Everyone loves interviews, right? So I present the first of many here at words on photography with Cary Conover. I met Cary at a Kansas vs. Kansas State game back when we were both in college. We have kept in touch since mainly through this internet thing which developed about the time we both graduated.
Cary Conover is a freelance photographer based in New York
City. A native of Wichita, Kansas, he attended Kansas State University
from 1992-96. He worked as a staff photographer at the Monroe
(Michigan) Evening News until he came to New York in 2000. Cary is the
editor of VisualDiaries.com, a website devoted largely to his black
and white NYC archive. He and his wife Yvonne live in the Lower East
Side. VisualDiaries.com is one of the longest-running, continually updated photo sites on the web, with virtually no redesign whatsoever.It’s been around as long as there’s been a 21st Century. Cary also created bankthenine.
Cary Conover and the Brooklyn Bridge by Yvonne Sobczak-Conover
What drew you to photography initially?
I was an avid freestyle bicyclist when I was enrolling for my freshman
year in high school, this would have been fall of 1988. One of the guys
I was on a freestyle team with had enrolled in a photography class and
he encouraged me to do the same so that we could take pictures of
ourselves doing tricks on our bikes. I wasn’t so interested in taking
pictures of freestyle bicycling as much as I was worried about
whether any of the “cool” kids would be enrolled in photography class.
Who/What is the biggest influence you have had?
Photographically, the first person to ever make an impact on me was
Ansel Adams. I couldn’t figure out how his pictures looked so sharp.
There was a McDonald’s in Wichita that had several framed Ansel Adams
posters and I used to like going there to look at them. So I had that
as an early influence. I remember going into my high school’s library
and Ansel Adams’ books were pretty much all they had on the topic of
Considering I was a yearbook photographer in high school, it wasn’t
long before I discovered the yearbook of Kansas State University, the
Royal Purple. As a highschooler just beginning to understand the limits
of proper exposure, I was blown away by how the KSU photographers
seemed to be able to shoot in any kind of light. There was a certain
‘grit’ that their pictures had, no doubt it was Tri-X pushed to its
limits (this was before T-Max 3200). The Royal Purple was the reason why I
went to K-State (even though they didn’t have a photojournalism
Once I was in college I definitely got a bigger sense of
photojournalism, and there were many POY books laying around. That
introduced me to big-time photojournalists like Eugene Richards, James
Nachtwey, Donna Ferrato, the Turnleys, etc. This was the early 1990s,
the Berlin Wall had just come down, the Gulf War, etc. Somewhere around
1994 I came across “In Our Time” by the Magnum photographers and that
was definitely a landmark for me. That led me to a whole bunch of
photographers way outside the whole NPPA/POY circuit. Just these people
with these really interesting-sounding names who had these pictures
that were totally unforgettable. Photographers like Josef Koudelka,
Leonard Freed, Richard Kalvar, Guy Le Querrec, Jean Gaumy, etc.
What made you want to create visuadiaries.com?
It’s a long story. I do remember exactly where I was when the name
“visual diaries” came to my head. It was late on Christmas Eve of 1999
and I was taking a drive through Newport, Michigan, which has a giant
nuclear power plant. There was a full moon. I went home and checked it
out to see if the name was reserved. It wasn’t, thus the rest is
history. That was only the end of the beginning. To tell the whole
story, I have to go back to 1995 when I was interning at a small black
and white newspaper in Maine (Biddeford Journal Tribune). After my
shift, after all my prints had been submitted and captioned, I would
stay late and make little full-frame prints of my “outtakes” from that
day. This was mostly “street photography” I had done, with more of a
rural feel. The newspaper had a Leica Focomat enlarger, so printing was
just like I was used to at K-State, and very much something I enjoyed.
So by the end of that summer something unexpected had happened. My
favorite pictures were ones that hadn’t been published as part of my
daily assignments. My favorite pictures were not fitting into the
categories of “news, sports, portraits” but rather “quirky outtake of a
little girl taken surreptitiously with my camera not up to my eye
and with a uneven horizon”. My favorite pics were all from my box of
full-frame prints made after hours. In fact, I had done a whole photo
essay on a carnival guesser that was all done on my own time, not for
So that was a “work ethic” that has stayed with me ever since: in
essence, the separation of professional work from personal work. It’s
not a new idea, or anything original. But it was a way to stay excited
about photojournalism. By keeping a sort of ongoing diary of imagery,
it was at least a way to keep the job from becoming like me “flipping
burgers,” so to speak, for the editors. I would do my job, but I’d also
make sure there was something in it for me. It was a good way to avoid
becoming burned out.
This stayed with me as I went to my first job in Michigan, after
college. Again, same thing, only it was me staying at work after my
shift had ended, making scans of my outtakes. So that’s where
visualdiaries.com sort of took over. It was much more of a side project
then, I wouldn’t update it very often. Now, nearly eight years later,
it is much more central to my photographic “identity.” Now I am taking
pictures specifically to be showcased on visualdiaries. Rarely are the
pictures on visualdiaries outtakes from my assignments.
How long has it been up? Did you think it would last this long?
Again, almost 8 years. I am not surprised it’s gone on this long. I do
need to devote more time to creating more of a “portfolio presence” on
the web in the form of caryconover.com. But visualdiaries is still very
much the same html coding that I learned in college, very 1995-era
How has it changed over the years? What motivated it?
The design has changed very little. Now I am ‘sophisticated’ enough to
code the html such that if you click on the right side, you advance. If
you click on the left you go back. So I have figured out how to image
map the files. If you go to the archive and look up an essay from 2000
or 2001 you’ll see pretty much how limited I was back then. I was on
dial-up for a long time, until probably early 2002. So the file sizes
are much, much smaller back then because it would take forever to load
on a 56.6kb modem. So that’s been pretty interesting to see the file
sizes get bigger over the years.
I’m constantly trying to be more and more disciplined about about the
diptychs/triptychs. It used to be I’d just throw any three vertical
images together and put it online. Now I’ll spend weeks before I launch
a new set of pictures, focusing on the pairings, then putting it away
for a few days, then coming back, maybe making some changes. I went
back and forth a million times trying to configure the ordering of this
But the important thing to know about my website is that any time
you’re looking at a set of images, it’s images from the recent past.
For example, I don’t ever take a picture from 2000 and then put it next
to a picture from 2007. This helps create a mood…for instance the
period leading up to the 2004 presidential election was filled with
lots of rallies, protests, marches, etc. So there’s a lot of angry
people, lots of tension and action in the images. But the pictures from
another period, say the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years right after the
2004 election…everybody’s getting drunk! So I did a selection called
“The Social Life” that sort of reflects that. Same with the past couple
years, I’ve been playing a lot of pool so I posted a bunch of pool
pics. Everything is cyclical.
You started visualdiaries.com at a time when others were creating
outlets for photographers, do you still see that happening today?
Nowadays pretty much every photographer has some sort of web presence.
Every newspaper has a website. Blogs are obviously huge right now. So
it’s getting easier and easier to get your message out there. When I
was in college it was a lot of word of mouth. The internet has really
changed photography, but when I started visualdiaries I did it only
because I wanted to have a place for my personal work.
How do you define a photograph? A successful photograph?
A successful photograph is almost always a picture of something I’ve
never seen before. It used to be hard-hitting photojournalism that blew
me away. Now what makes a big impact on me is scientific photography. I
talk a lot to high school kids and I’ve got a slide show put together
in which I go from Harold Edgerton’s pictures of bullets through
balloons and 1/100,000,000th of a second atomic explosions to Michael
Wesley’s year-long exposures. I also like the imagery that’s been
created by NASA, in particular the Cassini mission to Saturn.
Lastly, what kind of bag do you carry your equipment in?
Domke for my digital when I’m on assignment, or a customized Timbuk2 bag for when I’m just out and about.