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A Photographer Capturing the Unabashed Beauty of Baltimore

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BmoreArt’s Picks: September 7-13

Gregory McKay fell in love with Baltimore six years ago when he relocated from Rochester to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins for a Md-Phd in biomedical optics. Photography was always a passion and a hobby for the Massachusetts native, but in Baltimore McKay found himself consumed with capturing ephemeral moments where light, texture, the built environment, and occasional human activity comes together in ecstatic bursts of color.

You can follow McKay on Instagram at @beauty_of_baltimore where he shares his images with a growing fanbase, capturing early morning and late night impressions of Baltimore on foot, and by bicycle and kayak, where unique combinations of lighting sources, majestic skies, and dramatic water views serve as a counterpoint for historic and contemporary architecture, as well as moments of quiet urban living. Although we all recognize Baltimore in McKay’s images, he presents a nuanced and personal vision of a city where anything is possible and inspiration is available in abundance, focusing on the aesthetic benefits of living in a small historic city.

 

Name: Gregory McKay
Age: 30
Profession: Photographer & Graduate Student
Web: GregoryMcKay.com
IG: @beauty_of_baltimore

BmoreArt: What was your first camera? When did you get it? Tell us about it.

Greg McKay: I used to shoot with Kodak disposable cameras in middle school. I had forgotten about this phase of my life until recently when my mom found a collection of my photos in the attic. We sifted through them as a family. Most of them weren’t great, but there were a few special shots of friends that really took me back in time. Years later, towards the end of college, I got my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel T3i. I was studying optical engineering as an undergraduate, so I had a solid background on how the device worked already. I distinctly remember the excitement of putting it in “manual” mode the day I got it. I biked around Rochester and shot the city for fun for a couple years, but it wasn’t until I moved to Baltimore that I started taking my hobby more seriously.

Film or Digital or both?

Digital. Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for film photography. The chemistry, the patience, the simplicity of the camera. I shot film for a little while with my grandfather’s old Nikkormat. Rochester was a great place for film photography – I mean what more fitting subject than the Kodak tower? I still have a collection of old film cameras on my wall. Sometimes I only give myself 36 shots when I’m out with my DSLR to simulate a roll of film and practice being more selective. But overall, I’ve realized that I’m too impatient for film. When I shoot, I want to know what went right and what went wrong as quickly as possible.

Who is your favorite photographer and why?

It used to be Ansel Adams, but since devoting so much of my time to shooting Baltimore, it’s now Aubrey Bodine. I feel deeply connected with and inspired by his work when I’m out exploring the city.

What is your favorite time of day to shoot?

Sunrise. The city is so calm early in the morning I feel like I have it all to myself. 

 

What are your favorite subjects right now?

I shoot everything I can when the light and subject are right. At home I take still life photos of plants and found objects, portraits of my dogs, landscapes when I travel, abstract shots in my optics lab. But I’ve almost entirely focused my work on Baltimore since moving here six years ago. It’s such an incredibly diverse, culturally deep, historically rich city. I love it, and I started my “Beauty of Baltimore” project as a tribute to this.

Your vision is squarely focused on a harmonious type of beauty. What does beauty mean to you and how do you challenge this aesthetic into the pictures you create?

I see beauty in scenes that trigger an emotional response, and hope to convey this feeling to others who are looking at the resulting photograph. A beautiful photograph should have an interesting subject in the right light, be properly composed, and capture the passage of time. It’s rare to achieve all of these simultaneously. To get the right light, I usually go out either sunrise, sunset, or into the night, checking the weather to look for clouds, fog, lightning, etc. to keep the mood interesting. I chase the light, however time and weather dictate it, rarely setting out with a particular shot or location in mind. My favorite photographs are those that capture a special, fleeting moment that will never happen again. Often, these involve strangers whose stories I love to hear about.

You came to Baltimore six years ago for grad school… What was your initial impression of the city and how has this evolved or stayed consistent?

When I was interviewing for graduate school I had a gut feeling Baltimore was the right city for me. What amazed me, and frankly upset me, was how poorly people spoke of the city around the time of my move. “I’m sorry” someone in Rochester said when I told him I was going to live in Baltimore. “Isn’t it dangerous?,” countless others questioned. When I got here, school was full of people with advice on where and where not to walk, live, etc., as if certain areas of the city should be avoided. Now I’m not naïve, and I know things aren’t perfect here. But I couldn’t rationalize the dichotomy between how amazing and excited I felt walking and biking around the city, yet how quick to be fearful, dismiss, or deride Baltimore many others were.

I slowly found myself venturing into neighborhoods I was told not to, and some of my absolute favorite photos were taken precisely where I “shouldn’t” have been. I regret that I ever listened, but I’m glad I found my own path. Six years later, after tens of thousands of photos and thousands of miles on my bike with my camera, I still feel the same way about it here. I’m motivated to show others my experience through my photography.

 

What’s your favorite piece of photo equipment these days?

PlatyPod. I used to struggle to transport the equipment I needed to do proper long exposures. I travel by bike mostly, and keeping my equipment as slim as possible is necessary. This little “tripod” has significantly accelerated my progress in low-light conditions.

Filters or no filters?

I custom edit my photos before I consider them finished pieces. I don’t use pre-made filters for a couple reasons: first, editing photos is meditative to me. Second, so much of the mood and emotion of an image comes after it is captured during editing. It’s rare to find a filter that could reflect how I felt when I took the shot. 

What’s your favorite place in Baltimore – to shoot, visit, or experience?

On a regular basis, Fells Point is probably my favorite place to shoot. Fells was the first place I visited in Baltimore, and I never feel like I can get enough of it. The people, the architecture, the view across the Harbor, the live music, and how it changes from day into night provide an evolving culture I find addicting. I also love to be on the water, and often shoot the Harbor from a kayak. I’ve only fallen in once, and thankfully my gear survived!

On occasion, I’m invited to some more unique places that also stand out in memory. Once I shot the inside of a tin recycling plant in Dundalk during a busy work day. The size, sound, and power of the machinery was astounding. A different time, I was invited to see the inside of the old Federal Reserve building (now the Lenore) in downtown. The basement gave way to a sub-basement through a maze of old vaults, security boxes, and bomb shelters, and the view from the roof overlooking City Hall was equally incredible. These are my absolute favorite times, when photography provides me a glimpse of another life I otherwise wouldn’t have been acquainted with.

 

This Photo Essay is part of BmoreArt's Call for Photographers, an ongoing series designed to showcase a range of photographic talent in Baltimore.

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