Photographer and director Cass Bird was on-set prepping for a big advertising campaign when she ran into a bit of a problem: the lighting technician she had hired for the shoot was nowhere to be found. While most established photographers would have a team of assistants work to rectify the situation, Bird decided to put up the strobes herself. When the lowly technician finally arrived—an hour late—Bird sent him home. Because she was mad. And well, because she had just done his job.
Recounting the story over the phone a few weeks later, Bird is unconcerned, if not unapologetic. “You’re so used to having assistants around that sometimes you’re scared you’ll forget all the technical things,” she says. “I was just happy that I remembered how to do it.”
Based in Brooklyn but raised in Los Angeles, Bird’s photography is a little like the City of Angels itself: warm, relaxed and surprisingly gritty when you look beneath the surface. While she never “officially” interned or assisted for a photographer, Bird honed her aesthetic through years of shadowing friends who worked in the industry. Her tight-knit circle in Los Angeles included the photographer and director Anthony Mandler, who gave Bird one of her first opportunities to work on a set.
Mandler was shooting the actor Seth Green, and, eager to make an impression on the then-popular actor, Bird decided to strike up a conversation with him. Mandler, ever the professional, was not impressed. “Anthony was trying to keep the set really calm so he could connect with this kid and meanwhile I was blabbing away,” Bird recalls with a raspy laugh. “Anthony was like, ‘Get the fuck off my set!’”
Mandler recalls the incident with a knowing chuckle. “Cass had wanted to come to set to learn about dealing with clients and working in a studio,” he says, over the phone. “But she was being a loudmouth and a smartass, and I wanted to be a little more serious with my client, so I told her to leave.”
Still, Mandler saw potential in his wisecracking friend. “I really saw somebody with an innate talent and desire to affect people, but who hadn’t really found her voice,” he says. “She just needed a little bit of time to find it.”
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For a particularly long stretch of time, back when Bird was in grade school, her desk was attached to the teacher’s desk. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be sent outside for disrupting the class, and she was always described using some variation of the phrase, “ball of energy.” This particularly frenetic phase would continue as she graduated college and sought employment; she never held a job for longer than a couple of weeks. She was, in her own words, “fundamentally unemployable.” Photography, it seems, was the one place in which her energy and fervor was welcomed.
Still, it was hardly easy. Bird struggled to book jobs in Los Angeles and found herself in debt. She was living in a loft owned by the photographer Nathaniel Welch and unable to pay rent. Though he was sympathetic about her finances (“He literally let me owe him thousands of dollars,” Bird says), Welch was less supportive when it came to Bird’s career. “Choose something else to do,” he huffed, at their very first meeting.
Discouraged but not deterred, Bird used the experience to re-focus on what she wanted to shoot, and think about what her aesthetic would be. “I didn’t know how and what pictures should look like,” she says, “and I realized I had to be more critical of myself and my work. If you are shooting things you can’t relate to or grab on to, it’s hard to translate that into something that works for you.”
Mandler was there to witness her progress. “Cass had to really learn about being true to herself,” he says. “I told her to ‘Look in the mirror and figure out who you are and be that person. Photograph what is dear to you.’ When she nourished her work, that’s when it all came about.”
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The moment of when exactly Cass Bird “came about” is difficult to pinpoint. Most observers will tell you Bird “arrived” when she was chosen for the Art + Commerce “Festival of Emerging Photographers” in New York in 2004. The event—a showcase for new talent sponsored by the agency that has represented Annie Lebowitz, Robert Mapplethorpe and Ellen Von Unwerth, among others—propelled Bird’s name to the industry forefront, with critics praising her ability to capture the beautiful and often subtle nuances of everyday contemporary life.
Still, Bird is careful not to place too much emphasis on her C.V. “I remember the very first time I got assigned to Interview Magazine and I was like, “This is it; this is the break,’” she says, excitedly. “And then it came and went and very little changed.”
And then, as if to prove her point: “I’ve yet to arrive at a place where I’m like, ‘I’m here.’”
Not too long ago, though, she got a taste of that feeling; that unmistakable tinge of delight that comes with success. “I was asked to photograph a poncho for 50 bucks and I turned it down,” she says. Her grin is audible. “I called my then-girlfriend and said, ‘Goddammit, they want me to shoot a fuckin’ poncho!’ When I said ‘No,’ it felt really amazing and also really scary.”
She pauses, as if reliving that moment in her head. After a few seconds of silence, she picks up again.
“There’s a lot of pressure to hit certain touchstones in your career,” she says. “You hit 30 and you feel like you should be doing something significant. [But] I always felt like I was a late bloomer and I didn’t want to be blowing my load too soon.”
But did she?
Bird lets out a sly chuckle. “I have a long way to go before I blow my load.”