Late one sunny afternoon in late September eight photographers gathered at the Grand Avenue entrance to Tower Grove Park. For roughly 15 minutes the photographers chatted about gear, the quality of sunlight slipping through the leaves, and the stories behind some of their favorite photographs before slipping out into the park to document their surroundings.
“I was perfectly willing to get down on the dusty muddy floor and lie down and take the shot up; and it was great and it actually won the Flood, so it was worth it. Definitely worth it,” said Ann Aurbach, 33, about one particular photo she took while on the Goldenrod Showboat.
Aurbach’s presence at the showboat and in the park was directly caused by her participation in Photo Flood St. Louis, an organization dedicated to documenting St. Louis neighborhoods. Once a month, the Flood turns loose area photographers in a specific neighborhood with the hope of documenting that location’s unique personality. The resulting images are then judged by organizers and posted online at photofloodstl.com. This fall Photo Flood St. Louis turned two and saw an exponential growth in membership. The project began with five photographers. Earlier that day, project founder Jason Gray had added the group’s 210th member.
“That’s the goal, to bring back photographic community,” said Gray about the project’s primary objective. “The photographic community has been conditioned to live and stay in the suburbs so I’m interested in making the city a center for that.”
Gray began the project with his wife after moving to St. Louis. They were in a small town outside the city where they saw a group of bikers gathered. Gray wondered what it would be like to have the motorcycles and their riders documented from multiple perspectives all at once. In that moment Photo Flood was born.
Gray sees the project as an organization dedicated to helping local photographers professionally and artistically while growing the community. Their events are organized and website maintained without a budget. Gray sees it as a duty to give photographers a chance to learn from each other and access photographic opportunities ordinarily outside their grasp. That’s how Aurbach ended up laying down on the dirty floorboards of the Golden Rod Showboat. She reflected on other Flood members’ reactions.
“Some of them probably thought I was crazy and some of them probably thought, oh, yeah I’d do that too,” said Aurbach.
The photographers' tastes vary as much as their skill levels. Aurbach is a fan of urban decay and macro photography, a practice consisting of capturing minute details.
“You’re looking at the water droplet and trying to make it the biggest thing in the world and that’s my latest obsession,” Aurbach said. One point in the afternoon found Aurbach lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, getting a close up photo of one particularly well lit leaf.
Although her obsession is aesthetic, Aurbach says it’s the community that keeps her coming back to the Flood.
“I like this particular group of photographers because we’re at all skill levels and we’re of all interests, and the feedback we give each other and the support we give each other is really, really, great,” she said.
Gray sees this support extending to the communities they document as well. He tries to plan so that after events photographers can gather at a local restaurant or business and directly participate in the neighborhood.
He was particularly affected by a Flood he organized in the Ville neighborhood of St. Louis. There he took a portrait of a woman in front of her home. According to Gray, he and another attendee talked with the woman after taking her picture and she began crying while discussing the financial hardship she faced in maintaining house payments while providing for her daughter and new grandson. Gray alerted a member of the group who he said is a participant in local media and they attempted to further engage the woman to tell her story. Although she chose not to interact with Gray further, he sees these connections and interactions as part of the group’s goals.
He sticks to the belief that more members will build a stronger community.
“You don’t have to consider photography as your profession or your passion. You certainly should want to take pictures and want to meet people that you haven’t met before and experience parts of St. Louis that may not otherwise get to see but I welcome anyone to come out and join that’s interested,” he said.