He kicked around Ireland and the continent for a while, playing guitar on city streets. He moved to Australia to study aboriginal culture and lived in Seattle during the rise of grunge music and Starbucks.
Then a few years ago, well into his 30s, Chris Bickford relocated to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and picked up one of his dad’s old cameras.
“Oh yeah,” he said to himself. “This is it. This is the thing.”
A creative explorer all his life, Bickford (Col ’89) found in photography his greatest passion and a new career. It’s gotten him into publications such as National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times and American Journal Magazine. “After the Storm,” his project on Outer Banks surfing, was showcased at June’s Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville.
From the Outer Banks to New York City nightlife and the Carnival celebrations of Venice and New Orleans, Bickford’s work takes inspiration in many ways from Impressionist painters. He often enhances photos digitally after shooting, using the computer’s “giant box of crayons” to saturate colors and focus on the visceral emotions and mood of his subjects.
Bickford’s piece “In the Night” presents a night out on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in all bright blues and dark spaces. The scenes don’t look precisely like that, but they feel like it. The photos are visual poetry rather than prose, he says.
Bickford, 42, was the kid who was drawing all the time in classes during his childhood in Norfolk. He loved painting and considered majoring in art at UVA before spinning off into a postgraduate career of music and scholarship. Circling back to the visual arts, he found in photography a captivating immediacy for both the photographer and the audience.
The real trick, though, is making a living from his artistry. Like any creative professional, Bickford has fewer outlets for his work these days, particularly the print publications that once were a photographer’s financial lifeblood.
But in a world of digital snapshots, weddings are one time when consumers will gladly pay a professional photographer to create tangible memories of the most important day of their lives. Bickford estimates weddings take 40 percent of his time and provide 80 percent of his photography income.
“A lot more people have cameras, a lot more people shoot, but it still takes a certain amount of artistry and skill to cover a wedding,” he says. “People see that. They know that this is one time that they are going to find somebody who has a style that they think is going to best capture what they’re trying to do.”
Bickford says his education as an Echols scholar set the stage for a lifetime of exploration, as he followed his interests from anthropology to theater to art to poetry.
“For a person like me,” he says, “the way to live life is just to keep exploring and keep seeing what it’s all about.”