When award-winning photographer Torrance York looks through her lens, she sees an opportunity to examine something in the landscape and shape a new environment with her camera. By keeping certain details in sharp focus and allowing the surrounding context to be out of focus, she creates a picture into which the viewer can visually step. As she describes it, “an image that conveys the amazement of being on one small point in a vast universe.”
Passionate about exploring and depicting nature, she is also mindful of the presence of man. Her images often incorporate a telephone pole, fence or skid mark on a road. A key feature of her work is the use of global positioning system (GPS) technology to mark the latitude and longitude of the point from which she shoots. The coordinates become the title of each image, indicating that it is one view from that place on earth.
Torrance’s experience as a nationally recognized child gymnast may not seem the most likely route to becoming a fine arts photographer. However, the New Canaan resident sees many parallels in the personal characteristics and skills needed for success in each field.
Growing up in Manhattan, at age ten Torrance was the subject of A Very Young Gymnast, a book by Jill Krementz, a well-known author and photographer. Torrance had won numerous area competitions and was the top gymnast in her age group in the league of Independent Schools of New York City. She and Jill were interviewed by Jane Pauley on NBC’s Today show; Torrance was also interviewed by Merv Griffin on his show in 1978. Her coaches considered her “Olympic material” and encouraged her to train at the Muriel Grossfeld School in Milford, Connecticut, which specialized in preparing youth for Olympic competitions. Although she chose not to pursue that option, Torrance found the world of gymnastic competition both challenging and exhilarating for many years.
“What I found satisfying as a child — achieving the exact form required on the balance beam — is now reflected in my fascination with the specificity of the GPS system. Practicing, refining and reworking to get the timing and nuances of my childhood gymnastic routines just right is not unlike my current photographic process — the effort to get the precise image I want and the many revisions made to print it as I envision it should be. The perfectionism nurtured through the sport can be daunting in everyday life, but has a useful role in my photographic work,” she explains.
While taking the course “The Camera and the Body” at the Rhode Island School of Design, Torrance observed how the news media would reduce the images of gymnasts to the simple elements of a competitor’s name, age, height and weight — just the surface facts representing the whole person. She likens this to her use of the GPS system to identify her exact position in relation to the environment she is shooting. The GPS coordinates are a label, but the place, like the gymnast, is more complex. The resulting photographs express her experience in that place, on that point.
Although Torrance’s work is primarily inspired by nature, her goal has never been just to record a beautiful landscape. Her first color landscape series, Selections, was on exhibit at the New Canaan Library in November 2007. In these works she zeroed in on specific details — a branch, a blade of tall grass, a leaf — captured in shallow focus. “I tried to create a metaphoric place, an internal space that the viewer could enter. I think of a landscape photograph as a conversation between the elements shown. For example, in my image Pods [Pods/Millbrook, NY 10/20/01], two seed pods on different branches become related as both stand out in sharp focus.”
Gradually, her artistic focus shifted to include more of the surrounding environment and the horizon line, although she still creates a concise focal point that is crystal sharp while the rest of the scene is blurred. “Instead of a close-up, I became more interested in showing the larger context,” she notes. This led to the development of her Functional Ground series, images of a working dairy farm in Pleasant Valley, New York, a town in the Hudson Valley region. Her provocative image of skid marks in the photograph N41°46.562’ W073°50.901’ 11/23/03 429ft. (Melville Road) won an Art of the Northeast Award. Torrance attributes her interest in skid marks to the death of her father, who fell asleep at the wheel of his car when she was a child.
Her fascination with road marks, natural or manmade, intentional or accidental, led to the creation of a more recent body of images called Road Works, which was included in the Director’s Choice Exhibit at Silvermine Galleries in January 2008. In Road Works, the marks caused her to question the circumstances that created them. Marks made over time, sometimes overlapping, develop patterns not intended by their makers. In N41°21.530’ W073°20.219’ 11/8/07 546ft. (Detour), the viewer is asked to choose a path to follow, the ominous yellow line straight ahead or the crossing tar line veering right that appears white in the reflected light. And in N41°08.747’ W073°27.122’ 10/21/07 295ft. (Borderline), the parallel lines become reminiscent of the balance beam of her childhood.
Torrance and her husband, Greg, moved from New York to the Silvermine area of New Canaan in 2005 with their son, Beckett, now five; daughter Waverly was born in 2006. Their home is a historic farmhouse, creatively renovated and expanded, which came with a spacious studio over the garage. The change in lifestyle gave Torrance a new direction. Whereas her previous subject matter in Manhattan was mostly what she observed on foot, she now finds herself driving everywhere and is more often inspired by what she sees on the road.
Her unique perspective has won many awards, including second place in SPECTRA, the National Photography Triennial in 2007 and five prizes in the annual Art of the Northeast exhibitions at the Silvermine Guild Arts Center in recent years. Her work was selected by a jury of curators from the Aldrich Museum and the Ridgefield Guild of Artists for the prestigious Radius Exhibition in October 2007. She is also the recipient of an Anderson Ranch Arts Center Residency in Snowmass, Colorado. A Yale graduate with an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, she has been president of the board of the Educational Video Center in New York for the past four years and formerly directed the center’s Youth Organizers Television program. Documentaries made by her youth producers have been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art and screened at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
For Torrance, photography is a way of examining all things from different perspectives in a world where “everything is so carefully packaged, we have to take the initiative to look more closely.”
“A photograph is ‘real’ in that it documents something in the world. Yet all media are made by people who inherently have a point of view — so it is really much more subjective than the viewer initially comprehends,” she states. “My images are obviously interpretive, and I am also exploring the nature of photography as a medium. A photo is always from one person’s perspective; even two photos taken at the exact same time and location can tell a different story.”
Torrance York’s photography and her Caution: Children at Play series may be seen online at