From the second-story patio of Phoenix College's art building in downtown Phoenix, photographer Bob Carey can point to the hospital where he was born, the neighborhood where he grew up, and the three or four houses he lived in after high school and university.
The Phoenix native moved to New York in the early 2000s, but he remembers his first big show at RoxSand, a restaurant at the Biltmore, long before he started taking calls from The Today Show, Carson Daily, and Yahoo! News (to name a few) about his latest series, The Tutu Project.
Since his project was featured on national news last Thursday, he says his Facebook page has exploded, emails have poured into his inbox, and his phone (literally) won't stop ringing.
On Thursday, Carey gave a lecture to an art class at Phoenix College. He had an hour or so to talk before shooting off to dinner with a friend at AZ88, and then back to a friend's house to pack his suitcase (again) and catch an early morning flight.
To be honest, he says, it's all totally overwhelming.
Carey made a name for himself in commercial photography and with his emotive, isolated self-portraiture. Photography was a passion he discovered during a dark time, he says, and continued to use as a means of therapy and self expression. His outlet became increasingly important when his wife Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003.
The series is fresh to his newfound national audience, but his stiff, pink-tulle tutu has a long, local history.
In 2002, theBallet Arizonaasked a group of artists to make a photograph that expressed what ballet meant to them. It was a funny experience, he says, because he'd never been to the ballet.
The photograph was simple and striking. Carey was hunched, half naked, completely shaven, and covered in silver mica paint. He wore only the signature ballerina's accessory. The image was used in pamphlets, on mugs, posters, and fundraising campaigns.
His "Ballerina" series (which New Times covered in 2010) grew out of that photograph and out of his experience with self portraiture. Armed with a van full of lighting equipment, a few cameras, a clunky shutter remote control (and sometimes his assistant Jackie Mercandetti or his wife), he ventured to the places he knew best. He stood amongst enormous corn stalks in a field in Queen Creek, and laid motionless in an empty parking lot on ASU's Tempe Campus.
The series expanded and included portraits from coast to coast, on vessels, in trees, on neighborhood basketball courts, and in the middle of endless rolling hills.
Carey's canvas and world is enormous and beautifully intimidating. And he is almost always alone.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Carey sits at a metal table on the Phoenix College patio and frantically searches for a way to charge his phone. His laptop battery dies a few minutes after he opens it to respond to an email.
From the bag full of cameras, wires, and headphones, he pulls out a backup phone charger. As he plugs it in, he's still pointing to the distant McDowell Mountains. He talks about how he and his friends used to park at the base and hang out when it was still cool enough outside.
Carey traces his photography skills back to the day his father bought him a camera after he'd been in a skateboarding accident as a teenager. He played football for Scottsdale High and took up skateboarding when the potential of a football career was no longer interesting and too much pressure.
After he was released from the hospital, he says his dad remembered that he always liked photography and decided it was time for a new path.
Carey attended Scottsdale Community College before switching to Arizona State University. "I could have been a pilot," he says, "I'm from a family of pilots." Instead, he signed up for photography classes.
It was at ASU that he studied under local photographer James Hajicek (now one of his close friends), and met his soon-to-be wife through his neighbors on the busy college street, Ash Avenue.
"I met Linda at a party," he says, "I saw her sitting at the end of the bar and knew it was all over."
At the time, Linda was a nurse. Carey convinced her to help out with his commercial photography studio, and when chef Roxsand Scocos noticed his work and asked him to fill her Biltmore restaurant with his work, he started printing.
Carey photographed Scocos and created a collection of his own portraits, which he printed large-format and set in custom-welded aluminum frames. "RoxSand's was where local artists really got noticed," he says. "And it is absolutely where I began."
His work stayed in the restaurant for 7 years until it abruptly closed in 2003. During its stay, Carey had solo shows in Tempe's ASU Art Museum, Downtown's Bokeh Gallery, and Gilbert's Art Intersection.
He admits his body of portraits has been dark, but notes that the work (including pre-tutu) carried him through his wife's and sister's diagnoses, and the deaths of his two dogs. And when he and his wife moved to New York to make a go for his career in the big city, he decided to take his tutu with him.
Carey's on his second tutu (the first was worn out and replaced by one he made with his sister). And while the themes of pain and vulnerability that are felt in his self portraits and his One Image Every Day project are absolutely still felt in his latest series, he emphasizes the humor in the series. It's the same humor that carries him and his wife through her second round of treatments.
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The series wasn't always about breast cancer, he says. But when he threw himself into his work while his wife was going through treatments, there was an obvious connection. He was approached with an opportunity to raise money for research. It was then that everything fell into place.
This fall, Carey will self-publish Ballerina, a book that includes the collection of his Tutu Project, as well as a forward by Amy Arbus, and backstory by New Times contributor Kathleen Vanesian. The net proceeds from the book's sale will go directly toward breast cancer organizations Cancercare.org and the Beth Israel Department of Integrative Medicine Fund. His goal is to raise $75,000.
To sponsor the project or pre-order a copy of Ballerina, visit the Tutu Project website. And to see more of Carey's work, visit his online portfolio. Carey is scheduled to return to Phoenix in September for an exhibition at Mesa Arts Center.