Second Sight

Valerie Casey is used to long journeys. Her travels have taken her from Ireland to California, from an English literature degree to Web design, and from taking photos of the homeless on the sly to slugging beer with those same people.

Now a creative director at the innovative design firm frog ( www.frogdesign.com ), Casey talked to Macworld about originality, technology, photography, and philosophy.

Macworld: Tell me about your background.

Casey: I moved to the New York suburbs from Ireland when I was five. I grew up there for grammar school, then moved to Baltimore for high school. I went to college at Swarthmore and focused on English and psychology. But my real interest was in film and photography. I was motivated by a great independent film community in Philadelphia.

I moved to California more than six years ago. To finance my creative pursuits, I worked for over a year in the environmental industry. I was the bugs and bunnies person.

Macworld: The what?

Casey: The bugs and bunnies person. The plan was to dam every river and I was to represent the environmental impact.

When I was putting together reports, I found I could make the content more powerful through good design. This realization, plus the film and photography I was doing on the side, and my emotional side -- my intuition -- were leading me toward storytelling. I realized I wanted to be in a more visual career.

Macworld: What's your design training?

Casey: I taught myself a lot of design principles. And I took classes and learned from books and by spending every day at the museum.

Photography and film also taught me about design. In photography, you have to tell the whole story in one frame. Having to describe some emotion with depth is what you do in design. Film needs to be evocative and draw you into it. Design needs to be persuasive.

Macworld: Let's talk about your photography.

Casey: I spent about three years on the photos in "faces." They're documentary-focused photos of homeless people in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

(Editor's note: For more examples in the "faces" series, go to www.valcasey.com and choose Photography ExII from the pull-down navigation menu.)

I grew into that style. I began with a secretive process, taking pictures of homeless people with a telephoto lens. I got very involved and became almost obsessed that I could invade their personal space without them consenting.

It started to trouble me. I ended up spending lot of time sitting with people on the street drinking Colt 45, just hanging out with these homeless people but with a camera around my neck. Some days I'd take two photos. I was mitigating a fascination through the camera, but it wasn't necessarily about the photos themselves; it was about the people and learning what happens to them. It was trippy to go from treating these guys as The Other to knowing them.

Some of the people didn't have homes, but they'd say, "My brother's really worried about me. Could you develop this photo and send it to him so he knows I'm OK?"

Then I maxed out. I was finished, though not in a bad way. I didn't need to discover any more about me or them. I saw one of them on Mission Street (in San Francisco) the other day, and he bought me a cup of coffee.

From that intimate, almost grotesque, style, I went to the exact opposite: ethereal, dreamlike.

Macworld: Are those the Exhibit 1 images on your Web site?

Casey: Yes. Those were all scenes on the beach. I find solace in water. There's so much peace and great perspective. You can't see any details of the face. There are just forms and shapes. They melt into the environment.

Macworld: What are you doing now?

Casey: It's photorealism, and more integrated, not as harsh. I'm more secure as a person who sees the world now. I don't swing to such extremes. You'll see rotating examples when you click on the words valcasey.com on the my home page.

Macworld: Can you describe some of your recent work?

Casey: The tall building (third from bottom) is the Tate Modern in London. I'm appreciating architecture, particularly contemporary architecture. It doesn't look inventive or interesting compared to classic architecture in Europe, or even the East Coast. I love finding something that isn't as obvious.

The woman walking across the street (second from bottom) is in Dublin. I love the cropping -- that you can't see all of her. I'm getting much more into the lines. It's a subtle grid, not predictable. There are yellow lines and cobble lines, and she's breaking that up. There's a rhythm and an irony.

I took this (bottom image) by the Ramp (a restaurant in San Francisco). This area is being built up on a community that's so ramshackle. Everything is falling into the water. I compared the new development with the old, and the old has so much more soul. You can see stories. It's as if you're remembering something in your past. I want my photos to evoke a memory you never had, a collective memory.

Macworld: Tell me about your site's navigation. Why is it in a separate window?

Casey: Because that helps people focus on the work instead of the site as a tool. I want to play down the administrative parts of the site. But it does have its problems. You can't bookmark a specific page.

Macworld: Did you do the coding?

Casey: I do the JavaScript and everything else by hand.

Macworld: You've worked with some big-name clients. Has one of those sites been your favorite?

Casey: At the time, each were my favorites. They were like my children, and now they're like distant cousins. When you hand off a site, the client makes so many changes that it's not your vision anymore. It's usually a collage of the opinions of all the stakeholders. That's not necessarily what would have been best.

Macworld: How about favorite sites other people have designed?

Casey: American design speaks very loudly. European design has a silent insider feel -- it puts an arm around you and brings you with it. I like a lot of German and Japanese designs. They're the ones who're changing what we see on the Web. They have the most innovative ideas, from content to layout. The Japanese version of Shift ( www.shift.jp.org ) is an excellent online magazine that's a community of designers.

I love art&culture ( www.artandculture.com ). It has the best information design: you can access concepts and people and histories in so many ways.

I also like cheesy sites. They level the playing field. IBM can spend $10 million on their site and some nobody can also buy a URL for $30. No other medium can reach so many people from so many levels. It's liberating to see these ideas side-by-side. It's freedom of speech in its truest form.

Macworld: Do you have a life philosophy?

Casey: I have a goal of being happy. I follow my intuition always. And especially in the design world, I never treat anybody the way some people treated me. I'm aware of what it's like to start off and not fit into a box of obvious style. It's important to listen to everybody.

I had some great mentors starting out. I would encourage people who have any inkling of doing something visually creative to go for it. Don't be intimated by job description or by the mythos that revolves around the computer industry. So much is motivation. There's no worse or better feeling than just jumping out there.

Terri Stone is a Macworld senior editor.

Val Casey

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Images Copyright © Val Casey.

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