Q&A With Theron Humphrey

You may not have heard of Theron Humphrey, but it’s possible you’ve seen his dog, Maddie, somewhere on a bookstore shelf. Humphrey’s book, Maddie on Things, features the coonhound poised in precarious positions all over the United States. Humphrey, a former commercial photographer, set off on the road in August 2011 to meet strangers and reconnect with his storytelling roots. A selection of photos from Maddie on Things is featured in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic. We asked Humphrey a few questions about everyday life and his Instagram feed, which has garnered over 330,000 followers and many avid fans.

Q: How has Instagram helped you share your work? Do you feel that the interactions on Instagram are valuable?

A: What Instagram brought into my life was people, real folks. Folks with stories and passion and children and wives and vision. I’ve gotten to meet wonderful image makers all across the country pointing their cameras at what they love. Instagram will come and go but those friendships that were cultivated because of the platform are real and have lasting value.

Q: Are the Instagrams you post straight from your phone or are they taken with your SLR? If iPhone pics, are you editing them in-phone as well?

A: For two years my Instagram feed was iPhone only and that made a lot of sense. But Instagram has changed and evolved over the years. My take is that Instagram is a platform, not a camera. And cameras are just tools. Folks should use the tool they love. I did have a book published this year that is entirely iPhone 4 images, sort of wild to think about. I figure if I knew it would become a book, my photo instinct would be to use a fancy camera right? But I suppose that’s what made the project more whimsical. I was out there just snapping away on an iPhone 4.

I do still edit on my phone. That feels important. To edit at the right scale. To connect to an image in your palm. Images have a different vibe on the phone than on a computer screen. My go-to editing app is VSCO. It’s some of the best mobile editing software I’ve come across. I love the app because it has non-destructive edits, plus the filters they offer can scale to be subtle, versus an Instagram Toaster filter that overruns an image.

Q: How quickly do you post photographs after you take them?

A:  Nearly instant most days. I love shooting with the Canon 6D—it’s easily the best camera I’ve ever held. I’ll either transfer an image via its built-in Wi-Fi right to my telephone or pull an image into Lightroom 5 to use its perspective correction feature (which is amazing!) then e-mail a JPEG to myself.

Q: Do you think Instagram has greater storytelling capabilities than are currently being engaged by users?

A: How I think about storytelling and photography is a lot different from how Instagram thinks about photography. What I mean is that for a time Instagram felt focused on incredible image makers and strong photography. Those image makers helped build, validate, and make Instagram a go-to place for beautiful photos. And it took a long time for the established photo world to take Instagram seriously. Everyone out there thought it was full of selfies with overpowering filters…but along the way fantastic image makers started creating and sharing strong work. But the heartbreaking part is that was never Instagram’s vision. Simply put it wasn’t built by or for photographers.

Q: Are you working on any projects that you’re not posting on Instagram?

A: For sure! These days I’m shooting my second 50-state, yearlong documentary. It’s called Why We Rescue. I think of it as a salt-of-the-earth, honest, and straight shooting look into the lives of rad folks who have welcomed animals into their homes.

I love creating and sharing work on the Web. Instagram is rad, ya know? Sharing a single image does have value. But on the Web you get to build a custom Website and curate a beautiful experience with multiple images and audio. That’s what’s awesome about creating custom Websites for long-term photo projects: The Website itself becomes a part of the work.

Q: In a previous interview with National Geographic Traveler, you said, “I got stirred up and wanted to live a different life. I wanted to discover new things and meet new people.” Was there a specific moment that sparked your decision to hit the road?

A: A few things all came together to stir me up. I was burnt out on the corporate commercial photo world—I couldn’t see myself being 60 one day and showing my kids a portfolio I created full of handbags and earrings. Around the same time my grandfather passed, and I had the privilege of photographing him and recording his story before he died. In that moment I truly understood that photography has a wonderful gift of becoming more valuable over time. But the greatest catalyst ever for doing something new in life is a broken heart. A girl I loved sent me a text one morning that said, “You’re the most disappointing human being ever.” I’ve long since forgiven her and myself, but in the moment I knew I was going to live a different story.

Q: How do you plan your travel routes? Do you location scout?

A: I figure everywhere is worthy, ya know? Folks live everywhere, so in some sense, there isn’t a bad place to go. I do set out with a rough route, not picking the roads I’ll head down or the path till I wake up. I know I’ll start in Texas then head toward Louisiana and onward, something like that, a rough outline. It’s important when you travel not to have a set schedule. But a man needs direction and scale and a purpose. So having that rough dotted line helps.

Q: How do you meet the people and pets you photograph?

A: On the project website (Why We Rescue) we created a map where folks click on their state and sign up. Really they’re raising their hand to become a part of the project. It’s a beautiful way to find folks and create work this year. We don’t have a ton of time in each state so it’s rad to photograph folks who want to become part of the documentary before we even meet.

Q: How have these interactions shaped your life over the past few years? Are there any specific moments that stand out to you?

A: Hopefully they’ve made me a more patient man. To be willing to listen even more.

Special moments were opportunities to spend time with folks in their homes. To be welcomed into their life. To simply sit down with them and talk about what they created in their life. What they loved. Who they loved. Often I was the last person to photograph them and record their voice. I feel honored I was able to photograph folks like Gino Hernandez who passed away after I met him. He was a hundred years old and had fled Nazi Germany as a teen to avoid persecution. He had such a great spirit.

Q: How often are you posing the subjects of your photographs and how often is it that you’re capturing candid moments?

A: It’s somewhere in between I suppose. Most often portraits I take of folks happen during long conversations where we are both invested in one another, and I try to take images in those moments. Other times I ask folks to sit somewhere and hold their hands a certain way or turn their heads, and I take a ton of images I know won’t be that great, but 15 minutes later hopefully they fall back into a place that feels more natural. Take more portraits, y’all!

Q: It seems like you’re always on the move. How much of your time is spent promoting your work, and how much is just plain fun?

A: We are out shooting every day, so in some sense we are always working. Always looking. Always exploring. And sometimes always driving—it feels that way at least. I figure around 50,000 miles this year when we’re done.

But it’s good work, ya know? It’s something I love. I honestly love taking photographs. The rad part is that it’s totally relatable. So many folks feel exactly the same way. So it’s less about promoting when it’s really about always creating new work. That’s the best promotion. Keeping your camera busy.

Q: Last question: Why does Maddie always look sleepy?

A: Ha! Maddie has two personalities. She’s either super pumped about life and running around like a puppy or the laziest dog ever, who looks like Eeyore.

I was drawn to her sleepy/sad dog face when I first met her, so that’s the story I like to share. I figured the world already has a lot of the “happy dog running on the beach” images, so I figured I’d tell a different story.

Check out more of Theron Humphrey’s work here.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Instagram and Twitter.

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