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Through the Eyes of Photographer, Pamela Duffy

by Karen Reider 

Sedona is fortunate to have an eclectic mix of unique and talented artists in residence. Some pass through and some stay. Staying seems to involve some kind of initiation. Perhaps it is the way of this untamed land, to accept you or put you out.

Ultimately, it’s the journey, and what you do with it, that counts.

When I first viewed the photography of Pamela Duffy, I saw the grace, mystery and adventure of spirit in her work. When she accepted my request for an interview, I felt blessed.

The woman who welcomed me into her home was no one I knew, yet some thread bound us. New Yorkers have a way of finding each other in this small town. We must gravitate at some level of familiarity. I had found her by accident, or perhaps by grace.

Duffy’s photos encompass life and living in a rare and beautiful way. Her subject matter is mostly women, children and animals, captured in their intimate surroundings. In the passion and power of their everyday lives, Duffy catches her subjects’ movement toward wholeness with sensitivity and wit.

She began her adult life as an art major at UC Davis in California. Convinced that painting and drawing were her future, Duffy studied fine arts and obtained her degree. As is often the way, her journey took a detour.

For many years, Duffy was enamored with Spain. When the opportunity came to be an exchange student in Madrid, she eagerly took it.

Her dad gave her an old 35mm camera to take along and she was delighted. Duffy had tried to take photography classes in previous years, but they were always booked solid. Never having used a 35mm before left her bewildered by F-stops and light meters. A determined young woman, she was not hindered.

The inside of a classroom had no appeal for Duffy. If she was to become fluent in the language - experience Spain to its fullest - she would have to mingle with the people, immerse herself in their culture.

Using her camera to capture this culture proved somewhat disastrous. None of the pictures came out. But it kept her visual world going and rooted her future with a growing seed.

Often the places we visit have great importance to us. Being there may remind us of our strength and our value. Duffy was stepping on to a new path of self-discovery, moving in one direction and finding another.

Upon her return to school a year later, she took a photography class at UC Davis. Duffy remembers being in the dark room and making up her mind to become a photographer.

When she graduated at 22, she took another bold step and moved to New York. Landing a job as an assistant to a fine arts photographer and filmmaker, Duffy began her career.

For two years she apprenticed, worked and even assisted teaching at her employer’s studio. During this time, she met many journalists who liked her work and hired her for assignments. She naturally moved into photojournalism and documentaries.

Taking a job with The Village Voice, New York’s avant garde weekly paper, Duffy met her next teacher.

The skilled and eccentric 30-year editor of The Voice, Fred McDarrah, took a liking to Duffy. Seeing something unique in her photographs, he took her on as an intern.

During the years she worked there, McDarrah gave her unique and challenging projects. He taught her to take the photos he wanted first and then let her decide what she would shoot. Creating a blend of professionalism and creative freedom, McDarrah was certain to get the photos he needed, and a few surprises along the way.

Duffy’s first assignment was to shoot photos of Mayor Ed Koch, who was running for re-election. The rally was that afternoon and she was to have the photos to McDarrah by the following morning.

Her training had begun, and things moved rather quickly from there.

McDarrah gave Duffy a lot of freedom. He found her images visually strong and trusted her to make good choices. She didn’t let him down.

Duffy’s face was radiant as she spoke of her first year at The Voice. “I learned so much,” she smiled. “Sitting in on editorial meetings was huge.

You really get it in there. When a photo editor is good, they can teach you how to tell a story with your photos. If someone just looked at the photos and didn’t read the story, they would still know what was going on.”

All of the photos at The Village Voice were black and white. Duffy enjoyed this. “Black and white has more story content. It takes out the background noise. Often the beauty of color distracts you from thinking about the content and form.” Duffy’s photos make you aware of the value of hidden things - things that may come wrapped in plain paper but exude grandeur.

During the six years Duffy worked at The Village Voice, she did a lot of private work doing portraits and documentaries.

Towards the end of her tenure with The Village Voice, personal circumstances brought her to Brazil. She had experienced a liberation and felt that she could now reach others in ways not previously possible. She was moving on.

Duffy found the class structure in Brazil shocking. A spirited, fun-loving, and intensely social people, the Brazilians’ world was powered by maids. “Not one or two, but whole divisions of them!”

Duffy stayed in people’s homes and found herself watching the maids in their daily routines. This was something they had never experienced before. Duffy was intrigued and so were the maids. Out of this intrigue came a new photo project she called “The Invisible Woman.”

Attending dinner parties and luncheons, Duffy found herself spending a lot of time in the kitchen with the maids. This was their territory, the private place where reconciling the vastness of life with the mundane tasks of cleaning took form.

They found it odd that Duffy wanted to be there with them, but were curious about her. They liked her and “let her in.”

If she found the maids and house interesting, she would ask permission to photograph them. Photography was her passport into their world. During this project she discovered that what is most real is often those very things that cannot be expressed at all, but only known. It became a way to understand the social class and it freed any judgments she arrived with.

The project consumed her. She interviewed and documented many homes and the women who maintained them. In some way, it changed her.

As Duffy reflected on the project, the interviews and time she spent with these amazing women, I sensed it was an important time for her. She marveled at the vitality of these women who prepare food and maintain the household with all its ritual complexities. She captured this in a way that would deeply affect any one who saw them.

Looking at these photos, I felt as though I was in the company of women across many thousands of miles. I knew myself to be a thread in a great tapestry woven by all women. I had a glimpse of something larger, not only of who I am but how all of our experiences are interwoven. Somehow, it had changed me.

The words that accompanied the photos were a potent description of something real, a statement about grace and the mystery of life itself. They spoke of the complexities that had characterized the life and relationships of women from another world.

The project was completed over a four-year period and was very well received. Duffy showed it in San Palo and Rio to wide acclaim. The notoriety got her work in New York, as well as a grant. This also opened Duffy to create other projects. Many, like “Nanny in New York” an assignment for DoubleTake Magazine, or A Day in the Life of a Pony Girl, an assignment for Life Magazine, focused on women, children and pets.

As Duffy now teaches her students, she discovered her “personal image bank.” She told me “you have to look at your photos, spread them out before you, and see what it is you photograph most. Is it about women, children, lighting...? That is how you find your own personal image bank.”

Flipping through Duffy’s photos made it easy to guess what her image bank contains. Women, children and animals dominate her portfolio. I could see every nuance of expression on the faces of the people she shoots, evoking in me thoughts of conversations filled with hope, fear, loss and love. Life flows through her photos in a slightly different way.

Living in Sedona has opened Duffy to another form of expression with her art. Presently, two major ideas are coming forth.

“The Feng Shui of Photography,” are images that relate to different Baguas (energies within your home). Photos that Duffy composes from her archives can actually enhance and harmonize your home and life. “Energy, nature and beauty make sense to people here,” said Duffy. “And all of these things contribute to our lives in positive ways.” Couple one of her Feng Shui photos with your future intentions, and you’re bound to notice something different in your life.

“Embracing life is actually a choice,” she said. “What you make of life is always your choice, but helping those choices move in a positive direction certainly helps.”

The other project she has embarked on is shooting photos of dogs who ride shotgun in the car. “This is a really fun adventure,” she said. She loves the unique bond she sees between people and their pets and wants to capture it on film.

When her project is complete, she would like to have a show and is presently looking for a gallery to host it.

“This is a very happy time in my life,” Duffy said. “I’m spreading my wings, and I want to use my photographic skill in fun, interesting ways.” When Duffy gets involved in a project, it is always in her head, and becomes an  important part of her life.

“Photography is a self exploration, a personal history where your dreams come through. Pictures are an expression of you.”

Duffy is teaching photography classes at the Sedona Arts Center, among the other personal projects she is involved with.

She is available for people portraits, pet portraits, documentaries and her beautiful Feng Shui photography.

To find out more or book a sitting, call her at 284-9383.

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