Arts Grad Finds Success On a Path She Never Knew Existed

Oprah and Tracey while working on an Essence Magazine cover
Rhode Island College Impact

"No matter what your field is, you have to have a deep trust in yourself." -Tracey Woods

When Tracey Woods ’87 graduated with a bachelor of arts in graphic design from Rhode Island College, she had no idea where her diploma would take her. She had no clue then that she would become a photo shoot editor and producer — for thirteen years — for a magazine like “Essence. 

“When I was younger I knew that I wanted to do something with arts, but I didn’t know what it was,” she recalls. “At 14 or 15 I took some after school art classes at RISD, but I didn’t get into photography until college.” 

As a senior in high school, Woods was still trying to figure out what to study when she went off to college. “One of my art teachers and my guidance counselor thought design was a good fit,” she explains. “I didn’t know much about graphic design.” 

Essence Cover - Black Women in Hollywood

So, graphic design was exactly the path she chose to follow at RIC. “It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I did my first photography class,” she continues. “I loved it and thought that that’s what I wanted to do. My photography professor, Lawrence (Larry) Sykes, was really my mentor on that exploration of photography; he was a truly gifted photographer and educator who instilled that love of photography in me.”

That mentorship inspired Woods to apply to art school for a master’s degree in photography. After graduation from RIC, she worked for almost two years to save money. Soon after, she was accepted to the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York, the same school Sykes attended. “He was really a big advocate for Pratt,” she recalls. 

Essence Cover - Black Men in Hollywood

With an acceptance letter in hand and the desire to learn more about her newfound passion, Woods moved to the Big Apple to start graduate school and look for opportunities. She hoped to pursue fine art photography, but destiny had something else planned for her. She was given the chance to work as a studio manager and producer for the well-known photographer Ric Cohn. She learned the business of photography while working with him. 

“I worked for many years in editorial with magazines. My freelance job at Essence turned into a full-time position,” she says. “As photo editor and photo director I produced photo shoots or had to find existing images through research.” 

Essence Cover - Oprah and Renée Elise Goldsberry

Over the years Woods has been involved in projects with big name celebrities like Oprah and Michelle Obama, for some projects at Essense, and with other celebrities. She also produced the brand launch commercial for actress Marsia Martins’ beauty line, Mari by Marsai.

Marsia Martins’ beauty line, Mari by Marsai.

“I don’t think I could have imagined this. If I think back, even when I was a college student at RIC, of what I thought my life would look like, it’s totally different,” she notes “I had no idea that I would be doing this, so it is kind of inspiring when I meet someone like Oprah.” 

Now, Woods is the director of photography at The Luupe, a community that supports women photographers in getting more visibility and ultimately getting hired by commercial brands. “I work with photographers, helping them develop their portfolios and market themselves to potential clients, and providing production guidance,” she explains. “My job is to find the right photographer to communicate the vision a brand has to tell a story.” 

Woods notes that many students pursuing creative fields in college, have no idea what types of careers are available to them until they get out into the real world. “I didn’t know that many of these things existed until I started embedding myself in the industry,” she says.

For those students she advises, “You have to put yourself out there and no matter what your field is, you have to have a deep trust in yourself. You don’t know where your path could end up and new doors always open, so be receptive to that. Be persistent because there is something out there for everyone.”