LeRoy Grafe, Photographer & Filmmaker
Photographer & Filmmaker
For purposes of brevity, Portland, Oregon
How did you get started working in photography and cinematography, and do you practice any other types of art?
I originally started out working in mixed media, and did a lot of historic replicas, the largest piece being a full size sarcophagus based off an example in the British Museum. I also had a multitude of other art related practices, I thought I wanted to be a prop-master for film and TV. When I was 18, a friend who was a prolific collector of 18th century folk art, told a museum that I was a professional photographer, and asked they hire me to take photos of his collection. At the time, I had never used anything but disposable cameras, but I ended up shooting the images, and they were published as part of a traveling exhibit and corresponding book. After that, I ended up shooting art for quite a few galleries and museums, and I have had a camera in hand ever since.
What was your professional journey before working in this field?
I worked as a gallery director in Montana for a year after high school, I thought it was going to be my dream job. I had the opportunity to manage the gallery and design the space from construction, all the way through a few shows. I realized about four months in that I really didn't enjoy it. I disagreed with a lot of the ethics I saw in the business and so I took a leap, left the position, and enrolled in film school at IAIA here in Santa Fe.
What do your days typically look like?
My days never turn out the way I expect them to. Lately, I have been working on a few branded content pieces which I have either shot or edited. My least favorite days are spent editing, my favorite ones are spent filming or shooting stills. Either way, I usually don't stop working until late in the evening.
What's your favorite project you've ever worked on?
It is really impossible to pick one. The reason I got into filmmaking was the fact you get to live a completely different reality on every shoot/project. The most interesting and challenging one took place down in Grants, NM, where we chronicled a few small town race car drivers during a summer race season. During the process we ended up going on a SWAT raid, got way too close to a bunch of race-cars flying by on the track, filmed fistfights, brawls, bonfires, small town governmental disputes, etc. It was a special experience and simultaneously my favorite, and at times my least favorite.
What are some dream projects/clients you'd like to have?
I think it would be really fun to work with Nike. They usually seem really open to creative and non-restrictive ideas so I feel like it would be fun to accomplish something really stylish and different for them.
How many cameras do you own, and which is your favorite to shoot on?
I don't know how many I own at this point. My girlfriend and I recently moved, and once we put them all together, we realized we probably have 15-20, most of which are old film cameras which I unfortunately don't get to use much. I primarily shoot on a digital Sony for personal work, and I usually shoot on RED system cameras on the jobs which I get hired for, since most production companies have in-house camera packages.
What's your favorite thing about your work?
I love the fact that I get to live 3-4 different realities each month. I moved around a lot as a kid and I think this rootlessness carried over to my career choice. I love going from commercial jobs where you get to go to upscale golf courses, etc., to Rodeos, turquoise mines, all the way down to filming SWAT raids on a meth den. It keeps life interesting and I feel like I get to have a better idea of who we actually are as humans.
What's the biggest challenge you face in your work?
The biggest challenge I face, especially as a freelancer, is giving every project as much time as I want to. I am a perfectionist, and it is impossible to be a perfectionist in this field, because you are always having to search for the next gig and work on the next project. I always want to polish and tweak every project to be the best representation of where I am at artistically, but realistically, I only get to do that 20-30% of the time, because I have to listen to what the client wants and meet really short deadlines.
Who do you go to for professional advice, and what's the best advice they've given you?
I have had an unbelievable amount of mentors in every area of my life, especially in film, and I feel really lucky and grateful for that. My girlfriend Scarlett has absolutely no connection to the film world and so I run stuff by her a lot because I know I am going to get an honest and empathetic response to the core of the work. Something she always tells me is that if you watch something and don't feel anything, then it probably isn't very good.
What advice can you give to budding creatives and entrepreneurs in Santa Fe?
Santa Fe always surprises me. It's such a small town, and at the same time, it has a big presence nationally and throughout the world. I would give them the same advice that I should be following, which is just go out and meet people and go experience the incredible creativity that is here.
When and why did you decide to move to Santa Fe?
I moved here five years ago after working in the gallery field. I picked Santa Fe by accident — I was here for a film festival (I had worked as a production assistant on a small PBS documentary) and I saw a flyer for IAIA. I was impressed by the emphasis they placed on story in their film department, so I decided to enroll in classes.
What makes Santa Fe special to you? What are your favorite things about this place?
Blue doors. I'm kidding. I love the history of the place and the fact that there are a lot of ethnicities represented here. I went to Orlando for a conference last year and after a couple days I panicked because everywhere I had been was built after 1980. I like places where there is a real history.
If you could change one thing about Santa Fe, what would it be?
Affordable housing. I think in order to support more vibrant and youthful creatives, the city needs to work on a plan for an influx of younger non-millionares. The housing market is really rough here, especially for those of us in the freelance world just starting out.
What are you passionate about outside of photography?
I have been lucky and unlucky in that most of my hobbies have become my business. It's great, but if you get burnt out, it is a little sad because it's also what you love the most. I really enjoy trail running and I am hoping to learn fly fishing this summer.
At the end of the day, why do you do what you do?
I think I am a filmmaker because it allows me to have the biggest world I can possibly have. My dad is a museum curator, my mom is an artist and grew up in Ethiopia, and I always respected their perspectives because they had a huge world and got to experience a lot of differing realities. I think subconsciously I am mimicking that spirit in them, in a field I enjoy.