Laughter. Motion. Warmth. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss beaming cheekily over her own naked shoulder for New York magazine, a model taking a leap with hair flying in an ad for Gap, model Leona “Binx” Walton literally climbing the walls in i-D—these are the hallmarks of photographer Cass Bird’s work, the evidence of her effervescent and unrestrained spirit. At a time when fashion and celebrity photography can often skew toward an unsmiling, overpolished aestheticism, and mainstream ads brim with manufactured cheer, Bird’s images impart true humanity and joy.
Meeting Cass Bird, one immediately sees these qualities in her. Bright-eyed and small-framed, sporting a neck tattoo that spells out “Mama” in scrolling curlicues, the 40-year-old photographer has a palpable energy that fills the room. She will calmly share a deeply considered insight one moment, and in the next she’ll burst into the bubbling laughter of an exuberant teenager. As she shows me around her light-filled Brooklyn bungalow, which she shares with her wife, Ali, director of creative talent agency The Wall Group, and their two young children, Bird’s unbounded love for the people in her life—and for humanity in general—is apparent. Family photos, including images she has taken of her own kids, cover a stairway wall. In the living room, a black-and-white photograph by Joseph Szabo shows a teenage couple absorbed in an all-consuming kiss; another captures impassioned protestors carrying a sign that reads “Gay Is Good.” Over the mantel is one of Bird’s own pieces, an ecstatic, large-scale photo of longtime friend Daria Werbowy. The model is on a beach, throwing sparkling sand into the air. “She was making it snow with sand,” recalls Bird. “All my cameras got trashed, but I said, ‘Keep going, keep going!’”
Moments like that, when Bird empowers her subject, drive her practice. As Patrick Stretch, Bird’s representative at the agency Art + Commerce, puts it, “Cass has an instinctive, uncanny ability to disarm even the most emotionally guarded people. Because she is so open about her process, so willing to admit when she is nervous or unsure, she is able to invite people in, and she is able to create an environment that feels real and free and a place you want to be—and her pictures are reflections of all of that.” Whether her subject is a movie star or one of her own children, Bird clearly always considers her relationship to them and how their respective feelings enter into the process of creating an image. As she says, “I’m always battling my own fear when I’m taking someone’s picture. I want to push to get something that feels fresh, but I don’t want to injure.”
That instinctive empathy might well spring from painful experiences in Bird’s past. She grew up in Calabasas, California; though her father worked in the music business, she describes her surroundings at the time as “a pretty homogeneous, prejudiced environment.” Bird says that in school, she was always in trouble. “I couldn’t sit still, and I was really disruptive. I would get kicked out of class on the first day and sent to the principal’s office because I just couldn’t contain myself.” A kindly guidance counselor provided a lifeline, helping her graduate from high school (despite not having earned enough credits) and making it possible for her to go on to junior college. At eighteen, Bird came out. “Coming out and getting into relationships was so nurturing and transformative,” she recalls. One of her first girlfriends offered crucial support when Bird was in her early 20s, helping her transfer to Smith College, where she finally found herself really thriving.
At Smith, she also experienced a life-changing moment during a talk given by photographer Mary Ellen Mark. “I always thought I had to be a different person to be good at anything,” explains Bird. “I was like, ‘I have to be more mature; I have to be more controlled.’” But in Mark, she saw someone who had flaws and yet was a successful artist. “She was a little bit scattered, and she felt young, even though she was a grown-up. What I gathered from that moment was, ‘I don’t have to change. I do not have to be a different person to do what I want to do.’”
While still in junior college, Bird had begun making forays into the arts, taking courses in glassblowing and photography. “I was so unaware of what I would be able to succeed at,” she says. “But I have always had a lot of confidence in my physicality, and glassblowing is really tactile and physical,” continuing, “I didn’t show any natural gifts for photography at the time, but I did like the mechanics of it. It’s physical in a way, too.” It also became clear that she had a flair for establishing a good rapport with her subjects. Her first success was a collection of publicity shots she created for an actor friend. “The thing that came naturally to me was the relationship,” she recalls. “I grew up in close proximity to actors, and people who are interesting subjects, and so I guess there was a familiarity or a comfort.”
The shots of her actor friend went on to be published. “So I had this early false notion that it was easy,” she says with a laugh. “Like, ‘I take pictures, they get published!’ which didn’t happen. It took me at least ten years to begin to really feel like I was finding opportunities.” Still, those opportunities did manifest themselves. Her first commercial assignments included jobs for Nike, Urban Outfitters and Converse by John Varvatos; in 2005, her photographs appeared in a collaborative solo show, JD’s Lesbian Utopia—a project initiated by musician JD Samson—at the prominent New York gallery Deitch Projects. Two years later, after seeing Bird’s images in an Art + Commerce emerging artists show, Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, included her pieces in the exhibition Global Feminisms, and her work was subsequently acquired for the museum’s permanent collection. As Bird attracted more editorial and commercial clients, from The New Yorker to Vogue to Max Mara, she found she wanted to reconnect with her own artistic agenda. Between 2009 and 2010, she brought a group of twentysomethings—“studio assistants and pals and girls cast from the streets of New York”—to the wilds of Tennessee for a series of shoots, and the resulting images of androgynous bodies at play amid lush greenery were gathered in a monograph, Rewilding (Damiani, 2012). “Rewilding came from this time when I was working commercially in a real sense, and I wanted to be reintroduced to who I was when I started,” Bird explains. “It was an experience of my own evolution. I didn’t have a client, and I wasn’t collaborating with another artist. I chose people to be my subjects, and I was collaborating with their bodies, with their personalities.”
The images in Rewilding, along with work from her earliest years, convey a mixture of toughness and tenderness, both through the subjects’ own interpretations of gender and through Bird’s playful, yet thoughtful lens: “My earlier work was all about this female masculinity,” she says. “I was attracted to these women that postured or embodied masculine traits and that had a real handsome-ness or a real physical strength or an androgyny.” Later, her own pregnancy “opened up the conversation for me in a whole new way,” she says. Pre-pregnancy, anything that felt strong I attributed to masculine energy or identity. And then I got pregnant and felt stronger than I had ever felt, and I felt more feminine than I had ever felt.”
Bird’s photography still consistently confronts the prescription of femininity and does so with wit and a sense of fun, whether she’s showing a model laughingly pulling a trucker’s cap over her bangs or Cate Blanchett striking a knowing “aren’t I pretty” attitude as she frames her chin with her fingers.
Indeed, that humor and intelligence are what give her work strength. As Bird puts it, “My job is not to just take a pretty picture. I want it to be beautiful, but I think my priority is that it feels engaged and feels like an experience.” Lee Schwartz, Bird’s brother-in-law, is an art director and has been working for some years with Bird on campaigns for the fashion brand Maiyet. “She captures an easy kind of luxury in her images, which is a tremendous and attractive counterpoint to a lot of what the industry considers a ‘fashion’ image,” he says. “Brands don’t just like Cass’s images—they fall in love with them.” Stretch concurs, emphasizing the role humor plays in Bird’s winning approach: “She takes her work seriously, but [doesn’t take] herself seriously, which is unbelievably refreshing and very rare.”
Illustrating his point, Stretch shares a story from a recent shoot he did with Bird in Kenya. “Cass decided to ride to the shoot location on the back of a white stallion. Our crew was prepping a shot on the top of a grassy mountain at sunset, and all of a sudden Cass, backlit by the African sun, crested over the peak like a cowboy and shouted, ‘I love photo shoots!’” Bird brings that same humor and playfulness to shoots in her Manhattan studio. The welcoming, open space, with its giant skylight and roof deck, is often filled with music. The photographer loves to play DJ—glance at her Instagram feed and you’ll see a video of her dancing on set with model Grace Mahary. Friend and model manager Jen Ramey says, “Her attitude and enthusiasm [are] infectious. It is about being human, not just fashion or taking someone’s photo.” No wonder so many people in Bird’s photographs look like they’re having the time of their lives.
Bird herself certainly seems to be having a ball most of the time, and though she still suffers from self-doubt, she is able to step back and appreciate her enviable position—after all, she is a photographer who just in the past few years has counted major fashion brands, the New York Times, Pharrell Williams and Katy Perry among her clients. “Sometimes I can really comprehend the value of it all,” she says. “Not only that it’s an amazing experience to be able to shoot who I’ve gotten to shoot, but also to cultivate this body of work.” Perhaps even more than that, she is grateful to be doing something that fits her personality so well. “I’m a leaper,” she says, “I have to take physical and emotional risks, enlist people and say, ‘Let’s do this,’ ‘let’s try it,’ ‘let’s go there.’ Luckily, I have been able to find a profession that works with that.” ca