Picture Perfect 

Local photographer focuses on Memphis' best attributes — its people.

David Merrill

Amie Vanderford

David Merrill

Last year, photographer Amie Vanderford explored — and shot — different areas of Memphis each day for a year.

Eight months later, she found herself returning to a similar idea: another daily project focused not on Memphis' places but its people.

"I get tired of the bad rap that Memphis gets. ... Memphis does have its problems, but beating it down is not going to help it be a better place," she says. "I'm focusing on people who are doing things to make it a better place, and maybe that will inspire others."

As part of Vanderford's Portrait 365 project, she has made a commitment to shoot one person each day for the next year, no matter if the weather is bad or she's sick or it's the weekend. If she shoots two people in one day, she'll let herself take the next day off, but she's past the 100-day mark, and that's only happened three times.

"As hard as last year's project was, I knew scheduling people every day would be challenging," Vanderford says. "If I think about how many more days I have, I kind of have a panic attack: How am I going to do this?"

Vanderford started with interesting Memphians she already knew and then got referrals from them.

She met pilot Barbara Standing through historian Jimmy Ogle.

"I think what she's doing is really incredible," Standing says. "She's found a way to show some real bright spots in Memphis."

After her session with Vanderford, Standing was so inspired she gave the photographer a three-page list of other people to shoot.

"I thought about people who weren't CEOs or executive directors," Standing says. "I thought about people who were one or two levels below that. A lot of times those are the people who do all the work behind the scenes."

Vanderford has photographed some Memphis notables for the project, such as Mayor A C Wharton and WREG's Marybeth Conley, but she's also photographed small-business owners or people from Standing's list who are perhaps less well-known than they could be.

Part of what she wants to do is give those people some of the glory they deserve.

"You hear so many fascinating stories. It's so inspiring," Vanderford says. "And, from a selfish perspective, meeting all these people also helps me."

Last April, Vanderford quit her day job with the Mississippi River Corridor to focus on photography full-time. She's been interested in the medium since she was a girl but didn't pursue it in college because she thought it was impractical.

"Instead I majored in international relations, which is equally impractical, by the way," she says.

A self-described Air Force brat, Vanderford has lived in Spain, Germany, Boston, Miami, Tucson, and San Francisco, among others.

She came to Memphis via trainwreck, both figuratively and literally. After leaving a marriage and career behind in California, she visited family in Nashville and Jackson, Mississippi, before deciding to move to Memphis because her dad and other family members live here.

She was only on the train from Jackson to Memphis for 45 minutes before it derailed near Yazoo City.

"The conductor was standing right next to me, and he said, 'This is the worst set of tracks on the entire City of New Orleans route.' As soon as he got done saying that, it derailed," she says. "Someone flew across the train and landed on top of me, and, by the time the train stopped, we were in the luggage rack."

Though she was traumatized for months by all forms of transportation, she kept her wits and her sense of humor:

"I thought, I've taken millions of flights in my life. I take a train in Mississippi and really? This is how I'm going to die?"

But she survived and says Memphis is exactly where she's supposed to be, a town full of artists and entrepreneurs.

Vanderford's Portrait 365 project is online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiev/sets/72157622099336746/, but ultimately she would like for it to become a book:

"In the five-and-a-half years I've lived here, I've encountered so many people who have done so many awesome things. What better way to pay tribute to a city than to photograph the amazing people here?"


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