You moved from Canada to New York’s East Village in 1983, which has been a very rough area during that time. How did it feel for you as a young woman, coming from a small town from Canada?
I started leaving my hometown when I was a teenager. Rural Canada in the 70s was the middle of nowhere. I moved to the East Village in 1983. It was a creepy, dangerous broken drug war zone. By the time I arrived here, life had moved on the greener pastures and what remained were drugs, a bunch of rag tag artists looking to rebuild, and mostly burnt out buildings. Nothing about this place looked like where I was from... but oddly, it felt exactly the same... the middle of nowhere. The old was almost over and the new hadn't figured itself out yet.
There were no cars to speak of, unless they were burning on the side of the road. It wasn’t densely populated (too scary for most) and even the scale of the buildings was low, sharing a big sky. It was impossible not to photograph.
Not sure why exactly, but we all knew things were changing here…and there was a sense of urgency…to document your experience.
Can you describe how the area has changed since then?
Gentrification is pretty much the same, no matter where it happens. Artists move in to dangerous fringe neighborhoods because of the cheap rents. Restaurants and bars open up, then rich people start coming there because its cool. Then the developers buy up all the real estate and make everything nice and shiny and expensive. Then the artists and poor people can’t afford to live there anymore and leave in search of the next forgotten poor area. It works for a brief cross over period, when both sides are still there but ultimately the artists leave and there remains only rich people in shiny buildings, and its all over but the crying.
You’ve actually been a painter, what has brought you into photography? What does photography mean to you?
My father gave me my first 35mm camera when I was a teenager in the 70s. I’ve been shooting since then. I didn’t know back then, that I could “be” a photographer, so I just always shot while doing other things. That relationship with photography continued through my college experience as well. I was a painting major, and spent the 80s and 90s in nyc exhibiting my paintings at OK Harris Gallery then at Gracie Mansion in the east village. Photography was something I did by myself, for myself. No one gave a shit about my photos and that was an amazing opportunity to get out there and shoot, unfettered with no plan. Somewhere around 2006 I decided to stop painting entirely and only photograph. That was when I began to shoot every day, on purpose.
Do you carry your camera with you all the time? Do you think it is important for a photographer to shoot everyday?
Indeed I do carry my camera with me everywhere I go. And if I forget I have my phone camera. The minute you don’t have it, is the minute you wish you did. That will be a missed shot, and you can’t go back. Once its missed, its missed.
I don’t know what other photographers should do, but I shoot every day. Perhaps its because I live in New York City, and its a 24/7 situation out there, but I have never gone out and come home with nothing.
How would you describe your photography?
My work is the result of an ongoing relationship with New York City that started over 30 years ago. I’ve been called a street photographer, but I don’t see myself in that formal tradition. I’m not interested in a big situation. I’m looking for the small, the every day… for the tiniest slice of the giant pie. I am looking for the emotional footprint. The things that are broken…that's the glue that holds us together.
You are a full time photographer. Many photographers struggle to make a living as a full time photographer. In an interview you said once „I don't have a plan B.“ So tell us, is there a secret how it works? And do you have any advice for young women who want to become a full time photographer?
I struggle just like everyone else. I used to work at a magazine shooting cosmetics, and that supported my street habit. But that job ended as the magazine world started to fold, and I have been only shooting street since then. My work reaches a lot of people, and I am getting well known these days, but that does not guarantee photo sales. I think it's good to have a “real” job to pay your bills. Then you can obsess on your photography without the pressure of selling it.
Lots of photographers who try to make a living out of it start to compromise with their work - to get a show or being published. Have you ever been in that situation? Or is this a no go - cause you just do the work you feel and want to do?
One night in the 80’s, years ago, I was at a fancy restaurant. Andy Warhol and I had a 2 minute conversation in the bathroom. He said, “Decide what you want to do and get really really good at that one thing. Don’t chase what you think will be the next big thing because there are already people great at it, waiting for their turn. Better to stay put, get super good at your own thing and wait. When it arrives you will be ready and be the best.”
What advice would you give young photographers to get a gallery show or being published. Should they apply to galleries or send work to publishers? Or do you think this is a waste of time, cause the tendency nowadays is getting discovered?
The world is changing quickly, and that includes the art world and photography too. What I would have told someone 10 years ago, is not what I would tell them now. I’m not sure there is a clear path anymore to one prize.
That said, it certainly never hurts to get your work in front of art dealers and gallerists, providing they are the right reps for your work. Ask yourself, do they understand what you are doing? Do they have the appropriate collectors for the type of work you do? Do they already have artists in their stable doing similar work?
I don’t think “all the eggs in one basket” is a smart career choice anymore. You must consider any and all options that are available to you. Social media…get online, get your work on different sites, they all have different viewers. Friend other photographers on Facebook. There are so many great ones on there, and most of them are helpful lovely people. Don’t be afraid to ask for opinions, ask for help etc. Get your work out there every day. Don’t get discouraged if nothing happens…it usually won’t…But one day, it will.
Do you think Social Media has influenced and changed the photography business? Is it easier now to get discovered or was it easier a couple of years ago?
I think “getting discovered” is easier now than in the old days. There are so many more opportunities to show the world your photos. The internet is amazing in that way. It is the great level playing field. The down side is that its available for everyone else too, so the competition is much fiercer. People are over saturated with images, so its important that you figure out what your trying to say, then say it well and often.
Can you tell us a bit about your „McDonalds Happy Meal Project“ which went viral in 2010, receiving over 1.5 million hits to date! Have you ever expected this hype? And since then did you ever had a Happy Meal again?
I have been a vegetarian since I was 15, so I was not eating any Happy Meals. Long story short – In 2010 I bought a Happy Meal and set it out on a plate in my apt to see if it would mold or rot. I photographed it every day for 6 months. No rot, no mold no nothing. It was featured on Refinery29 website and from there went viral. It's still in my apt and still looks pretty much the same as it did 5 years ago when I bought it. It will be 6 years old on April 10 2016. On the day it went viral, it was the most viewed story on the internet. It makes me laugh to think I may die and my legacy will be that burger.
Are you currently working on a new project? Or is there a dream project which you would like to realize?
I’m not really a project person. My photography is my daily story, my walk to the grocery store, my dog walk around the block or my bike ride somewhere.
Your work is mostly from New York. Is there a place in the world where you would like to photograph?
I look forward to spending time somewhere else soon. Maybe LA. We’ll see if moonlight on a garbage bag is as heart breaking on the west coast, as it is on the Lower East Side.
Sally Davies is photographing NYC over 30 years. She achieved her first public recognition in New York in the 90s with her „Lucky Paintings“ and „Lucky Chairs“ exhibitions at New York’s OK Harris Gallery and Gracie Mansion Gallery in East Village. Her art has been featured on HBO’s „Sex in the City“ and are in the collections of Havard Business School, 9/11 Memorial Museum, Sarah Jessica Parker, Debra Winger and others.
In 2014, Sally's ”Lower East Side Photographs" were exhibited at the "Bernarducci Meisel Gallery" in New York City, with a 2nd solo exhibit “New York at Night” that followed on June 4, 2015. In 2014 Sally received a citation from the city of New York for her ongoing interest in photographing the Lower East Side. She lives and works on the Lower East Side and continues photographing New York City.