Filmmaker-turned- photographer Tara Wray lives in rural Vermont, where she’s known as a “flatlander” because of her relatively new status as a resident. While her Vermont photos are relatively light-hearted portrayals of daily life, her earliest work delved into her personal relationship with her family in small town Kansas.
Tara Wray’s work ranges from deeply personal documentary filmmaking to photos that display affectionate appreciation of life in rural Vermont. She began her first film, Manhattan, Kansas, in 2005, when she traveled to rural Kansas to reunite with her mother, with whom she’d had a close but difficult relationship in her childhood. Since making the film, Wray has moved to Barnard, Vermont (population 1,000), and shifted away from filmmaking toward photography, taking pictures of daily life in her adopted hometown. She just released a self-published collection of photographs called Come Again When You Can’t Stay So Long as a follow-up to her first film.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little about your background.
Tara Wray: I grew up in Kansas in a town called Manhattan. I lived there for the first 20 or so years of my life. Then I started moving around and didn’t really appreciate it until I left. I went abroad for a while, then I moved to Atlanta for a while, then New York City, and now I live in Barnard, Vermont.
DY: What was it like growing up in Manhattan, Kansas?
TW: It was, and still is a college town with lots of small towns around it that I liked to explore when I was younger. I made a movie in 2006 called Manhattan, Kansas, and part of it was visiting with my mom who lived in a town that didn’t even have a stop light. It was tiny. Part of the movie was spending time there and exploring the areas around that. One of my favorite things to do is get lost on back roads in Kansas where there’s absolutely nothing. I think it’s quite beautiful.
DY: You said earlier you didn’t really appreciate Manhattan until you left. What didn’t you appreciate that you now do?
TW: I think just the landscape. People don’t always believe me when I say it’s the most beautiful place on earth. They think I’m sort of crazy because they’ve maybe only been across the state on I-70, but if you get off the highway and tool around the smaller roads it looks like Italy. It’s just gorgeous. The prairies are amazing and I definitely miss that.
DY: When and how did you start taking photographs?
TW: I’ve been taking pictures since I was really little. Disposable cameras used to be one of my favorite things to play with from the time I was 9 or 10. I remember I really liked taking pictures of dogs, which is something I still find myself shooting to this day. I just sort of did it for fun, without a real sense of purpose. It’s only been in the last three or four years that I’ve gone out and shot photographs consciously.
DY: So you made documentaries before really delving into photography?
TW: Yes. I started working on Manhattan, Kansas in 2005, and released it in 2006. I made in 2006. It’s about seeing my mom, who has untreated mental illness that has made our relationship very difficult and very strained. At the time it was me trying to understand my mom and for whatever reason I thought making a film would help me get through that experience. And I think that it did. It’s a personal narrative story set in very, very rural Kansas. I’ve made two feature length documentary films since then. So that came first, but … losing interest in the documentary medium led me into wanting to take pictures.
DY: Tell us about the book you’ve just released.
TW: It’s about a visit I had with my grandma who is a big character in Manhattan, Kansas. I hadn’t been back to see her in many, many years and she’s 88 years old, and I felt like I needed to go visit and see her and record our visit for posterity and for the purpose of sharing it with people.
It’s called Come Again When You Can’t Stay So Long, which is something that my grandpa always used to say. I’m self-publishing the book and packaging it with the movie and selling it through my website.
DY: Tell us about your current home in Barnard, Vermont.
TW: My husband and I were living in New York and we moved here to work on a film called Cartoon College about a school for cartoonists near Barnard here in Vermont. We were planning on moving here to shoot the film and then move back to the city, but we both fell in love with the area and decided we wanted to stay.
The town we live in is around 1,000 people. They’re dispersed, and there’s no big city center. There’s a general store and a lake that serve as centers for the town. You would definitely say it’s a working and farming community. You get a real sense of the seasons based on what the farmers are doing.
DY: Do you consider yourself a rural photographer/filmmaker?
TW: I shoot wherever I’m at, but I’m more at home in a rural setting. So I would say yes. There’s a never-ending supply of stuff to look at here in rural Vermont.
There’s a difference between what I shoot now that I’m living in Vermont and the work I’ve done in Kansas. Here in Vermont I’m more drawn to objects and landscapes and animals, so I’m not really getting too deep into people’s lives up here. I feel like all those really personal stories are back in Kansas were my mom and grandma still live. I keep it kind of separate. Despite the fact that some of my work is very personal, I still like to have a private life.
In Vermont, I’m shooting as an outsider. You’re not considered a Vermonter unless your family has lived here for generations. We’ve only lived here for a few years, so we’re called flatlanders. It sounds unwelcoming, but it’s like a gentle ribbing. I kind of like that status as an outsider, actually. It keeps your eyes fresh when you don’t know the ins and outs of everything around you.