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Capturing Cleveland's True Colors

Capturing Cleveland's True Colors

Q&A with photographer Billy Delfs

Billy Delfs

Billy Delfs

Cleveland has many faces. It's a place where gritty streetscapes and crumbling remnants of once-mighty industry abut with pastoral expanse and secular temples to innovation. Its denizens are equally diverse, from the impoverished to the working class stalwarts to the fabulously wealthy. Although often derided nationally and locally, in many ways Cleveland represents a microcosm of the world that surrounds it. For those raised on the shores of Lake Erie, there's an innate commitment to bettering the region and its sabulous shores. Thirty-year-old Lakewood resident and photographer Billy Delfs has been dutifully capturing that passion and eclecticism one image at a time. He has worked with national media, including Newsweek, Time, Redbook and ESPN; major corporations, such as Continental Airlines and US Airways; and local businesses TWIST Creative and Epstein Design Partners. One of his recent projects was documenting Cleveland's surfer community, a dedicated group who braves the coldest temps to catch the perfect wave on Lake Erie. The Greenhouse Tavern on East 4th Street will feature images from the series as part of its "Rooftop Beach Party" on Sunday, May 22 at 6:30 pm, with music from Beach Stav, and summer-themed food (suckling pig, grilled pineapple, etc.) from the kitchen of award-winning chef Jonathon Sawyer.

Here, Delfs discusses how he got started, the people and places that inspire him, why he left Cleveland – and why he came back.

OhioAuthority: When you first started shooting your friends riding BMX in the late '90s, did you ever consider it would be a career path? What helped you decide?

Billy Delfs: I did it for fun then. I started to pick people and interview them. My friends and riding were the world to me, and I greatly appreciated the whole thing. Some of the people I photographed were genuine, great people in the industry. I wrote  about and interviewed people, then submitted [the articles] to magazines. They got published, so I took a few more classes until I learned that there was a career. I had no idea. I was going to be a chef.

OA: While you were studying photography at Tri-C, what studios did you work in and what types of things did you learn?

BD: I worked at a few larger studios – table top/still-life work mainly; some people and just a bit of location. 

OA: When and why did you decide to study at the International Center of Photography, and how did that experience impact your photography?

BD: I worked [in Cleveland] for four or five years while at Tri-C. I enjoyed it, but really saw something else in New York. I knew nothing about the city before I went, but I had friends there and something about going to a smaller school was appealing. It was a great experience – like boot camp for photography. They had less to talk about making my work look like the greats and much more about making my work mine. Ownership was a strong part of that education. 

OA: After your time in New York, why did you return to Cleveland?

BD: I returned for many reasons, but one being that I saw what the photo community was when I left Cleveland and then saw how people survived and thrived on an international and national level there. They were more real in a way. I felt connected to their approach, and knew I could do it there.

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