The LA-based photographer on growing up queer in small-town Georgia, her “dream-like” imagery, the photo everyone talks about, and the brands she’d love to work with

—interview by Kristina Feliciano

If you had to describe your work to someone who had never seen it, and you couldn’t show it to them, what would you tell them? 

The photographs I create of people and landscapes are imbued with a sense of warmth and connection to the world. I started off learning how to create documentary-style photographs and still use that as a foundation for my work now. I want my photographs to come from a place of realism but to shift into a dream-like state by the use of color and light. 

I think this write-up in Feature Shoot explains this well:

“Here, in Fulford’s portraits, we see flowers in bloom, the fiercely defiant insistence of youth that refuses to forsake their identities, their visibility, or their integrity just because of who they are. In Fulford’s photographs, there is love and pride, the promise of half a century of liberation coming into its own upon the world stage. For Fulford, the photographs are a bridge, not only between the subjects and the viewers, but also between herself and her family. The photograph is more than an object of art: it is a document of truth that cannot be denied, the portrait as a statement of being, a testament of self, a document of the magnificent possibilities of humanity, and the respect and awe the very essence of life demands. Fulford’s photographs speak for all those whose faces go unshown, whose voices have been silenced, and often have nowhere to call home.” [Read more here.]

How did coming from a smallish town in Georgia shape your worldview? 

It has made me appreciate simple living and less is more attitude and has vastly shaped my idea of beauty. It helped me push myself creatively and expand my determination. However, it was difficult in a small town because I was unsure where I belonged in the world. It was difficult to navigate the space I was growing up in because I could not relate to it or understand my place within it. I did not feel like my truest, most open self when conforming to the culture and ideologies around me in a small town in Georgia. That being said, it’s interesting to reflect back and see how growing up surrounded by farmland has directly impacted the type of images I make today and much of my current work is an ode to the freedom I felt when I was in those natural landscapes. 

Talk about a few commercial projects you’ve shot recently: what the brief or concept was, how you developed it and/or collaborated with the team/editors, and how you approached the shoot, as well as any memorable anecdotes or observations from the experience. 

I loved photographing Jack Harlow in Atlanta for Billboard magazine. Jenny Sargent, who is the senior photo director, reached out and was open to my location ideas. I knew I didn’t want to photograph him in studio because he had been in that setup many times, so I pitched a friend’s home that had wild interiors, different colored walls, and an amazing orange velvet couch—and it got approved. I touched base with my crew in Atlanta: two assistants, a digitech, and catering. We had about two hours with Jack on location, and it went well. We had around 15 people there, including my team and his stylist, manager, and crew. Jack was relaxed as we moved from space to space, and was open to feedback, which I appreciated. Typically when I photograph celebrities, I have around 30 minutes or less with them and the energy can be quite different. It is my job to build a connection with them in a short time frame to create intimate portraits. It was nice to see him enjoying his time and playing his favorite music. It felt like we were all collaborating together and creating something meaningful. 

A commercial shoot that sticks with me was my work for the Gucci Cruise Collection for Vogue Italia. I worked alongside Alessia Glaviano, senior photo editor, and designer Alessandro Michele, who was then at Gucci, to pitch my concept of photographing around 20 friends of mine in acts of kindness. I location scouted, cast, styled, set designed, and photographed the campaign with the help of two assistants and one HMU person. The shoot was inspired by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who said, “We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.” We shot everything in four days at friends’ homes, in parks, at a family farm, and on top of a mountain. I appreciated that Alessia and Alessandro trusted my process of a big vision and small team to make it all happen. 

Who inspires you as a person, and who inspires you as an artist? 

What inspires me as a person also inspires me as an artist. I do not see the two as separate. First and foremost, I am inspired by nature. I try to be as present with the earth as possible, through daily walks, hiking, climbing, and kayaking. Also, I find inspiration in the strange photographs ZZYZX by Gregory Halpern, Caspian by Chloe Dewe Mathews, and Corbeau by Anne Golaz, as well as the insightful writings of David Wojnarowicz, Eileen Myles, and Mary Oliver, and the music of Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto. 

Share the story behind your personal project “Tenderness.” 

“Tenderness” is the personal project that helped launch my career. When I began it back in 2016, Blue Is the Warmest Color, a queer coming-of-age love story, was one of my favorite films. The title is a line in the movie: “I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will.” The American South, also known as the Bible Belt, is not an inherently inclusive region for those who present queer. I grew up in a religious household—my mother was raised in the Sanctified Holy Church, and my father was raised Southern Baptist. As a result of the beliefs I had been taught since birth, I did not feel comfortable coming out as queer until I was 21 years old. This photo series came to fruition around the same time, so I publicly came out when I started sharing this project online. I consider the moments between the individuals in these photographs a lasting documentation. We'll change and our bodies will change, but we'll have these images for a long time. [View “Tenderness” here.]

Which of your images do people tend to focus on? 

People tend to bring up my picture “Rian With Friends,” which is currently on view as part of a group exhibition at Massachusetts’ Addison Gallery of American Art, curated by Greg Harris and Sarah Kennel, and in an accompanying book by Aperture titled A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845. The exhibition will be on view until July 31, 2024, with more than a hundred photographers represented, including Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, William Eggleston, Sally Mann, Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, and Alec Soth. The book includes insightful texts by Imani Perry, Makeda Best, and Rahim Fortune, among others. The description on the title card for “Rian With Friends” reads: “Though Southern cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Savannah have been bastions of queer culture for decades, the religious and social conservatism that pervades in much of the region has rarely foregrounded stories and images of LGBTQIA+ lives. Peyton Fulford’s portraits center the queer experience within Southern life and the desire to find one’s circle. ‘Rian With Friends’ shows a group of gender-nonconforming individuals, their bodies gently entwined and physically supporting one another within a lush bucolic setting. The portrait speaks to the complexities and fluidity of gender and expresses a collective identity for people forced to keep their true selves hidden in the face of a stridently resistant political culture.” 

Who would be your top five dream clients, and why? 

Arc’teryx, Adidas, Patagonia, Tekla, and Aimé Leon Dore. I’m interested in the cross between fashion and functionality, and I feel all these brands do sportswear so well. I grew up in a family of ultra-runners, cyclists, and kayakers, and I myself am a climber. I have loved to wear their products out in the world and would be honored to capture a campaign doing just that.