Candacy Taylor: Taylor Made Culture

Candacy Taylor [photo: Katie Baum]

Candacy Taylor (MA Visual and Critical Studies) is anything but the stereotypical scattered artist. Indeed, her calendar already has days booked well into 2010: a maze of book tour dates, interviews, bullfights, grant application deadlines, and more. “I spend about 50 percent of my time actually working on my projects,” she says half-jokingly, half-ruefully, “and the rest of the time doing things that prevent me from having to get a day job: marketing, fundraising, consulting.” Although really, for her it’s all of a piece, and definitely a labor of love.

Taylor was part of the very first incoming class in the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies. A book version of her 2002 thesis project, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, is coming out in September from Cornell University Press. It contains not only Taylor’s soon-to-be iconic photographs of coffee-shop and diner waitresses, but also 50,000 words of her own writing, organized into themed chapters such as “The Regulars,” “Ketchup in Her Veins,” and “Counter Intelligence.”

“To qualify for this project the waitresses had to be at least 50 years old, and they had to have been doing this for at least 20 years. It’s a vanishing subculture. The younger generation has a different work ethic; they think of waiting tables as something temporary, on their way to starting their ‘real’ careers.

“When I began this, I expected to meet women who felt overworked and underappreciated, but that’s not what I found. All but a few said they loved their jobs and, even if given the opportunity, wouldn’t do anything else. For them it pays well, it gives them a sense of community, and it has enabled them to support themselves and their children, oftentimes as single mothers. A lot of them say if it wasn’t for waitressing they’d be at home, lonely, maybe even crippled with arthritis from lack of physical activity. One waitress I talked to even has an urn with the ashes of one of her favorite regulars on her mantel at home.”

The book retails for just $19.95. “I worked hard to get the price point down to something I felt the waitresses could afford.”

Taylor got the idea for Counter Culture while she herself was employed as a waitress, working her way through CCA. A survey of existing published material revealed much about American diner architecture, but almost nothing about the women who bring these places to life. Her project grew to include not only the book, but also three radio episodes that aired on NPR and a traveling exhibition of oral histories and photographs. A documentary film is in progress; she has made a trailer and is now looking for funding. She envisions it airing anywhere from the Food Network to Sundance.

And she’s already knee-deep in two new projects: one looking at San Francisco’s longest-running ethnic beauty shops, and another looking at female bullfighters and bull riders. “I was surprised to find that very little has been published on women in bull sports. Women have been fighting and riding bulls for centuries—the stories go back to ancient India, Greece, Rome—and yet I’d never heard anything about them. But it’s actually a growing subculture in California. I went to my first bullfight, in Stockton, a year ago. A friend invited me, and I was very hesitant but she said it was totally bloodless. And I ended up completely captivated by the experience, especially by the female bullfighter. Everyone was speaking Portuguese. I am hoping to get some funding to make a documentary for HBO.

“About the beauty shops, there have been photography projects on the subject, but the material wasn’t handled in the way I’m planning to do it. I went to the same hairstylist in Hayes Valley for years, and I was devastated when she retired. Getting my hair done there was a total, immersive experience: I’d be there for four or five hours, and everyone in the shop would be engaged in one big conversation. It was like going to a diner.”

Taylor’s jam-packed schedule was suddenly stalled about a year and a half ago when she had to have emergency surgery; the waitress project had literally broken her back. Lugging cameras and other equipment in and out of a car trunk for six years and 26,000 miles herniated one of the disks in her spine, and after weeks of intense pain and warnings from her doctor that letting it go might mean never walking again, she finally relented to going under the knife. They said she might be needing a cane forever, but she’s no longer even limping.

That same stubbornness and perseverance, she says, got her through graduate school. Taylor got her undergraduate degree in painting and drawing from San Francisco State University and she worked for several years as a scenic artist for film, television, and theater productions. “I was doing what most of my undergraduate classmates aspired to do, but I just wasn’t fulfilled,” she recalls. “I wanted to go back to school to do something different, but I didn’t know what. CCA’s Visual and Critical Studies Program was the first of its kind. It liberated me from being tied to the medium of painting and helped me transfer those same skills and concepts to other forms of art. It’s intensely academic but it isn’t elitist. It encourages projects that could potentially reach the public, which is crucially important to me.

“The program really helped me articulate what I wanted to do with my life. All the reading, all the theory, it was so hard! Many of my classmates had already been published, and I just didn’t have that background. So many times I felt I was in way over my head, but somehow I pushed through and finished, and my thesis committee told me I’d come further than anyone else in my class. Now, no matter what I do, even when I have to tailor my projects to make them commercial enough to be accessible to a wide audience, they still have substance behind them. They have strong theoretical legs to stand on. At CCA I learned how to be a critical thinker, and then I grew from there to become a critical photographer, a critical artist, a critical interviewer.”

Taylor invites anyone with knowledge of a long-running beauty shop in San Francisco, focusing on any ethnicity, to get in touch at . She is also seeking an intern.

She will speak at the Oral History Association’s annual meeting in October and the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Atlanta in November. Taylor’s book tour begins on September 3 at Modern Times in San Francisco and will cover the county.

She is also organizing a series of workshops on grant writing; producing, exhibiting, and marketing independent multimedia projects; and documenting regular people, places, and events. She will lead a workshop at CCA on Saturday, August 22 “Producing Multimedia Projects on a Budget." If you are interested, please get in touch at by August 14.

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Candacy A. Taylor
Visual and Critical Studies, 2002
Born in Gary, Indiana, in 1971
Lives and works in San Francisco
Artistic influences: Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Susan Meiselas, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, Bill Owens, Jeff Brouws, Studs Terkel, Ira Glass, and David Isay
Influences at CCA: Lydia Matthews, Mitchell Schwarzer, Mark Bartlett, Mabel Wilson, Barry Katz, John Laskey, and David Goldberg