reveals the world others don’t see
From big-haired and poofy dress-wearing beauty pageant queens to abandoned houses once frequented by a criminal element, Colby Katz has captured a world not often seen by the mainstream. Through her tinted lens, some of the most darkly lit landscapes shine bright. In fact, the odder the subject, the more she craves it for her collection.
It is this slightly skewed view of the world that has captured the attention of the journalistic community. She is not only on the staff of the newspaper New Times, but also has had her work appear in GQ, Spin, Time, Newsweek, Discover, Marie Claire UK, London Telegraph and The New York Times Magazine, among others.
The world, it seems, comes to her. “They find me,” she said. “I am lucky. I don’t promote myself. I am shy.” Shy, indeed – this fearless photographer isn’t so fearless when not behind the camera. Sitting in her A-frame living room, she appears tiny on her long, L-shaped brown couch, a bit tense, her porcelain face hidden beneath plastic-framed glasses.
Much like Diana Prince, the alter ego of the comic book superhero Wonder Woman, this shy gal transforms into a bit of a wonder woman with a camera hanging around her neck. “I do things like lean too far over tiger cages; anything to get the shot. I forget to drink and eat. When I was pregnant, a lot of people got mad at me for that,” she said.
The more precarious the method of obtaining the photograph, the better for Katz, who would never take the easy way out and always takes the road less traveled. One of her favorite photographers is Naomi Harris. “She did a book about swingers called America Swings. She had to put herself in some precarious situations. I appreciate when photos don’t come easy,” she commented.
Katz has known her share of trouble. A handful of times when taking photos of houses where murder and corporate corruption took place, she has had her car followed. Another person did not like the story associated with her photos, posted her name and address on the web and encouraged people to seek her out and beat her up. After that, she took on a pen name.
She has met some interesting characters in her travels. Katz has been obsessed with beauty pageants, ever since she was in them as a young girl herself. “It is a world most cannot get into; I can,” she boasted. She intends on creating a book on pageants but ran into some trouble with a few photos she took; some parents called the police and threatened to press charges, saying she was taking pornographic photos. “But they posed and dressed the children. I didn’t. They loved the photos and even asked for copies,” she said. She ended up obtaining a lawyer over the incident.
Her best assignment was for Spin Magazine - sitting down in an abandoned Orlando warehouse with the owner of a company that made animatronic characters that “played” music for Pizza Time Restaurant. After the company went downhill, she said, “It was like the land that time forgot … everything was still there – the gorillas still in the crates, the office supplies, all the nuts and bolts and the equipment. He even had his own stage for this Rock-afire Explosion band. He liked the Beatles and so did I, so he had the animal band play The White Album for me, and we ordered a pizza at 4 in the morning. This was a guy who went from the highest of heights to nothing when his business just stopped one day. He still gets the occasional orders – someone needs a band for a music video, a theme park in Saudi Arabia needs a gorilla … but not like it used to be,” she explained.
Katz really cares about the people she photographs. With a timid smile, it seems she wishes to make the world a better place by showing beauty in things others may find not so beautiful. “I saw the most overweight 5-year-old I had ever seen in the store and thought ‘she’s amazing.’ I’d love to take her picture.”
She finds offbeat stories to tell, such as a woman who makes dolls to memorialize babies who have died. “It’s like a modern version of the popular post mortem photography that came about during the Victorian era, a time when the infant mortality rate was very high,” she said. “This woman puts on layers of paint [on the dolls] and puts the hair in strand by strand using hair plugs.”
Perhaps her lure to the un-ordinary comes from her upbringing. She admits she grew up with a strange cast of characters. “I have an odd family. My grandma was a midget. There are strippers, a brothel owner … our upbringing makes us who we are.”
Except for her few shelves of eclectic knick knacks – small figurines from Tate’s Comics – her home life seems pretty ordinary. When not racing between photo assignments, she shares the responsibility of taking care of her very active 17-month-old with her husband (who works in a skateboard shop) and caring for her four rambunctious pooches.
But her work comes first. “It is pretty hectic. I am on call, have a crazy schedule. I feel like I am always working.” But Katz wouldn’t have it any other way. “I don’t go to bars. I don’t go to clubs. I am a bit of a recluse … I picked up photography as a kid and it is the only thing I really enjoy.”
She repeats that she has a simple, modest life but she feels that her work is sought out because of her personality and work ethic. “Others may live larger, but at least I can sleep at night. I hate to see bad people succeed,” she commented. “I am nice. Editors want to work with someone who is easy, meets deadlines.”
She is amazed that her work is in numerous collections and her journalistic photos are in demand. “It is hanging in galleries and museums around world. It’s nuts to me. I would be doing this anyhow, even if I didn’t make money.”
Although it might seem otherwise, she swears she doesn’t have a message or propaganda behind her pictures. “I let people interpret the work. I am more about getting into worlds most people don’t get to see. I am not fearless. I just have a goal and make it happen - to get the shot.”
When 34-year-old Katz was told she had won the South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship for Visual and Media Artists the first time, in 2004, she thought it was a prank call. When she received the award again in 2009, she was also surprised because she thought she had not completed the paperwork correctly. Katz plans on using her grant money to help her take a new step - documentary filmmaking. She has already bought a Panasonic camera and boom mike and taken a “Final Cut” class.
She is excited about adding sound and movement to her images. “I was taking pictures of a woman who had a pet squirrel she dressed up,” Katz said, “and thought how much better it would be to hear her talk about it, hear the sounds of the squirrel…” ?)