The faces in photographs by Cass Bird ’99 challenge our expectations. In Bird’s hands, supermodels have a disarming, direct gaze. And freckles. Elegant Cate Blanchett rocks out to Michael Jackson. Familiar celebrity faces lose the artifice. And girls who could be boys could also be girls.

“Aren’t we all sick of seeing the same imagery, of the girl with her back arched, a really bright red lip and bashful expression?” Bird asks. Instead, she prefers to shoot people—from singers Pharrell and Taylor Swift to actors Elisabeth Moss and Viggo Mortensen—“who look like themselves; not some version of themselves, some face they have to put on for the world,” she says.

That means creating a space that allows her subjects to completely open up before her lens. “I ask questions that are extremely personal during our shoots—not in an attempt to expose them, but to find out who they really are. How their childhood was, whether they have brothers or sisters—these change how they relate to the world, to me, and what kind of photograph we can take together,” Bird says.

Sally Singer, Vogue.com’s creative digital director, wrote in the introduction to Bird’s 2012 photo book, Rewilding: “I don’t think there is anyone working right now in photography who has the same ease with her subjects, the same youthful seductive energy, the same mix of spontaneity and aesthetic rigor.”

Today Bird, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her partner, Alison Schwartz Bird ’98, and their two children, Leo, 7, and Mae, 5, is highly sought after. She has shot covers for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, New York magazine, Porter Magazine, and contributes to American, British and Russian Vogue, i-D, Hobo, Details and GQ. Her work, which now includes videography, has been commissioned by the likes of AG Jeans, Calvin Klein, United Colors of Benetton and Lane Bryant. And her photographs are in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Bird’s rise may seem meteoric, but it did not come easily. “I have many memories of hiding under the covers crying and asking myself, ‘Am I ever going to get anywhere?’” she says. After Smith, Bird returned to Los Angeles, where she had grown up, determined to make it as a photographer.

“I handed out postcards and hung fliers around town. I hustled hard and, a lot of times, that got me nowhere,” she says. “I was trying to make work that would convey, ‘This girl can take a picture. We should hire her!’” Then she tried a different tack. “I started taking portraits of people who were interesting to me—girls who were my friends, and who weren’t necessarily posturing a typical girl identity.”
Bird’s break came when she collaborated with JD Samson of the dance-punk band Le Tigre to create a pinup-calendar-turned-art piece that featured photos of women they met on a 10-day road trip in their search for a “lesbian utopia.”

The now-collectors’ item earned Bird a reputation as a portraitist who takes unvarnished and playful photographs that mine—and often challenge—conventional notions of gender and sexuality.

Her emerging ideas about gender ran counter to her childhood observations of how the women in her life bend to traditional expectations of femininity. “Being a woman meant getting your hair done, your nails done, your makeup done,” she says. At Smith, though, she discovered an expanded definition of gender, one that she sought to capture in photographs. She recently came across a favorite image she took of the Smith rugby team dressed in ballgowns and posed in rowboats on Paradise Pond.

Bird’s experience at Smith not only shaped her identity as a woman but formed the trajectory of her work as an artist. As she puts it, “Having the freedom to feel and express and play with our identities is what it’s all about.”

Aimee Swartz ’98 is a freelance writer.

SAQ, Winter 2015–16