For Fort Worth photographer Tony Drewry, social isolation is all about people
On the morning of April 7, I woke up nervous and excited. At this point, I had been home with my immediate family for 24 days, and the bizarre experience of social distancing was about to include a moment of normalcy. Fort Worth photographer Tony Drewry was stopping by to take a picture of my family as part of his ‘Drive-by Porchrait’ series - a project that is chronicling what Drewry has called the “raw human emotion” of life during a global pandemic. With his loyal canine companion, Lazy Dazy, he travels around the D/FW metroplex, snapping portraits of people standing on their porch out of the window of his red truck. He typically spends less than 10 minutes at each location. Some of the photos are serious, some are silly, and some even capture major life events.
For crystal-clear transparency, I will state outright that I’ve known Tony Drewry since 2010. He and my husband found themselves in local hillbilly/hip-hop/bluegrass “hill-hop” band Shotgun Friday, and what started out as a fun musical collaboration became the foundation of a sincere friendship. So, I can testify that his path to this moment has been circuitous.
Drewry left his lifelong home of Fort Worth for Terlingua, TX in 2016 to work with a craft brewery (another of his passions), and to be in the natural landscape of Big Bend and the Rio Grande River.
During his time there, his photography evolved. He told me, “Being out in Terlingua and spending some time in the big bend and Mexico and the Chihuahua desert, all that, was beautifully inspiring. And living there gave me an opportunity to just really do nothing but that, and to really truly understand what photography is about. And out there, the light changes every minute. So, even though it’s a landscape, as much as the scene didn’t change, the light changed everything. So, photography is capturing light. And I really got to hone that skill.”
After returning to Fort Worth in early 2020, Tony’s been searching for inspiration. When the shutdowns began, like many of us, he was feeling a loss of direction. He realized he needed a creative outlet, and shared that this project has pulled him out of the darker aspects of self-isolation.
However, the seed level idea of the series wasn’t necessarily about COVID-19. He said, “I think it was a direct response to our direct responses to the virus, the pandemic, the shutdowns, all that. I sat around for a couple of weeks, as it began, and I observed. I read some things, some articles, of course, and, I read a lot of the posts that people I knew were writing and just seeing that this is a really uncertain time. And I was really feeling it too, but trying to -- instead of being scared by all the shit I was reading -- to be inspired by it and come up with a way to highlight some of the beauty of life that continues on no matter what. And that is how the real idea of this came to be.”
The next day he convinced his roommate to sit for a photo, then he tested it with his immediate family, and it wasn’t long before the project took off. The earliest shots are of his friends and family, but now, he’s got over 150 photos in the series and the stories to go along with it. He’s captured newborn babies in their first days of life. One family invited him to capture the day their child’s adoption was complete, and they became a family. He’s immortalized engagements and birthdays.
As I listened to him share his experience, a theme emerged: for Tony Drewry, it’s all about the people. At a time when social distancing risks separating us, Drewry's photographs have united us. “Each place is a brief little moment in time that's disruptive to the boredom that has probably set in, and the uncertainty of everything. It's something familiar. Every person I'm talking to, I genuinely want to know – to ask them questions. I've learned how to really listen to people because I that’s better than any class I ever sat in. I'm genuinely fascinated by it. People are telling me everything, and I love it. And I love that no matter what kind of situation they're in, they're taking the time to do this with me and shoot some photos. And the takeaway I get is that I know that I got to help people do something weird, and smile for a few minutes.”
One of the more poignant moments came out of a chance meeting in a Wendy’s parking lot. He told me the story: “It’s a weird time to pull up to a stranger and go, ‘Hey, I'm working on this project, and I’d like to take your photo,’ but I've gotten a couple of really cool pictures doing that. People that are just working regular jobs and they don't know what they're going to do either. On the porch at Wendy's -- that was one of the most powerful images I've shot. I wasn't even at Wendy's to buy a hamburger. I just pulled over to make some phone calls and figure out the next couple of stops. I ended up talking to her because she was wondering what I was doing there. So, I told her and then she wanted me to take her photo. She's got her headset on and her Wendy's hat and she's got the greatest smile. And today is her 39th birthday and I'm going to get to go to her apartment and take the very first nice photo anybody's ever taken of her and her son. And I'm just thrilled. This is what it's about, you know?”
He spoke about offering people happiness through these pictures, but he’s also had a lot of inspiration come his way. He shared that a recent session surprised and inspired him when he found out he had the opportunity to photograph Fort Worth artist Nancy Lamb. “She saw the porchtraits project and she sent me a text and said, ‘Hey, I saw a friend of mine had posted her photos. I love it and I want to do it too.” I didn't know who she was. I’d been getting so many calls. Well, I get over to her place and it's this beautiful spot. I pulled off the busy main road then I'm just like in this paradise, you know, and she was just all about it, no matter what I asked, she was into it. We got some great shots. You know that Jackalope sculpture? It’s an iconic thing for a lot of people in Fort Worth, especially on the West Side. Ever since I started driving, that was a landmark that I knew where I was when I saw that Jackalope. And [I found out] that she built that thing. That’s her sculpture. So, here I am shooting the lady that made it, and inspired me in an indirect way.”
Drewry is still accepting drive-by porchraits in the D/FW metroplex, with plans to expand to Houston and Austin, TX. He also envisions an historical archive of this project, and he’s been documenting the behind-the-scenes journey through video. If you are interested in scheduling a portchrait session, viewing the series, or just want to learn more about the man behind the camera, please visit him on social media. Find him on Facebook and Instagram.