Sunday, October 18, 2015

Photographer Interview: TORIA LAWSON by Dave Wolff

Interview with TORIA LAWSON

We began corresponding after I borrowed one of the photos you took of the Tennessee band Shallowpoint at one of their recent shows. Was this the first time you photographed the band live? How long have you been friends with them?
I came back to the scene in February of this year. I have been in the scene on and off where bands are concerned since 1999. I knew of Shallowpoint, and talked to Heather through social media for years. When I started taking pictures for bands, it started at Princes Sports Bar & Deli. I followed a few childhood friends to watch a band locally known as Dreve. I never became a groupie, just a fan of their ambition through their lyrics.
Being a girl with a camera since I started high school, I found a love for photography. At twelve I was part of the Bijou Theater's summer programs. Done acting for a few years. Had spots in local commercials. When I was fourteen, I had the chance for my first local interview. The interview changed my life. I saw the big cameras, and watched how production came together. I tell people I found myself that year. It was also the same year I started high school, and found myself in the school’s photography class. I tried Radio Broadcasting and Television Broadcasting but I truly found myself behind the camera. It was a comfort zone.
In 1999, I watched Dreve open for 10 Years. It was a pretty packed show. I took a 38mm camera my photography teacher gave me in high school to this show. They loved the pictures. Back in 1999, you still had to take the film to a lab to get printed. Not savvy to the digital world quite yet, so edits were very limited. It was about the eye, not the edit. I was there when 10 Years signed. Watching that ambition and strive for a dream done something to me. It wasn't till Brent Smith from Dreve signed with Shallowpoint before I realized I wanted to do more photography for bands. Being part of something that came from hard work. Imagination. Performance. I adventured off into other styles with photography, and grew into the digital world. I reentered the band scene in 2008/09. Bands had changed a lot since 1999. More drama. It's a cut throat business. I have watched 37 year olds act like they were 16, and then watched other band members get ahead of themselves, and lost in the "rock star" lifestyle. People like Heather of Shallowpoint, James Jameson of Belfast 6 Pack and Allen Swank of Indie Lagone reminded me of ambitious moments from 1999.
I have been working on my own dream as I am taking part to capture those moments when life feels good. I have been building a business plan for having a studio one day. I have a few sponsors watching me. I also have a few band members backing me as I am them. One day I will conquer my dream. I may not be rock star famous, but I will continue the ambition to possibly make it a reality for me. I have people with that same strive. Candy Ann Keaton who does extreme make up and costumes and Kerri Murray who is a model that loves being on the other side of the camera. Glamour Shots meets a world of fantasy, using digital gray screens to fabricate a lot of back drops.
But enough about me. The bands I capture in my lens, I want to see them succeed, and I will be there with my camera to capture the moments of greatness that will push them forward.

You have done some acting since becoming involved in the summer programs at the Bijou Theater. What kind of work do you remember doing in those programs?
I have done a lot of skits and improv. The plays I have done that were repeat performances were: The female character Babe Botrelle from the play 'Crimes of the Heart.' The female character Edna Louise from the play 'Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.' And the one that had the most attention was the part of Olive Madison from the play 'Female Version of the Odd Couple.' I was placed in an 18-21 age range class for being "advanced." So I was told. I was 13, almost 14 when I got placed in the age ranged groups.

What was your first improv when you were fourteen? In what ways did doing this improv change your life?
I remember doing the Female Version of the Odd Couple a few nights in a role, and when your costar forgets their lines, improv is a must. It grabbed the attention of the local channel in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was great, I want to say I have the ability for quick wit come backs, and my cast mate that was playing Florence Unger, was 19, and she went blank. I improved a whole scene, carrying her to the next scene. The improv became useful later when I found the stage at Comedy Zone doing small skits as a comedian. Amateur night. Anyhow, the recovery was noticed, and the following day I was asked alongside my cast mate to do an interview with the local community channel. Channel 2 or cable channel 12. PBS basically. Being 14 years old, it was a big deal no matter where it was at. The day of the interview, I remember the impact the production crew had on me. I was the one that was disengaged in the interview itself, watching this 19 year old take the spot light, and it didn't bother me seeing that I was more intrigued with what was going on in the booth behind the set. The lights. I knew that day that production and direction made that interview possible. I knew I wanted to be behind the camera, and not in front of it as much.

Did you choose the role of Olive Madison you when taking part in the Female Version of the Odd Couple?
We were put in groups by age. Then given the selected teacher/coach per division. Upon starting the summer program, we did a lot of improv. The instructor would give us a mental scene, and we would act it out. I apparently had a huge imagination, because I ended up in the 18-21 groups. The stuff she would have us improv were stuff like walking on the moon, just for example. I, seeking for attention always went a step further by mimicking someone famous walking on the moon, like for example Rodney Dangerfield popped into mind. It was one of those moments that I to this day run with. When you get an audience, and they are laughing, just go with it. My instructor from there on out, while doing improv, or any other workshop for that matter, had to give us a specific category such as drama, horror or suspense. She called me the darkest suspense comedy drama that she had ever encountered. From there, while entering the advanced age group another instructor placed me in the role of Olive.

Were you a fan of the movie and network TV versions of The Odd Couple before taking part in the stage production? What did you like about the dynamics between the two characters?
I was introduced to the Odd Couple upon the role in the play. I researched a little of who was who. I found playing Olive was who I was in ways. I was the sloppy teenager. I played basketball through my teen years. My mother would tell you that the sarcasm came naturally. I still haven't watched one of those movies, but I have watched a few episodes to get a good feel of those characters. The actors had just done a movie, I think, at that time. Grumpy Old Men. I still watch that movie with the original Odd Couple in mind. Put in mind, I was only 13/14 years old.

Describe the work you put into your portrayal of Edna Louise in 'Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.’
Edna Louise wasn't the smartest in the bunch. She didn't grasp the common sense of things you could say. It was somewhat easy to play that part. The hard part was where she is with child in most of those scenes. I hung out with a few pregnant women in the family. I would mimic the way they would sit down, stand up, walk, etc. When the belly went on, I made jokes about how I was a walking campaign for protective sex. It made the role even easier. Comedy being my strong suit. I watched the movie as well, which helped tremendously! I know I watched this movie five or six times to grasp the full story. Being young and that being such an adult movie, and the fact I love Jimmy Dean, it came easier than being the slob from the Odd Couple.

How much acting experience did you accumulate altogether while doing stage productions?
A lot! I know all there is to know about the stage. The lingo, the do's and dont’s, curtains, cues. It came easy for me. The one woman show!

If you could have done a one woman show back then, what sort of performance would it have been?
My life! I am the queen of randoms. Center of attention. When the laughs came, I felt good about it. Class clown. The forces of nature have always put me in that place at that time when stuff would happen. I have been told so many times, if it's going to happen, it will if I'm around. I also have a heart. I have been known to put others before myself. Even when I was young. I would give my prized possession to someone in need of it. Not so much in want of it. If that makes sense. I would be that character that quotes and acts out movies in all situations. Bubbly.

How much broadcasting work did you do for radio and television before you decided to go behind the camera?
I will have classmates from high school reading this, and it is quite funny how everything went down for me in high school. Anyone that knows me, knows me by my acting, quick wit, class clown antics. If people weren't laughing, I wasn't doing it right. Anyhow, I started in Radio Broadcasting. The instructor at the time use to poke fun at the girls. Listened to Rush Limbaugh right before lunch. Routine. The man never laughed nor smiled. The series of events trying to get this man to lighten up, sorry Mr. Johnson, was a challenge for me. A challenge that got me kicked out of his class. It was nothing major or anything to get me into serious trouble, but right after that I ended up in Television Broadcasting. Wasn't there long either before the schools photography team was floating around taking pictures for the school paper. I mean, I learned useful splicing and editing technics in the short time I was in both of those classes. But I wanted a little freedom with that camera on the photography team. I dedicated myself to that class. It was worth being serious for. I took on extra projects. Extra credit. We had a wet lab to our use, and I was the kid that would get lost in developing my shots before I realized classes changed. I know my English teacher wasn't happy about that either. The best thing that came from my years at Fulton High, was when the teacher gave me a 35mm Canon Camera that I had used for all my work there.

How long were you taking creative writing courses while in college?

I started college with a different major in mind. Journalism. I found that I am too opinionated for journalism. I went through different English areas before I found a love for playwriting and screenwriting. I participated in the Tennessee Mountain Writers Organization for two years. School ended up being a total of 4.5 years. My continuing education program was through Pellissippi State Community College.

Were there any playwrights and screenwriters you studied whose approaches to writing made you want to try your hand at it?
Shakespeare. I was in love with this cat. My secret obsession. I still can quote some of his works. Tennessee Williams. Yes, I am just that nerdy. Kipling. Although he was poems, I reenacted his poems in my head with the singing parts. Colorful imagination. I also like Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and pretty much anything that I could see being made into something in theater. I think that was my love. Even Edgar Allen Poe was a favorite growing up. John Logan. I had a thing for his Broadway hit.

Poe and Shakespeare have often been discussed in interviews for this zine. Which of their writings are personal favorites and how do they speak to you personally?

Shakespeare: I had a love affair briefly with his words in college. I was obsessed.  If I were to choose my favorite quote of all time that this man wrote. It would be from The Merchant of Venice. "I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, A stage where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one..." But as always, you can't just like one of anything when it comes to Shakespeare. He is the 'lover of lyric, and makes love to the minds that are accepting to him.

"The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!"
-Merchant of Venice

"Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?"
-Merchant of Venice

I am also a lover of his sonnets. I do have a few favorites of those, but the one I would share is this:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And too often is his gold complexion dimm'd:
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance or natures changing course untrimm'd;
By thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee"
-Shakespeare's Sonnets

"in black ink my love may still shine bright."
-Shakespeare's Sonnets

Unlike Shakespeare; Poe brought out the dark corners of the mind. To have both to me is balance. Poe was an interest of mine before Shakespeare however. I was introduced to his words in middle school. My 7th grade year. I have to say that everything Poe has ever written; there isn't one that I dislike. I do have my favorite. The Raven. Many know it, but what they don't know is that Poe wrote The Raven backwards. He wrote an essay called "The Philosophy of Composition," to explain why he wrote "The Raven" backward. Picking my brain apart since I was 12. The very first label I went by had a lot to do with my love for these two and a few others. World Made By Words. All my writings, and anything I have ever done for the public eye, for a long time, was created by the faceless World Made By Words.

"All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."
-Edgar Allan Poe

What plays by Tennessee Williams have you read in your time, and have his writings been influential to you in any way? What can you say of reading Hawthorne and Logan?
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Before Demi Moore wore the 'Scarlet Letter.' I read this particular book around the same time I did Tennessee Williams. About age 16, I was looking more through cameras at this point than I was looking at them. I liked to be behind them, but Nathaniel also intrigued the imagination of an era and times. I like his works more so than Tennessee Williams. I also enjoyed the short story by Hawthorne titled "The Vision in the Fountain." Intriguing the imagination is best described to these. I knew of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, created by James Malcolm Rymer, and I think another. John Logan wrote the movie version of Sweeney Todd, which gave me an intriguing interest to play with digital effects and the interest for makeup and costume play. My studio idea was created using prefabricated backdrops made through CG and Photoshop. With costumes, props, and some extreme make up/latex/silicone ideas, we could create a fantasy. I teamed with Candy's Creations to help that aspect of my dream. It ties one’s certain "Dreamscapes Fantasy" to reality. That's what I will name it or something along those lines.

What made you decide to go from radio and television to photographing? How did you go about choosing equipment to work with when you began as a photographer? What photography equipment have you been figuring out currently?
I want to say fate, but I am sure a teacher or three had something to do with it. I was a little hard to take in sometimes. Besides the fact I was always sneaking the family camera, or video camera out of the house for an adventure of some sort. I still have those vhs tapes to this day. I am still learning the equipment. Learning still as I go. A lot of it is common sense to me. I can't really explain it. I took Creative Writing in college. Came to find out that I was the most illiterate English major I've ever met. In anything I have done in this crazy little life of mine, I always come back to the camera. I have the basic Canon EOS 60D. I have a couple of other older Canons, and would love to bring them back out. When the timing is right. I am old school when it comes to the shots. Photoshop does the rest, if I even need Photoshop on some. Some are just regular shots.

Did you become friends with Dreve when you photographed them for the first time? How long have you been in touch with them?

Ahhh the infamous Dreve. My best friend at that time Michael Easterday and my childhood love Jamee Sartin introduced me to Andrew from Dreve. The band was named after his middle name. Talkative fella. Got to know him pretty well. Went to the shows, and then one particular night I took my 35mm that I always had, and took my first band shots. Dreve had opened for 10 Years that night at the Princes Sports Bar & Deli. It wasn't too much longer after that when 10 Years signed, and then Brent Smith from Dreve followed them by joining Shinedown.

Are those photos you took of Dreve available for viewing on social media? Were you photographing Dreve’s live shows often following the first time you photographed them?

When Myspace first started I had all my work up there. I have totes full of pictures I had developed over the years. Back then when Dreve was finding their way, it was a 35mm, and the rest was wishful thinking. I ended up with some really good stuff. I did play with the camera a bit. They were all photogenic, and they all tend to upstage one another from time to time for that attention. Which ended comical at times. I love these guys. I hated to see them split up.

What do you remember from the local metal scene in 1999? How different were things back then?
From 99 to now, good question. The scene is very different. In 1999 the biggest drama the bands had was who upstaged who, but battled it out through music. Bands were stoked by playing with each other for fun. Now, the scene has changed to a more difficult arrangement. When I tried coming back in 08-09, I got discouraged because the ambition was hard to find. Cover bands mainly. A few good bands still, killer music, but it was a cold atmosphere. This time around, I have found that bands rarely find love for others in bands. It's competitive, and always had been, but this time, it's on a whole other level. I have never seen so many talented people slam another's ambition the way I am seeing now. In 99, it would have been awesome to have witnessed the practices where other bands were invited to just jam. It's a cut throat business. I have witnessed 37 year olds at like they were 12, and throw themselves temper tantrums. I have seen others get ahead of themselves, and jump right into the rock star lifestyle. Ruining it before it began. There are some that are still humble in this lifestyle, and again I say that those few and far in between are Heather from Shallowpoint, Pirate from Belfast 6 Pack, and Allen Swank from Indio Lagone. There are more out there. I just had the pleasure of having all access from these three. I can't wait to meet more.

It’s always been a cut throat business, but for me the underground metal and hardcore scenes were always an alternative to that due to the mutual support. I saw it begin to change for the worse in the 90s when local bands from Long Island started stabbing one another in the back. And if you were a death metal band, you almost weren’t allowed to like black metal. Fortunately there were bands all through that who kept the original vision of mutual support and focused on togetherness rather than competition. How much do you still see bands supporting each other today?

I think the world is getting colder. More self-absorbed. Selfish. Then you have band members that want to be cool, and won’t partake, then targeted. They will respect one another face to face for the most part. The nastiness comes when their backs are turned. I can't lump all bands to be guilty of this; because I have seen/met some that will reach their hand out and take you along for the ride. It's mere pettiness that keeps it going. Girly gossip from some of the most grizzly of men. I have never understood it. Why put one band down? Attention? That type of attention causes a scene for a moment. I say, do something no one would expect. What message would it send if these bands brought joy amongst each other, as they do the fans? Practice at least twice together before putting on a kick ass show!

Who are the bands you know that don’t rely on backbiting and gossip to get their names around?
Oh man, this may get me frowned on, but I will say this. There are very few that still live by the stage from the older days. Having fun. Looking forward to playing together. It was a compliment to a band when another band asked for the time to jam. Now, it's who knows who, and who slams who to gain better light. Disheartening.

Who were the bands you photographed live after photographing Dreve’s performances? You mentioned working with Shallowpoint. How were they to photograph?
I photographed a lot of bands at that time. I couldn't tell you all their names. I know the few that made an impact in my life. Besides Dreve, 10 Years, and a band named Galaxy. When I did Shallowpoint’s pictures for the first time, I met Heather outside before the show. I was nervous and excited all at once. I have known of Shallowpoint for years. Never thought I would be taking pictures for them. Anywho, upon meeting her outside, she greeted me with a bubbly smile and a humbled heart. Then I went and said what you should never say, 'ma'am,' I couldn't tell you all what was said that lead up to that. She laughed about it, but I now know that she doesn't like that. After I done the pictures, and started posting them. I was greeted by Heather via Facebook who praised and praised my work. If anyone had a big head, it was this gal, me. She has always built me up, and she has never been rude. Genuine. Someone that appreciated work that I had done. Good people. When I do photography for any band. I sometimes don't hear the lyrics, when I am behind that camera, I watch for the emotion built by ambition, performance and what I call the winning shot. Some shots are hard to capture just right, but I will go back and look for it again at another show. It's really hard to explain how I work my camera. I just know I like capturing where their heart is at, when it shines through, if it’s through a hair whip, or a way to build up for that certain strive to hit that certain key that they have been practicing.

How do you sense the moment to get band shots when you’re photographing? Do your photos show how closely your insight serves you?
There are two things I have learned from watching bands. First, when they see a camera, they do one of two things. They either lock up, or they go all out. Most go all out. I don't know what it is about a camera and musicians. I do have to say those are the easy shots. Some nights when it's packed, and the camera isn't concentrated on, those are the best moments. That's when I watch the ambition and the lyric takes hold. When the best pictures are taken. Some musicians are natural, and can do a gig back to back doing the same things, but most are spontaneous and you have to watch for it.

What’s the story with you adapting the title Crazy Train to your work?

I call my project the Crazy Train for a reason. A lot to do with Ozzy, a lot to do with who I am as a whole, and a lot to do with the way things go in this lifestyle. I just hope many more will allow me to hop aboard that Crazy Train to do their photos. Added notes to who I am, and my purpose for all of this. I have decided to go all in on getting a studio. Last round. It won't focus just on one of my most favorite loves, music, bands, but it will help me get to where I am going. I have an investor, and a few sponsors watching this round. I pray to be successful, and I always hope I can share the love of music with these crazy musicians. All eyes on me.

What steps are you taking to acquire a studio at this point?
I am old school in my humble heart. I started with bands. They get attention. It's a challenge to capture 'the moment.' I have been exploring different types of photography again. Name it, I've played with it. The steps I am taking is proving myself, and I have a few eyes on me. I have a sponsor, who I won't disclose at this time, that is impressed with what I have achieved so far. That sponsor is talking investment for my studio idea. I will be doing an introduction to my business plan in May. I also have a booked schedule of those wanting to board the Crazy Train. It's all about timing and building. Why not start where my heart is at. Photography and music.

Who has expressed interest in working in the Crazy Train with you?
I can't say at this point. Superstitious you can say. Until I have that contract, I don't want to say they are a definite. I will say, two of them are very well known in the Pigeon Forge and Talbot area.

Describe the different types of photography you have studied of late? How much work do you have to put into building a professional career in photography at this point?
I started by getting my studio hours by shadowing with Wild Gals Old Time Photography. Getting the feel for sets and props. Then Keith Heptinstall started teaching me the basics with prefabricated backdrops. I had the feel for the how to's, but this man opened doors in my imagination that no one or thing had before. He ran his own studio for a while in Chattanooga, and he also was over Project Runway in Knoxville and surrounding areas. We found that we had a lot of common interest in photography. He was more advanced than I, but told me where to start. What to have, and I am truly thankful to this man. When I showed him my interest and told him about my studio, he immediately jumped on board this crazy train. We've compared notes since. He's an amazing character. I have had my hands in all sorts of different photography. From freelance to props to studios. Right now I am about to team up with the local Frightmare to challenge me again and again for teaching, experience, and for the love of it. Candy's Creations is also on board the crazy train for this experience.

Toria Lawson on Facebook

-Dave Wolff

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