images often de-sexualising the nude with potent warmth. Here, she reveals why the show very nearly didn’t happen at all, and how bringing up children has influenced her practice. 

On the story behind her first solo exhibition...
“The story behind how the show got going is really cute. Jimmy Moffat from Red Hook had been inviting me to do a show for a while, and I was really scared and more than hesitant. And then I brought Feist, the musician, who is a friend of mine, to a Willy Vanderperre show there. She was in town and she was staying with us and I asked her to drop by the show with me. We were walking around the gallery and I whispered to her ‘they want me to have a show here but I’m too afraid!’ And she pulls me back and she’s like ‘wait what? They want you to have a show here?’ and I said, ‘yeah but I can’t, I can’t do it’. Feist is such a special person to our family and to me. Also she’s one of the best musicians of all time. So I agreed. I shot her last album cover. I actually met her about ten years ago and I shot her while I was pregnant. I’ve known her for such a long time and have so much respect for her – I could hardly say no.”

On her nuclear family...
“We have two children and our nanny. She’s been with us for Leo’s entire life, so almost ten years. And she has a child, too, who is now a teenager going into high school. And their sister Carrie also has a little girl. My partner Ali’s brother lives two blocks away and they just had a baby. We have a nuclear family, really. We call it our ‘blood family’ and our ‘heart family’ – we have an open door and a warm house. Also, there are some models I have worked with over the years that have become a part of our family and spend Christmas and the holidays with us. They’re also a really big part of our children’s lives. It’s kind of amazing, really. Ali and I were talking about how our children feel like our friends, which wasn’t an experience I had growing up. My parents were not my friends. I think the way we’re bringing up our kids gives them an opportunity to really relate to others, which is I guess also a part of my work. There is a lot of people in my life that didn’t make it into the show. I feel sad because I don’t want them to feel left out! I don’t want to name names of the individuals who will be in the show, though. Let’s just say the people who you expect to be there – as far as the women that work as models – they’re definitely present.”

On starting her career...
“My god, I started like a hundred years ago. The bar was so low, I was terrible. I didn’t come from a creative background and I wasn’t nurtured at all, aesthetically. I grew up in LA  and in junior college, my friend who is an actor asked me to take his headshots. Literally it started there. It took me at least ten years to catch up and understand what I was looking at in my work. And it’s taken me another 15 to know what feels like mine and what I’m trying to say and what I’m curious about. That’s like 25 years! The theme or the common thread in my work is that I’m trying to get close. Period. Close to the subject, close to the person to develop a relationship with them. So many things happen when you have a camera in your hand that I think are quite mind blowing. I want my pictures to look beautiful and represent a very human energy. I continue to have new experiences every single time I’m asked to shoot someone for something. Or, if I just pick up a camera on my own, I still learn something new to this day.”

On the present and the future...
“I am inspired by so much work that is being made right now. I’m really impressed by the younger generation, who have such a strong voice in photography. They have something I feel that I’m developing much later in life. Again, I don’t want to name names, but they know who they are. They are fucking killing it and congratulations to them. In terms of my own future, having kids is intense. Especially when you have your own personal aspirations and goals, professionally, and then you have these humans who you’re super responsible for. My goals right now are to be really present in their life, in the life that I’ve been able to build with Ali. But there are always so many incredible opportunities that come around and I get to jump in and do them. I’ve been invited to publish a book, and I would love to some day. But I can’t at the moment. At present, it’s all about how I can make my work and be there for the people in my life who matter the most.”

Cass Bird: In Bed opens September 13 at Red Hook Labs, New York.