Artist of The Week: Grey Kenna (C ‘23)

Grace Truett
Contributing Writer

Grey Kenna has had the inclination to pick up a camera ever since her childhood, when she would use her American Girl dolls as models.

Now, her photographs are full of real people, glowing in their true humanity. Kenna’s subjects lean on one another, grab each other’s hands, and laugh uninhibitedly. She captures a glance or the beginning of a grin, a moment held still. 

When asked how she makes her subjects so comfortable, she responds immediately with a smile and the statement “I overshare.” As someone who thinks of being photographed as an “awkward and scary experience,” she knows the importance of putting her subjects at ease.

“I’ll just start talking about my day and my thoughts on current events. I try to match energies with them and lead with vulnerability” she says, “I think it’s about being completely myself, so they feel they can be completely themselves.” Kenna’s process turns the transactional personal by investing in every client as she would a friend.

Kenna has come a long way in a short amount of time. She launched her business in January of 2018 as a Junior in high school, and has recently accumulated 1,000 followers on her instagram (@greytakespictures) – her feed populated with plenty of Sewanee’s familiar faces, as well as friends from her home in Atlanta, and strangers who have entrusted her with their memories. “Sometimes it feels like cheating to be able to have this be my job” she notes, still struggling to charge fees for sessions.

With a clear and unfaltering voice, she describes herself as meek. In her freshman year at Sewanee, she did only two shoots, citing her hesitance to “take up space” in a new place.

When her freshman year was abruptly cut short by the pandemic, however, Kenna was emboldened. Faced with a new abundance of time, her productivity and output flourished unexpectedly. After shooting a wedding in June of 2020, and connecting with seniors in search of portraits over social media, Kenna found a new sense of security in her business. Lockdown also provided her the opportunity to further her photography education, which she now continues by taking her first photography class at Sewanee.

Photo of Grey Kenna (C’23). Edited by Maria Mattingly.

Kenna herself brightens when she begins to speak about the use of light in her photography. “It’s my favorite thing,” she declares, “I shoot into the sun.” She structures her sessions around it – planning them an hour before sunrise or at sunset. This provides ample opportunity to play with light, whether she does that by placing glass prisms or seran wrap over the lens, or wiping facial oil across it to produce interesting lens flares. As if to bring the sun even closer, she emphasizes warmth in her editing.

Ultimately, Kenna photographs to preserve the most meaningful moments and furthermore, to elevate them with the Romantic sensibility present in her work. As she puts it, she aims to “blur the line between magic and reality.”

“You never know when a photograph may be all you have left of someone or something or a place or a time – and I don’t think that’s morbid, I think that’s just perspective.”

She then rattles off an inventory of  evocative moments that show that she has experienced and thought deeply about the things that she believes deserve to be monumentalized: “that summer before college “your first date,” and “that weekend of freshman year when you felt like you were at home for the first time.” She goes on, “capturing someone’s genuine laugh when they’re eighteen so they can have that when they’re forty – being able to give that to people is really beautiful, and that’s why I do it.”

She is hesitant to name a favorite kind of shoot to do, but expresses that she loves taking grad portraits. Those are the shoots she did when she was just beginning, and considers that time in someone’s life such a “tender season.” “It is a really dear thing to be with someone in” she continues.

“Season” was a word Kenna used several times, serving to illustrate the importance of bringing the context of a subject’s life into a portrait. “What is meaningful to you about this season in your life?” is a question she often asks her subjects.

This season of Kenna’s life, as she describes it sitting in a bustling McClurg dining room on this particular misty March morning, is sure to be a memorable one. As Vice President of Public Relations for Kappa Delta, a Sacristan for All Saints Chapel, and a leader of a Book of Joy reading group, all in addition to managing her photography business and pursuing a double major in Psychology and Religious Studies, Grey Kenna is as busy as possible, and yet she is still committed to investing in every moment – which, for Kenna, often means taking a photograph.