Recently I've been doing work that I expect to continue indefinitely and I want to share it with you. Plus, some of you have inquired about my process.
I first had the urge to photograph fringe society in 2011, about the same time I had the urge to begin writing. I had just kicked a ten-year heroin addiction and suddenly I could feel the pull of the universe again, which issued two directives: write and photograph. I've been trying to obey ever since.
The urge to write began taking shape in April of 2012, when I launched my first blog. But because I couldn't afford a camera, it wasn't until 2014, shortly after interviewing Ryan Muirhead, that I began making photographs. He informed me that film cameras were cheap. Two weeks later I had a Canon A1. (If you're familiar with all this, I apologize for repeating myself.)
That first Canon was scraped and scuffed, had an old breech mount lens with a silver locking ring, and it took fantastic photographs. But I lost it due to another urge.
I have this compulsion to travel, to escape, to disappear, to drink from and fuck every fountain of life, and in July of 2014, just three months after acquiring the Canon, this compulsion commanded me to walk into the mountains, alone. But I was short on gear, so I took my last remaining dollars and bought a nifty blue rain jacket and a lightweight aluminum stove. Then, just days before departing into the wilderness, my wife reminded me of three facts: the cupboards were bare, the kids needed sack lunches, and payday was a week away. So I sold my only possession of value: the Canon A1. As I slowly handed it to the buyer, a young man with excited eyes and dark-rimmed glasses, I asked myself, "How do I balance these responsibilities?" I must obey the call, and yet I must provide.
My adventure into the mountains is another story for another day, but upon returning I retrieved my last roll of film that was waiting for me at the lab. I uploaded the scans into my computer and saw this:
My heart sank.
Looking at the image now, I don't see art, or even a photograph; I see a memory. I see the memory of meeting Gertrude on her 99th birthday, her blazing neon cardigan—a medley of hearts and madras—and her, a trumpet of color moving slowly, radiantly through Liberty Park. But at the time this image was a sign: it signified possibility—in the world and in me. And it signified loss, because I no longer had a camera.
Six months would pass before I could purchase a new camera, another Canon A1, which I shoot with now. It's in mint condition, but it doesn't have the same feel as that old, beautiful piece of shit.
However, since January of this year, I've been hitting the streets in search of stories and connection, and this is how I do it.
- Body: Canon A1
- Lens: Canon FD 50mm 1.4
- Film: Kodak and Ilford black-and-white
A Salsa Casseroll. On her are:
- 20,000 miles (from the previous owner)
- titanium racks
- hammered aluminum fenders
- integrated head and tail light that are powered by the front hub
- and a magical brass bell
She's blue in color and feel.
Beer is essential for bike riding, for ice breaking, for life, really. So when I hit the streets I often carry with me Uinta Hop Nosh IPA. It's brewed in my home state of Utah, packs a punch at 7.3% ABV, and tastes like pine needles, grapefruit, and possibility. Has just the right amount of stickiness, like the back of a Post-it note. I often drink them with strangers.
I recently started carrying Bali Shag rolling tobacco and Bugler papers. Technically, I'm not a smoker, but there's nothing quite like hand rolling and then smoking a cigarette with a stranger on a sidewalk. Transparency ensues.
Prints and a Pencil
I carry a handful of 5x7 portraits I've taken, because something was lacking when, asked about my motives, I pulled up my Instagram feed on my iPhone. Now I try to overcome skepticism and mistrust by showing others a print.
I also carry a pad and a pencil, so that when taking notes it doesn't appear I'm texting my source for a bag of weed.
I first tried shooting people covertly, but that didn't go well, nor was it the experience I wanted. With a manual film camera and a 50mm lens, I have to get within four feet of my subject for a decent portrait, and focusing takes a few seconds. Doing this blew my cover. Profanities were yelled, scowls thrown.
Sneakiness not being my forte, I altered my approach to street portraiture, and this is what seems to be working. Also, it feels better.
Billy Corgan was right: a smile disarms. When I greet a person on the street, I smile, mostly because I'm genuinely excited to meet him or her, and because a true smile dispels suspicion. People are more likely to trust a man wearing rapist glasses when he smiles.
Highlight the Beauty
I quickly learned that you can't ask people for a photograph without explaining why. But adjectives like "interesting" or "uncommon" aren't received well. So, almost without exception, the reason I give, and the term I use, is "beautiful," because let's face it, the uncommon is beautiful—like the people I meet. I'm drawn to what feels raw and real.
I'm also very specific, explaining precisely what I find beautiful about the moment, whether it be a person's eyes, their facial features, the way they're composed against the city, or the dancing light. This is hard to do, because I don't look for reasons to shoot a moment, I wait 'til I'm compelled to. So any reason given feels constructed. (For the record, I think all reasoning occurs ex post facto impulse and sensation.)
Other times I just talk with people, for no reason at all, without any photographic agenda, yet a photograph results, as in the case with Kat below.
Share Myself and My Time
Only a few times have I taken someone's portrait without getting to know them, and it almost always feels lacking, so I make an effort to listen and be transparent myself. I generally spend anywhere from thirty to ninety minutes with these strangers, and I enjoy it immensely. What's especially nice, though, is that they seem to as well.
I don't ever want to get into a mode of taking portraits to entertain an online audience, to steadily supply a social media feed. I want interaction, immersion. Right now my interactions are sporadic, but they're incredibly intimate, and I'm continually humbled and amazed that strangers should be so vulnerable with me. I hope it stays that way.
One On One
I learned that getting the intimate shot doesn't happen if someone else is with me, or if someone else is with the subject I hope to photograph. People don't open up in groups. So don't ask to come shoot with me.
So that's what I'm doing. I've only just begun, and I have no intentions of quitting, but already there are so many feelings to explore. Following is a list of what I might write about in the coming months.
Future Talking Points
The New "New Journalism"
In the '60s and '70s, a fresh form of journalism emerged in American media, termed "New Journalism." It was characterized by literary flare and a subjective perspective, a style that is antithetical to the dominant notion of news journalism, which claims to report "facts."
New Journalism is said to have ended in the 1980s, but the tomes of the new journalists, which include works by Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, have endured. The literary genre that spun off from this hippie-era movement is today referred to as "literary" or "creative" nonfiction. It's the style of writing I'm most interested in.
Enter the blog.
There's not much to say about blogs, because this is the digital age and we're all familiar with them. But the best blogs, from my perspective, are informative, inspiring, and honest. They are made vital by the voice of their author. They become, as it were, an unfolding memoir.
My goal is to blend these two media phenomena. I want to combine journaling and journalism. I want to spotlight the lives of others and occasionally share my thoughts on this work. And because I just can't shut up, I suspect I'll continually reflect on the art of storytelling and what it means to me.
The Cause(s) of Homelessness
Although I photograph people from all walks of life, I often find myself hanging with the homeless, and I've reflected on their plight.
For the record, I'm more interested in having close interactions, making telling portraits, and uncovering personal stories than in exposing the causes of homelessness. But I can't help notice a prevailing, overarching theme in many of the stories I hear: money.
Economics, from my view, is the root cause of homelessness. Our social and political deficiencies that appear to be causes themselves are, in fact, symptoms of economic disease.
Addiction, abuse, lack of medical care and treatment for mental illness—these may result from faulty social infrastructure and poor policy, but our social and political infrastructure is built on an economy that doesn't support altruistic or community efforts. We are compelled to extract what we can from the earth, from culture, from each other in order to subsist or "get ahead." The homeless I meet appear to be homeless either because they cannot bear the burden of living life in such an economic model and, as a result, have attempted to opt out, or because they have been displaced by the economic machinations that ignore their needs and human frailty generally, ultimately landing where anyone does who is pushed and falls hard: on the ground.
Again, I am not an economic theorist, I have little practical interest in politics, and I don't pretend to have answers. I know Karl Marx held the view I'm essentially espousing—that economy is the substructure of civilization; politics and all other features are superstructures. But I don't suspect I'll be writing a Marxian dissertation on homelessness any time soon.
The point is, I'm less interested in homelessness than in people who happen to be homeless. Thus, anything I write regarding homelessness will be reflective, purely my opinion, and informed more by my observations than by a rigorous study of social theory. Hell, following this, I may stop writing about homelessness altogether. There's less arguing when people can only look at a photograph.
Exploitation vs Connection
Writing is often a solitary affair. But interviews and profiles, whether written or photographic, involve a subject. And working with subjects has posed an unexpected challenge for me: how to properly honor a human.
Because I share what I discover about my subjects, I constantly think about my goals. It's easy to to focus too much on getting the shot, on hearing the story without listening, on plodding impatiently into delicate ground. And even if I'm completely present for the exchange, it's hard not to feel that I've exploited someone when they share their innermost feelings and then we separate, likely to never meet again.
I've expressed this concern to friends, all of whom encourage me to continue and to see my efforts as honoring a person and their story. It's welcome encouragement, and I am going to continue, but I'm not sure whether I'll ever escape the self-doubt over what I'm doing or how I'm doing it.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I want to be open about my artistic interests and development while making the art I'm inclined to. Ostensibly, you'll have access to my perspective. But—and this is my hope—you'll also gain access to something much more than that.