Meryl Meisler's Disco Versailles: An Interview

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Text by Adam Lehrer

Photographs by Meryl Meisler courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery

What lifts the medium of photography into the realm of fine art is contrast. During the 1970s, Meryl Meisler was a teacher by day and a disco dancing queen by night. She photographed everyday life in Bushwick, and she documented the wild scenes of the discos. In her work you find sobering scenes from an impoverished and crime-ridden city, and yet its inhabitants can be found each night celebrating their fundamental rights. The right to don a more perfect look each night, the right to be a free sexual agent, and the right to dance. Her recent book, A Tale of Two Cities, depicts the stark contrast between the aching realities of life in Bushwick and the opulence of a nightclubbing scene that the artist describes as her Versailles. In these photographs, she channels humanity’s ability to rise above the chaos and revel in the miracle of life. I spoke with Meisler on a balmy day in New York to talk about the state of the city in the 1970s and the sanctuary that was the disco scene. 

ADAM LEHRER: I know your grandfather and your father were both photographers. Was that your initial exposure to the form?

MERYL MEISLER: They were a tremendous influence: their styles and purposes and just that they did it. My dad did mostly family portraits. I have his negatives and large prints. You can see pictures of his brothers, pictures of when he was in the Coast Guard, self-portraits of him writing letters, photos of when he was dating my mother. They were just really beautiful black and white portraits.

Were you already looking at photography as fine art while you were in art school?

I did not, but I saw purpose in it. My last year of undergraduate school I came home and went to see the Diane Arbus show at MoMA. That was the first time I ever saw photography as art. All the Arbus classics staring at me. I was moved. I took a class with one professor in college and he introduced us to documentary photographers and Henri Lartigue. My mindset became “this is art.”

I can see some of the influences in your work because it had some of the poetry of Arbus, but also Lartigue’s glamour. Did you think of the disco as your Paris or your ‘place of action?’

I thought, “This is my Versailles.” I knew disco was a scene that was wild and interesting. But those places were full of photographers so I never showed these photographs. When I did, I was pleased that people found a uniqueness within them. I always felt I had a special eye. I saw things differently. Even as a kid, I would look up at trees and say to friends, “aren’t they the funniest trees?” I capture a certain energy.

Absolutely.

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When I was in graduate school, I went to go see a psychic who could read spiritual things in photographs. Looking at a photo of my grandfather, she said something terrible happened with this person. My grandfather took his own life. I think that photographs have a spirituality.

What I really love about your photographs is how well the Bushwick and Disco photos juxtapose each other. New York at that point was in ruins, crack was at its worst, and Bushwick was crime-ridden, but you found joyous moments. Was that intentional? To paraphrase Keith Richards discussing ‘Exile on Main Street,’ were people partying in the face of tragedy?

I realize now I was taking pictures of things I found uplifting because I couldn’t afford to quit teaching. Bushwick was tough. But I also found it to be friendly and warm. Whereas the disco stuff, I wanted to go deeper. There were darker things on the disco scene. As dark as Meryl gets.

What did you prefer about disco, as opposed to punk rock?

I liked the big club, I liked the lights, I liked the fashion, the bathrooms certainly were a lot cleaner, you could dance. I went to CBGBs, but disco was my scene.

How did this reappraisal of your work at the Bushwick bar, Bizarre, come into fruition? 

During Bushwick Open Studios one year I went to get lunch and Bizarre bar owner Jean-Stephane Sauvaire says, “Hello, this is my place!” and he showed me what he was doing there. They didn’t even have a food license yet. And then he showed me the basement that he painted dark and he said, “I’d like to show photographers like you here.” I told him, “I’ve shown in museums and now I’m gonna show in the basement of a bar where they’re stealing stuff off the walls!” and he says, “don’t be such a snob.” 

That’s how you introduce it to a new viewership.

He said, “I want to publish a book.” I’m thinking this guy is out of his mind. I’m thinking okay,  “I want it to be about Bushwick and my disco work, these worlds connect.” He asked to see them  and I just started scanning them. My spouse Patricia Jean O’Brien designed the book and we put it together. Bizarre became my publisher, which is the most bizarre thing. 

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An Interview of Nobuyoshi Araki

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Interview by Dan Abbe

Portraits by Tom Fraud

 

NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: What kind of questions will you be asking? There’s nothing really to ask, is there? Because my photos are pretty chatty. I'm not joking! They're just the same as talking to me. If I was going to put it in a cool-sounding way, it’s like they translate my subjects as they really are. So, there's really nothing to talk about! 

DAN ABBE: [Do you] look at the internet much? 

ARAKI: No, I don’t have it. I don’t even own a mobile phone. Nothing like that. I don’t like being shot with a digital camera, especially a really good one. It's too good, you know? I feel like digital cameras miss what’s most important, emotion and wetness. These things get lost in digital photography. And before you know it, you get used to that. I’m not talking about shades or shadows being lost, or anything like that. But I almost feel as if digital photography takes away the shadow of the person taking the photo. That’s why I don’t use digital cameras. 

I’d like to ask you about your recent exhibit at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, "Ojo Shashu: Photography for the Afterlife." How do you think it went, either in terms of the content, or the reaction from the audience? 

The museum tried to make it seem like I was dead. For me, putting something together always means pulling it apart. For this exhibit, it worked, though. I mean, the museum is designed well, as a place to show photographs. When I first started, I thought that photographs should be shown in books, not in museums. At that time, I thought that museums were like graveyards, at least for photography, you know. This exhibit was good. Presenting my works in an exhibit like that instead of through a photo book, I feel like I was able to express myself even better. It’s like climbing Mount Fuji—it’s usually better to see the sunrise from the 8th station, but for this exhibit we went straight to the top. 

Did you try out anything in particular with the presentation of your work? 

I try to switch things up to make it look as rough around the edges as possible. You know those people who pay really careful attention to the way their works are exhibited? Like, some photographers focus on the layout too much. That’s wrong. It should just be slapped together. I didn’t even put the photos up myself. I entrusted all that to people who understand me well—I just said, "do it however you want." It was a success. I’ve always acted on the principle of pulling everything apart and always presenting something new. 

The next exhibition I’m doing is called Ai No Tabi [Love Journey] in Niigata Prefecture. (pointing out a photo in the catalog) This one is of my balcony when I was living in Gotokuji. This is the western sky. Heaven, in other words. Around March 11, 2011, my apartment building was demolished, so I moved to Umegaoka, a neighborhood close by. I did up the rooftop and began shooting the eastern sky from there. That’s where the sun rises, you know, reborn. In this sense, I take photographs in the same way that I live my life. 

It’s not just a simple shot of the eastern sky; it’s loaded with my feeling that everything starts from there. Let me tell you something: as you can see, the sky in the east gets darker and darker. Now look closer, and it becomes a mirror, or a window of myself. Before March 11, 2011, I had to face my father’s death, my mother's death and my wife’s death. Then around March 11, my cat Chiro died. So recently, the Grim Reaper has been hovering around here. And over there is a goddess (gestures at the woman sitting next to him) so these days it's the three of us! (laughs) I got prostate cancer and did radiotherapy, which messed this up (points towards his pelvis) and made me piss blood. Then I lost sight in one of my eyes. The blood in my urine is from the radiotherapy. But I also had a circulatory problem, a blocked artery, so now I’m taking a blood-thinning agent, but it's thinning too much and making me piss blood. So here I am going through all this, and now you want to ask me these questions! (all laugh) 

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Your exhibit "Sagan No Koi [Love on the Left Eye]" was showing at Taka Ishii Gallery recently... 

Yeah, I took the title from van der Elsken's "Seine Sagan No Koi [Love on the Left Bank]." It could have been Love on the Sumida River for all I care. My wife loved "Love on the Left Bank" too. I was a fan of his work when I was around 20. I guess I’m paying homage, or really just playing around. What did you think of it? 

I thought it could be appreciated as painting, too. The show that's up there now [an exhibit by Kunié Sugiura] also combines photography and painting, so there’s a connection. Anyway, I was interested in the gaps where the light breaks through the paint a little bit. 

That’s what’s great about those works. That you can kind of see them, but you also can’t. After this, I thought about painting over the left half as well, and calling it "Light and Darkness Lost." Light and Darkness is Natsume Soseki’s posthumous novel. It seems like a waste, but I painted over photographs of nudes and so on in black. Still, if I went too far, it would seem like I was trying to do some sort of trendy art, so I’m holding back. It's tough though, my genius makes me do these things! (laughs)

I want to talk about your recent work. Every time you produce something new, you do it under the name Araki, which means that the bar is always set high. Yet I think you’ve been clearing it each time, and I wonder whether people don’t think: "well, it's Araki, so of course it’s going to be good." Do you think you’re taken for granted?

I mean, I’ve decided that I must do something different every time. If I don't keep transforming, I’ll just become a master. It's no good being a maestro. (laughs) I always want to work as if I’m a novice. I never want to reproduce or reshoot anything I've already done. I do always say that photography is about reproducing, for instance the reproduction of a person, or the reproduction of an era, reproduction this, reproduction that, but actually I think it's bad to keep reproducing your own work. 

I actually wanted to ask you about this word reproduction, or replication. The same subjects often appear in your work, and I wonder whether you would also consider that to be a kind of replication, too. Based on what you just said, though, I’m guessing no. 

That's right. So his style is a little different, but it’s like looking head-on at a Picasso painting. (looks at the woman next to him) From a different angle, she looks Chinese, different. From the front, the back, at an angle.... What you see and what you feel is up to you. My subjects are multifaceted, and that’s what I find appealing, that they’re appealing in different ways. When I photograph a woman, I see many different sides to her.

Is the sky similar as a subject in that it's different every time?

Yes. To me, that's why it's "heavenly." There are no two skies that look the same. Later, I will exhibit “Eastern Sky” at Shiseido Gallery. I’ve been shooting the sky every morning for nearly three years, since I moved to my new apartment after March 11. 

But you know, when it comes to showing these photos.... It’s not like I think the audience won’t understand, or that I would be making fun of them, but shooting photos and showing them are two different things. When you exhibit, you should have at least some entertainment. 

For example, I do this thing that I call "kurumado" [this is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “car,” kuruma, and “window,” mado] where I shoot from the inside of a taxi. Everything looks great from the window now. I used to photograph all the time, but looking makes me more tired now, because I can only see with one eye. So now, I only shoot when my taxi stops at a red light. When I stop at a red light, the shot is framed perfectly by the side window, because the photography gods are on my side.

But anyway, when I show these photos of basically nothing to an audience, I feel like I should make it more entertaining by throwing in some nudes here and there, even though I call my work "Shi-shashin" [I-photography]. 

The content of these three shows in Aichi, Niigata and Tokyo are all very different. 

Yeah, it’s not a “traveling exhibition,” I don't do that.

Because that would be a repetition?

Yes, yes. Otherwise it’s like, “Oh, I saw the same thing in that city too.” 

Are you making three different catalogs too? 

No, just one. There are going to be some photos in the Niigata section of the book that didn’t even make it into the actual exhibit. Also, I’m only using one photo from the Eastern Sky exhibit I’ll be doing at Shiseido. I took it on New Year's Day, this year.

I bet something's going to happen within this year. Like a nuclear power plant or Mount Fuji is going to blow, something like that. It won't be a reborn eastern sky anymore. I feel like the entire sky—north, south, east, west—is beginning to resemble the western sky, in other words heaven. Still, I want to live to be over eighty. That’s how my photos make me feel. They encourage me. The sky that I’m looking at right now has become a mirror. 

What’s the difference between the eastern and western skies? 

Ah. It's very chatty, you know, the western sky. A real loudmouth. In the olden days, it was considered to be the Pure Land. It’s where the sun sets, and when it does, it’s quite dramatic. I think life’s the same way too. 

The sun rises in the east, so I thought that the eastern sky was flat, because of all this backlight. But these days, it's getting more complicated. Perhaps because of El Niño, what the hell do I know!

Here's the interesting thing, though. Because I’m shooting against the light, the bumpy tops of those buildings look like graves, or gravestones. You could almost say it’s like a graveyard sky. You look at the sky, you look at the heavens, you look at the world. And see, that’s where the road is. When I see roads, I feel like they’re life itself. At every moment. 

Mornings from 7 to 8 am, there’s always a girl running in high heels, click clack click. If only she’d leave the house a little earlier, then she wouldn’t have to rush, and the station is so close, too! Someone's walking their dog, and there are families and married couples. I’ve been shooting the same scenery for three years, so now there’s room to think thoughts like “I wish I saw new couples instead of the usual ones.” Or “I wish he’d get a different girlfriend.” That’s what I think about when I’m shooting. (laughs) You can see the essence of this whole year in these photos. (points to a section of the catalog)

So these are all photos you took from your rooftop?

That’s right. I’m making a photo book entirely of this series. It’ll be out in a month or so. But without anything else, I think it will be kind of boring for the poor saps looking at it! (laughs)

But you’re not bored of them yourself, are you.  

Oh, nowadays this is all I need! It’s a bad example, but they're better than Balthus’ road. ["Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-André"]

In Japan, words like “path” [michi] or “sky” can easily take on deeper meanings. That’s why I’m using the word “road” [doro]. If you say “path,” people might take this to be spiritual or symbolic, they might think of paths with no one in sight, or a painting by Kaii Higashiyama, and this is not what I’m going for. I want to say that everyday things can tell us a lot about everything. It’s the everyday that’s alive. That's why I shoot every single day.

So every day without fail, you shoot the sky and the road from your rooftop. Is there anything else that you do every day? 

People often decide this kind of thing, right? Like, "I'm going to shoot such and such a thing." If I had that kind of time, I’d rather just take photos of myself. That's why I take “I-photographs.” You have to keep on breathing, keep your heart pumping, and in my case clicking the shutter is the same thing. That's why I'm not going to go photograph a war, or something like that. 

It's weird to say I’m moved, but I guess I'm most affected by things like pissing blood. When things like that happen, the first thing I think is to grab my camera. That’s what I’ve been doing for about fifty years. (laughs)

I wanted to ask you about something I read in the remembrance you wrote for Shomei Tomatsu, in which you said that he'd influenced you in terms of your thoughts about history, or politics. 

Oh, I wouldn't write that. "politics" and such. I think it depends on when you were born. He was born 10 years before me, so he was hung up about the fact that we were occupied, that's why he went to Yokosuka and Okinawa. I’m personally more hung up about things like the atomic bomb. I shoot a lot in August: the 6th, the 9th, Nagasaki, and the 15th, the day the war ended. When I was working on Pseudo Diary, I messed with the camera's dating feature, so in some sense I have an obsession about this, or about the Showa Emperor. Again, this all depends on when you were born. On August 15, I would, without fail, go to the Imperial Palace and shoot. I was really into that. I have a thing for the date August 15. I would change the date of the camera to August 15, take regular photos of daily life, and some other meaning would appear. March 11 overlaps with the atomic bomb in my mind.

Right, I mean you've said that your photographs are all about yourself, but I think that March 11 has become a surprisingly big theme for you. 

It's influenced me, yes—but it's more like I’ve had no choice but to be influenced. It’s probably the influence closest to me personally, strange as that may sound. But it was its own expression. Photographers, you know, aren't people who express things. It's the world that does the expressing. Time, too.

One role of photographers is to respond to such expressions through shooting. I'm not like that, though. Even now I sometimes think maybe I should have gone, but I'm the kind of photographer that squeals out, "nice!" when I shoot. As a photographer, it would've been a fantastic landscape—a boat sitting on top of a love hotel—but I wouldn't have been able to keep my mouth shut. I get like that when I hold a camera. So that's why I couldn’t go, didn't go.

So many photographers have gone to Tohoku and taken photographs, but personally I'm not sure it's adding up to much. 

Well, I basically don’t look at other people’s photos. It’s not that I’m cynical, but I’m interested in other things, like the silly people trying to save this lone pine tree that miraculously survived. That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in. It's kind of a goofy or foolish thing, but it's really interesting to me. 

Okay, let's talk about the sky again. You're now facing towards the east, but as far as I know Tokyo Skytree has never appeared in your work. Is that intentional? 

I’m loyal to Tokyo Tower, I grew up with it. I went up Skytree for a job, but it was cloudy that day so it didn't even matter!

I’m worried that Skytree will ruin the shitamachi [Tokyo's older district] by turning it into a regular place. Of course Tokyo is always changing, but I wonder how you feel about this.

Cities are always changing, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Even if it does become all digitized, I don’t mind the idea of a digital shitamachi. 

I don’t like photos that don’t have a feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia lasts forever. Even if you can’t see it, nostalgia remains. People look down on nostalgia and sentimentality, right? Like they're not virile. Tears are good. 

Everyone is losing touch with this kind of thing. Not just in photography, you know, but in the way they're relating to each other. I mean, what is this—Twitter and so on. Pick up a damn brush and write out the characters! (laughs) That’s why people get frustrated and stab one another, because their words aren’t getting through to others. That's something good about the shitamachi though. You can see siblings going to calligraphy classes together after school. Ah, I just love that, I can't contain myself. It’s so great. 

(Araki looks through the catalog)

A little while ago I said "Light and Darkness Lost," making a joke out of Soseki's Light and Darkness, but I’m not necessarily inspired by literature. It’s the photos I take subconsciously that teach me the most. I took a photo of a cat’s shadow, you see? (picks out an image in the catalog) That’s because I felt that there might be more truth in its shadow. Regardless of whether that’s the right thing or not. There are some men who prefer shadows to bodies, you know. (laughs) 

Something I like about your work is that it's extremely pure, but it’s not naïve. I mean, this is sort of a strange thing to say, but I have this idea that your mind is more Greek than Japanese. Before you mentioned how tears are good, right? A few years ago, when I saw your exhibit about Chiro, Sentimental Journey, Spring Journey at Rat Hole Gallery, I was so overcome with emotion that I nearly burst out into tears right there. It feels to me like you relate to things, whether animal or human, in an almost cosmic way.

With Chiro, if you look at those photographs you can see that her feelings towards me were much stronger than my feelings towards her. I did not respond enough to her love. Her love was deeper than mine. The photographs make this clear. Look at her final portrait, when she gazed at me. I just feel that my love was weak. That's why the photographs of Chiro are good. My photos have always been about my relationship with the partner in front of me. 

How about the people looking at your work—what sort of "partner" are they? 

I’m not so concerned about them. For me, it’s all about the subject in the photo and nothing else. That’s why, when I present my works, I feel like I need to add an element of entertainment for the audience, even if it's a lie. 

(showing images of Chiro) This is when she’s so thin that they can’t even find a place to put a drip in her arm. I asked her to stand one last time for a photo, and she did. But you know what? This face, with her eyes closed, when she was dead—that was the most beautiful shot. 

Here, she’s already got rigor mortis. It sets in immediately after death, you know. That’s why she’s the same shape. (shows Chiro after cremation) I told them [i.e. the crematorium staff] to keep her in this position. 

Here I’ve painted onto the sky. (points at an image) I made these works for the exhibition one year after Yoko's death. It's a pity to exhibit black and white photographs on white walls, so I created a sky dedicated to her. A sunrise or sunset, a sky for her. I can’t help it, I’m naturally gifted. These are great, aren't they? (laughs)

I’m curious to ask about Setsuko Hara, who has appeared in your work a few times— 

Yes indeed! That big-boned, Russian-looking woman. There's the word sonzaikan ["presence"], but I have a particular term that I use when I’m referring to a woman, nyozaikan [a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “woman,” nyo, and “presence”], and she had it. She isn’t cute or sexy at all, but I like women who are full of resentment, who have some poison in them, and I was attracted to those qualities in her. 

In that sense, what do you think about the girls of AKB48? 

They’re all the same... That’s what I'd call “digital.” It's okay for what it is. They’re all cute, and that's not bad, no? But there are girls from the same generation who exist in a different realm from AKB48, and I think they're amazing. The AKB girls are manufactured. I guess some people will find them interesting, though. 

But they're not your liking? 

Oh, some of them I like. (laughs) But they all look the same to me. I’ve shot some of them, too. In thinking about what I would want to shoot, my own mettle came out. So, you had Atsuko Maeda and Yuko Oshima. In the election, Oshima had won— 

You're surprisingly familiar with this!

So I thought I’d get some sort of reaction if I made them stand side by side, and in fact there's one shot where they're almost wrapped up together. You could just feel their rivalry. That's interesting to me, to shoot two people in that kind of situation.

Let’s talk a little bit about foreign countries. What has the response to your work been abroad? 

People overseas responded to my work immediately. When I showed Akt-Tokyo in Europe, the photos spoke for me, especially since I didn’t speak the language. It convinced me that photos are better than words. 

Do you think that Japanese photography culture has anything to teach overseas? 

Probably not, right? (laughs) Anyway, it’s not about teaching or being taught—as long as you’re ready to learn from your subjects, you’ll definitely be fine. And by the way, everything around you is fantastic.

Overseas, they try to force all this emotion into the frame, right? But it’s better to think of the frame as something from which emotions and such can escape easily. 

How would you look back on your experience as a judge for the Canon New Cosmos competition? In some sense, you helped shape an era. 

I've been bashing digital today, but these days, digital shots that people take of friends of friends seem to be valued pretty highly. Maybe that’s because I used to select those kinds of photos all the time at the competition, though I selected other things too. 

We had guest judges sometimes, like the director of a photography museum in Paris. He told me that he understood my photos, but that he didn’t understand the photos I'd selected as a judge. You know, people like HIROMIX. 

I mean, the stuff that guy selected was amazing! A reflection of the moon in a pond, that kind of thing. Come on! (all laugh) So I guess it's not surprising that, coming in as a guest judge, he couldn't understand photographs taken by young Japanese girls. Maybe that work could tell him something like, "Hey, dad, this is how photography is really done!" 

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An Interview of Julian Klincewicz

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Text and Photographs by Adam Lehrer

The 21-year-old, San Diego-based, multimedia artist Julian Klincewicz lives within an interesting dichotomy. In some ways, the lanky, curly locked and minimally dressed creative is a pure embodiment of the millennial artist mindset: his work is informed by a preternaturally vast exposure to a plethora of pop culture (punk, hip hop, celebrity culture, movies, and lots of skateboarding), he is indifferent to antiquated Generation X “empire” notions of “selling out” and is open to branding when he admires the work of said brand, and he is of a deeply open-minded disposition, putting his hand to any creative medium that interests him. At the same time, Klincewicz’s work is the antithesis of what has come to be understood about millennial culture. Though he hasn’t been alive long enough to actually remember the analog world, the tired cliché of “an analog man living in a digital world” applies to Klincewicz tenfold. As a genuine creative “polymath,” he counts published author, photographer, musician, and fashion designer amongst his various job titles. But Klincewicz discovered his artistic spirit through a medium that now seems anathema to the ultra-polished aesthetics of digital media: behind the lens of a VHS camcorder that his aunt found in his Grandma’s attic. “I started shooting because I was interested in videos, and I had a VHS Video camera,” says Klincewicz. “And then I had some conceptual ideas because that’s the way I think. Impulse and intellect complement and inform each other.” 

It’s hard not to feel envy towards Klincewicz having cultivated such a unique aesthetic and interested audience at such a young age. But it became clear to me, through exploring his work and communicating with him, that he is an undeniable talent with a singular voice and a powerful method of communicating that voice to the world. I had to speak with him. 

ADAM LEHRER: Your early video work and VHS work straddles the line between nostalgic VHS aesthetics and the immediacy of digital culture. When you started shooting these videos were you ever conscious of a conceptual or philosophical idea driving it, or did you just really love shooting video?

JULIAN KLINCEWICZ: With video, and specifically my early VHS videos, I’ve always had some conceptual ideas behind them, but I also enjoyed the process of filming and editing. The first video I ever made was intended to make the viewer uncomfortable, which, in retrospect, was a very naïve way, or a very young way, of understanding the concept that through art you can emphasize and create human emotion. I took a lot of influence from Ray and Charles Eames, and their idea that you can create an overview of a given experience, giving the viewer all the tools to create their own connection with it, and complete the work themselves if they want to.

I identify with you and your work quite a bit. Like you, skateboarding was my original obsession and everything else bled out from that initial interest: photography, fashion, art, writing, video. Why do you think so many artists in 2016 had roots in skateboarding culture?

I think that skateboarding is this really unique “sport” in that it’s a place where everyone is rooting for everyone else. At the skate park or spot, you’re excited when someone else lands the trick they’re trying, and that creates this unique understanding of what individual growth and community can look like. Skateboarding inherently supports creativity and DIY ethos. 

I think having the experience of going to a spot and knowing you’re going to get kicked out and knowing most people view your passion as destructive or dangerous gives you a greater sense of self-motivation, which is something you absolutely need in pursuing arts. 

When you decided to be an artist, how did you come to the conclusion that you would be a multimedia artist dabbling in everything, as opposed to a painter, or a sculptor?

Again I think that’s something that’s a mix of a gut impulse that later took on a more conceptual approach. Being an artist is a way of being in the world. I identify as an artist in the same way I might identify with a gender or sexual orientation: I couldn’t not be it. It’s very much the way I see and connect things, and make sense of the world and myself. 

Do you think that as millennial artists start to come into their own, the very existence of traditional painters and sculptors might be challenged? Is the creative polymath to 2017 what the abstract expressionist was to the ‘50s or what the pop artist was to the ‘60s?

Oh boy (laughs). Let’s start by defining what the “millennial mindset” is: anything is possible, we have the potential to achieve anything, we have to be doing more and we have to be doing it now.  Because if we don’t, firstly, someone else will. Secondly, having seen the generation above me prove that university education does not guarantee job safety and that the three generations above me failed to act in the interest of my generation in terms of sustaining our planet and mental health, there is no option for us to fail. The world we live in today may very well not exist tomorrow. That awareness essentially creates a hyper anxious and excited state of emotional and mental flux, both good and bad.

When did you first become aware of the power of style and fashion to define one’s self? 

I didn’t understand style or fashion at all. I still don’t really think I do. I can see it in other people, but when it comes to myself, I don’t know a damn thing. I like wearing all black. Dylan Rieder [recently passed pro skateboarder] influenced my perception of the relationship between style and the self; in skateboarding and life. He taught us that you can either do an ollie impossible over a bench, or you can do an impossible over a bench and look better than River Phoenix while doing it. Dylan changed everything.

The designers you’ve shot videos for, which range from the heavily art informed Eckhaus Latta, the cult-y and conceptual Gosha Rubchinskiy, and the conceptual meets pop culture massiveness of Yeezy, don’t share that many aesthetic similarities, but do propose a way of dressing and all interact with both the art and pop culture worlds. What do you look for in designer collaborations? 

I try to work with people that I feel challenged by. There should be something in the brand that I identify with and understand, but that I also can learn about. Gosha, Kanye, and Eckhaus Latta all have that in common. They’re people that I’m inspired by and for whatever reason I feel like I can contribute something to what they are trying to say. So when I get the opportunity to actually work with them, I try the best I possibly can to contribute everything I have to their worlds, and learn as much as I can.

In your fashion show, ‘Hey, I Like You’ did you approach this as an art project, or did you approach this as a designer making products (albeit art and culture referencing products) that you hope to sell? Should there even be a distinction between these two ideas? 

The runway show installation, 'Hey, I Like You,' was very much an art piece. It was about using a runway show as a medium to express a feeling or atmosphere. I tried to create something special and unique for a specific audience that would get to see it in real life, but with the understanding that a chunk of the project would live online as well, and be received as a “collection,” versus an art piece. I embrace that as well. The medium of the runway show is tied to fashion and products. They’re all integral parts of the piece.

I’m curious about your series of zines that explore the human relationship to objects. To me, digital culture has enabled an interesting dichotomy in our relationship to objects. Though we are increasingly less dependent on objects, the objects we choose to surround ourselves with become increasingly more important. Is that what this series is trying to express? 

When I’m on my phone because I’m bored for 30 seconds in line at the grocery store, I feel fine and I feel a bit lonely even though there’s people all around me. When I hold my favorite book, I’m transported to another world. I’m connected to a specific thing. Human beings are not digital. I think a lot of people in my generation are forgetting that and it’s creating a sense of isolation.

I’m bored of the Internet. But with my guitar strings I can bend and touch and make sound or silence with them. We need connection, we need reality, and we especially need people to function as people. 

The Kids Were Alright: An Interview of Ryan McGinley

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Text by Paige Silveria

Photographs by Ryan McGinley

 

Almost a decade and a half since his documentary style photos of his debaucherous Downtown New York friends were presented at the Whitney Biennale, RYAN MCGINLEY has dug through his archives, much of which he hasn’t seen since 2003, for his upcoming show “The Kids Were Alright” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Accompanying imagery from the initial exhibition, never-before-seen Polaroids of friends in his home over the course of four years are mixed with assorted objects and ephemera – including a series of cameras that he regularly threw up on. Knowing much about his work and its evolution since this early show, but little about what brought him there, I rang up Ryan recently to chat.

PAIGE SILVERIA: How’s your day going? Do you have a tight schedule?

RYAN MCGINLEY: I always have a tight schedule. I always have a million things to do. Like, I’m trying to prepare for this show. That’s taking a lot of energy. But it’s good! We have a book coming out with Rizzoli that I’ve been working on until the last minute. There’s a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t think of. There’s a lot of ephemera in the show, like journals of mine from that time, cameras, early zines that I made -- stuff like that. And a lot of stuff from people who were around at that time, like Dash Snow and Dan Colen’s artwork. 

Tell me more about the ephemera.

Well when I was shooting back then, I was using the Yoshica T4. I went through maybe 20 of those over the course of like six years. I would do this project where I would drink Ipecac syrup, the stuff that you give babies if they eat poison berries or something, and it makes them throw up. I had this project where I would puke on my cameras. I would shoot a roll of me drinking the stuff and then vomiting on the camera. There are a few of these photos of me puking in the show. A lot of the cameras would break because of that.

What gave you the idea to do that? 

I don’t know. I was just out one night and I got really wasted and I was probably throwing up and I thought, ‘Why don’t I throw up on my camera?’ I probably got the roll back and thought, ‘Oh wait. This is a good idea. It’s interesting and something I’ve never seen before.’ The camera is featured as weatherproof, which means that you can get it wet, but you can’t submerge it. So I thought, ‘I could puke on these cameras and I bet they won’t break.’ So I did this for a year or two and made a whole series. There’s a lot of broken cameras in the show. 

How long have you been working on the show for?

Maybe nine months. I met the curator about a year ago. I was in Texas at Marilyn Minter’s retrospective at the contemporary art museum there. Marilyn is one of my closest friends. I went down there and I met Nora Burnett Abrams, who’s the curator for my show. When I got back, she reached out and told me about this Jean-Michel Basquiat show she was doing on the first floor. It’s only his early work. Work from when he was the same age that I was when I was making my early work, which was in the Whitney show. She asked if I’d be interested in showing my early work as sort of a comparative to Jean-Michel’s. And of course I said, “Sure, it sounds amazing.” I think there are a lot of similarities between the two of us. I think someone attending the museum would be interested in both of our work. 

When was the last time you looked at that early work?

I’d never really gone through that work since I shown it between 2001 and 2003. So it gave me this opportunity to dig through my archives -- especially my Polaroids. I had this obsessive Polaroid practice where I’d shoot everyone who came over to my house. My house was sort of a flophouse at the time. I took several thousand over the course of five years or so. It was cool to go through them and my archives in general. I shot pretty heavily in that period, like five-to-ten roles a night for pretty much five years. 

What was it like to go through those?

I guess it was cathartic. A lot of people aren’t around anymore. A lot of people committed suicide or overdosed on drugs and died. So from my group specifically, it was interesting to look at the photos with fresh eyes and over a decade of space. There were a lot of sentimental moments and I realized what a strong connection my group of friends had. I don’t think I would have been able to see those things at the time that I was taking these photos. 

Can you tell me a bit about your background? What was growing up like for you? Your parents were religious right?

Yeah, my parents were pretty hardcore Roman Catholic. I went to church about three times a week until I was about 13. I was really involved too, so I was like an altar boy and could recite the Bible and knew the stories. From an early age I was always interested in religious art. There were all of these depictions of good and evil and now that I think of it, a lot of nude bodies. I loved the symbolism. That’s what I was into as a kid. 

You had an older brother who lived in New York?

Yeah, he lived in the city and I would be dropped off at his and his boyfriend’s apartment. They were wild and gay and brilliant. Always singing and dancing. His boyfriend was a Barbra Streisand impersonator, and he got paid to do that. So it was fun; they always had costumes. His boyfriend would be acting stuff out from “Funny Girl." And my brother was really into Judy Garland. He just loved her so much. He’d always dress up like the Wicked Witch of the West for me. He’d put on this fake rubber nose and the green makeup. I guess it’s called being a Lion Queen, if you’re a gay guy and you know all of the Broadway numbers and movies. So he was the Lion Queen. He knew all of the lines and he’d act it out because he knew how much I loved it. It was fun to just hang with them and their friends who were other gay men. It was fun to go to New York and be raised in that environment.

When did you start going out to visit him?

As far back as I can remember. It was probably from when I was five years old until 13 maybe. My brother moved back in with us when I turned 13. 

 

It seems almost surprising that your parents would drop you off there at such a young age. 

Well they weren’t Catholic in that they would kick someone out of the house for being gay. They were okay with my brother. They followed the motto, “Treat thy neighbor as you’d treat thyself.” And I can’t remember, but maybe they encouraged him to go to confession or something like that? (Laughs) But my family is so close. There are eight of us. There’s an 11-year difference between me and my youngest brother -- so I was everybody’s baby. The brother I was visiting in the city was 17 years older than me. It was almost as if I could have been his son. I was just passed around between all of these people who just gave me so much attention as a young kid. 

And you finally moved to New York yourself for art school. 

It was my ticket out. There were these people who weren’t operating on the same wavelength as me. And I knew there was a good group of people in the city that were likeminded to me at art school. So I worked really hard in high school to develop my portfolio so I could get a scholarship at Cooper or Pratt or SVA. 

There weren’t any artistic people around growing up?

My art teacher. We would hang out; she was my good friend. She’d talk to the principal and get me out of classes. She’d say like, “Ryan’s going to go to art school, so forgive his grades in this class. Let him spend more time in the art room.” She had breast cancer at the time. So, she was going through a crisis. And I was going through a crisis with my brother, because he was dying of AIDS at the time. So we really bonded. We would go into the city and hang together. She was just my friend. She knew exactly what I needed to do. She really guided me. 

What type of artwork were you making when you were in high school?

I was really good at jewelry making -- making beads and crazy designs. But what I cashed in on, what I was known for in my town, was for making fake turquoise really well out of Fimo Clay. I would sell all these fake turquoise necklaces and rings at this shop at such a cheap price and all of the older women would buy it because it looked so real. Turquoise is pretty expensive. I was also really into sculpture and I really love Henry Moore. So I’d do a lot of carving of moonstone to make it look like Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi sculptures. Then, of course, I painted a lot. Like I once made a painting of a guy with a computer head. It was pre-Internet. It was like, “The world is turning and people are going to have computer heads eventually!” Which is pretty much reality right now with everyone and their iPhones. And it was made in the Chuck Close style. You know how he paints like each little box and then you step out and it looks very realistic? That was my style and I did a lot of stuff like that. (Laughs)

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You were pretty into skateboarding too right?

Yeah, I had this little Japanese silk-screening machine and I would make my own silkscreens at home. You’d just photocopy something and you’d put the photocopy on the machine and you’d press it down and it would expose it. And you could silkscreen whatever you made, anywhere. So I did a lot of skateboard decks because I would skateboard every day in high school. I would make a lot of designs and logos for my friends’ decks. Like cool punk collage designs. 

Did Parsons and the city live up to its expectations when you finally moved? Or did you have to find your place?

No, I have always felt like this city was designed for me. When I moved here, it was the best day of my life. And there were no blogs or social media at the time. I found my crowd pretty quickly. At art school, I was with likeminded people. They were outsiders and gay people and of different economic backgrounds and races. It was so diverse and exactly what I was looking for. 

When did you start taking photos?

Around the end of ’98. At that point, I’d gotten a boyfriend. I started photographing him a lot and then my group of friends, outside of art school. People I had close relationships with or met: skaters, graffiti writers, gay people. I was recreating a family. I come from this big family, but it’s like I got the opportunity to create this new one that I just love so much. I started photographing them on a daily basis. 

You would do some dangerous stuff to get some of those photos. And getting images of some of the graffiti writers who didn’t want to be known must have been tricky.

Graffiti writers had so much paranoia because of the Graffiti Squad: the commission put together to stop graffiti in New York City. I was photographing all of the IRAK graffiti crew, which were at the top of the vandal squad’s hit list. Those guys were paranoid about their faces being seen in the photos with their tags on the wall. I was always shooting them while they were writing graffiti, but I could never show their face and their tag. I think just surrounding myself with graffiti writers, there was a healthy paranoia for them. Nothing ever happened. What really interests me about graffiti is the obsessive compulsive nature of it. I’m a magnet to people who are compulsive and obsessive. I think that’s how I found a lot of my friends. Just that personality of someone who is like, “Don’t look at me, don’t look at me, okay look at me.” I also love the risk that graffiti writers take too. A lot of the photos in my show are of people hanging off of the sides of buildings with a rope around their wastes, you know? That’s why I really loved Dash. Because when I met him, he was such an adventurer. He’d go out every single night. When I met him, I was so into that -- going into subway tunnels, on roofs, out onto the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge. All of this crazy, insane, dangerous stuff was just so fun. The experience is super exhilarating. 

Back to art school for a second, what is it about it that you think is so beneficial? 

I think it’s the structure. I think it’s a little of everything. There was this one teacher who really changed my life who taught this class my fifth year of school called “Nudity, Sexuality and Beauty in Photography.” It was a game changer for me. I really needed that structure. I think if I hadn’t gotten that, I don’t think I would have been able to survive in New York. I would have had to get a job and I wouldn’t have had enough time to make my art and develop as an artist. School really accelerated my evolution and showed me what I didn’t like, you know? It brought me closer to the things that I did like and what I was good at. And for school, I had to be up at 8am. If I wasn’t in school I would have easily slept until like 1pm every day. My first year at school I went for painting and then my second year I did poetry and then my third and fourth year I switched to graphic design, and then my fifth year, I switched to photography. I think if I didn’t have a peer group or the facilities that the school provided, I wouldn’t have been able to make those leaps. Or really figure out what I was interested in. And I was one of those kids who really used the school and took all of the classes to try everything out. I was all over the place and after five years, I didn’t even graduate. 

Oh really?

It wasn’t until two years ago, they called me to be the commencement speaker. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it. But I just want to let you guys know that I never graduated from Parsons.” And they were like, “Oh my god. We’ll give you your honorary degree!” So I mean, I was there for five years and I did do a lot of stuff, and it was awesome. I’m really pro school. I know a lot of people aren’t. I have a lot of people that work for me that ask me that question all of the time. I try to sit them down and talk to them and try to figure out what type of person they are; do they need structure or are they someone who seems to self-discipline? But I think it’s a good thing. And it also bought me five years of not having to have a job. So fucking awesome. I mean, when in your life do you ever get that opportunity -- to really focus on your passion without having to work? I got a good scholarship there and that helped.

 

Being Sandro Miller: An Interview of Photographer and Artist Sandro Miller

text by Adam Lehrer

 

Sandro Miller has been using photography as a medium for storytelling for over 30 years. In both commercial work and fine art endeavors, Miller has shown time and time again that the still image can be imbued with as much emotion and theatrics as a 90 minute film: “ I strive to make images that move people and facilitate conversation,” says Miller.

Many of Miller’s best known projects are loaded with Freudian subtext and even pathos. His images examine the psychologies of his subjects to find out what drives them and simultaneously fulfill a kind of personal fantasy for Miller. For instance, his project American Bikers looks at life in a biker gang and finds out that bikers don’t ride Harley Davidson motorcycles because they are the fastest or smoothest bikes; on the contrary, they ride them because they are the loudest and most obnoxious bikes. These bikers ride bikes to communicate to the world, “I am here, goddamn’ it!” His portraits of Cuban boxers capture the pain and agony of training that go into the athlete’s quest for personal improvement and glory. All the while, Miller admits that a part of him has always wanted to be a boxer and a biker. “I fulfill these fantasies through my photography,” says Miller. “Since the biker project, I’ve been riding a motorcycle for 20 years.”

Another artist that uses images to explore his own fantasies and dreams is of course David Lynch. Miller has long worked with the Steppenwolf Theater Company and its actor John Malkovich. Malkovich has served as subject to numerous Miller projects, including one in which the pair paid homage to 36 iconic photographs (by the likes of Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Annie Leibowitz and more) entitled Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. Now, the duo has turned their efforts in recreation towards the master of cinematic surreal horror, Lynch. In a short film recreating characters from Lynch’s output entitled Playing Lynch, Miller films Malkovich as Lynch himself, Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper and Log Lady, The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, Blue Velvet’s Frank, Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer and Lady in the Radiator, and Lost Highway’s chilling Mystery Man (once played by the utterly horrifying actor Robert Blake). One fascinating caveat of the film is that the characters, while selected by fans using a social media poll, are all emblematic in someway of Lynch himself. It’s arguably a conceptual personality analysis.

The film premiered last weekend at Lynch’s music festival The Festival of Disruption amidst performances by art-pop band Xiu XIu and Sky Ferreira doing the music of Twin Peaks, St. Vincent, and Rhye. The film is available upon donation through its website, and all proceeds will go to The David Lynch Foundation that promotes Transcendental Meditation as a means of overcoming trauma. Miller and I spoke about the project as well as a life spent in the creation of imagery. 

LEHRER: So, I just wanted to start off asking you: judging from your prior work with Malkovich and also the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, I understand that you most likely have a deep love for performance and that probably extends to cinema. How did cinema become important to you?

MILLER: I came from a home that was run by a single mom who came over from Italy. The arts weren’t emphasized. My artistic soul developed at an early age I discovered photography at the age of about fifteen, seeing the work of Irving Penn. What really began my great love for cinema was seeing The Godfather in my teens. With that film I finally really began to get it: the importance of cinema, the impact of cinema, and what it really means to visualize. It was a way for me to begin to heal a lot of the early years of a very dysfunctional childhood.

LEHRER: That’s interesting to me, too, especially with you being Italian. As much as I love [Federico] Fellini and [Michelangelo] Antonioni, ‘70s Hollywood cinema and [Francis Ford] Coppola and [Martin] Scorsese and [Brian] De Palma are my guys. Hollywood at that time was pouring a lot of money into really bold, artistic statements which is something doesn’t really happen anymore.

MILLER: Right, for the really big productions, like Ben-Hur, it was just so grandiose. That chariot race was so unnerving. I remember as a youngster, sitting at the end of my couch, and watching, going ‘Oh my god! There’s going to be this huge accident!’ You could feel it. That was the golden era of cinema.

LEHRER: Especially now, with the big studios the superhero films eat up most of the budgets and they’re super safe and they’re going to make a billion dollars anyway. There’s only a few auteur American directors that can still get funding whether they be PT Anderson or Wes Anderson or [Quentin] Tarantino. Most conceptual filmmaking has gone towards TV or streaming.

MILLER: You know Adam, I have to tell you: just this week I received fifteen Woody Allen films in the mail. There’s a guy who just made [cinema] very very simple. It was just great scripts that he would write, great humor, a great connection with all of his actors and actresses, and they all wanted to give him so much. It was really film at its basics.

LEHRER: With that, he was really able to create a clearly defined aesthetic. Manhattan I think was the one that I most identified with. I love that movie.

MILLER: Absolutely, absolutely. I like New York Stories, which I just watched. It was kind of a three piece film that Coppola and Scorsese shared with Woody Allen. There’s so many great Woody films.

LEHRER: I’m just curious, did you watch the De Palma documentary?

MILLER: I have not seen that yet.

LEHRER: Noah Baumbach did it. It’s basically just DePalma in his office talking about every single one of his movies. It’s fascinating. He starts off by saying pretty much everything he does he ripped off from Hitchcock and just modernized the Hitchcock aesthetic by saturating it with color. It’s pretty awesome.

MILLER: Well, I give him credit for putting his Hitchcock influence out there. [DePalma] has done so many great things. He has definitely earned his place in cinema.

LEHRER: Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to imagine a studio funding a movie like Sisters or Carrie now. It wouldn’t happen.

MILLER: Yeah, it wouldn’t happen. Exactly.

LEHRER: So, I wanted to also ask you, leading into photography, do you think photography and images have the capability for narrative tension and emotion that theatre and cinema does? Or, is that at least what you’re aiming for in your photographs? Because they are rather emotional.

MILLER: That’s a great question. I do believe so. I made my name doing commercial photography and I got hired from all over the world to create very emotional portraits: people crying, people laughing, people dying. Whatever it might be. I always tell people that photography is the big educator. If you think about it, most of what you know—about what wars are like, what a tsunami or AIDS looks like— it isn’t personally experienced. Photography is how we know. Photography, along with travel, has been my education.

LEHRER: We’re living in such a photograph heavy society, with digital photography and cell phones, and I read this quote by a photographer, it might have been Collier Schorr but I can’t remember, who said something like, “everyone’s a photographer but there are very few image-makers left.” Do you agree with that at all?

MILLER: Absolutely. It hurts me to see that the photographer and the photograph isn’t as important as it once was. I’m being passed up on jobs for people who are now called “influencers,” people who buy fans or “friends,” who are instagrammers and who get hired for jobs because of how many people that follow them on social media. It’s disgusting. What about the great photographers? We’re guys who eat, sleep and breath photography. I’ve been doing this for forty years. It’s my life. There isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not involved in image making. When you hear of these young kids who take photographs from their iPhones, put them on an app, and they have hundreds or thousands of friends and all of a sudden they’re considered photographers? I have a problem with that.

LEHRER: So, moving on to the David Lynch project. He’s probably my favorite artist of any medium. It’s fascinating to me that he hasn’t even made a film in ten years but he’s still discussed by every artist around. His aesthetic is eternally powerful and copied. What draws you to his aesthetic personally?

MILLER: You know, there is only one David Lynch. If you take a look back at one of the most important film ever created, Eraserhead, that was an art school project and today it’s probably one of the greatest films of all time. David is one of those people who, when you sit down and watch one of his films, some [latent emotions of yours] is going to come up. You’re going to feel something and it’s going to be powerful.

LEHRER: You project your own feelings.

MILLER: Yes, you project your own self and fears into his own films. He is a monster. I just don’t know of any other director that moves me the way that David has moved. The characters that he creates are so memorable. Iconic. And whether you like the film or not, you’re not going to forget these characters.

LEHRER: And also his films don’t need to be understood, they are experiences. Like Lost Highway, which is underrated I think, I didn’t start to think about it narratively and what it meant until several views in. It begs you to keep watching it until you understand it. Like the scene in Mulholland Drive where they go behind the diner and they see the monster. Every time I watch that movie, I want to close my eyes because I have no desire to see that monster again and every single time, I watch it.

MILLER: When I watch Blue Velvet, Frank Booth creeps me out so bad. I’ve got a freaky side to me, but he is so out there, so freaky, that he totally wigs me out every time I see him in Isabella [Rossellini]’s apartment. I mean I just don’t want to watch it, but I do! What is so scary is Lynch’s people are real. They’re out there. They’re walking the streets of Chicago, New York, LA. That’s what makes it even more upsetting. And more gripping.

LEHRER: I have a theory about why you used the characters that you did in your series and you can tell me if I’m in the ballpark or not. To me, all these characters; David Lynch himself, Cooper, the Mystery Man, Frank; They all represent or communicate something about David Lynch himself. Cooper is his more rational, deductive side. The Mystery Man is his guilt. Frank is his rage. What do you think?

MILLER: I think you nailed who these characters are. But we actually used a social media blast to find out who were David Lynch’s fan base’s favorite characters. It was a two week survey where they gathered all this information and they gave me ten names and I was able to pick seven of them to recreate. I think you’re right on when you say that those characters are absolutely different characteristics of David.

LEHRER: That’s kind of fascinating that his fanbase is so rabid that they picked the characters that are most emblematic of his creative process.

MILLER: Tomorrow night is the VIP party where we’ll be premiering the film and Saturday night is the big press production. I’m sure it’s something you’d have loved to be able to attend

LEHRER: Yeah, he has a relationship with sound and music that no director on Earth has and I’d love to see him put together a showcase of music. It sounds amazing. There was actually an article that came out yesterday in Pitchfork where they interviewed Angelo and a bunch of other musicians that have worked with him talking about how he interprets music and how he processes music into his work. David’s in-house engineer Dean Hurley was talking about Lynch hearing Kanye West’s Yeezus for the first time and how he can tell when David likes something. [David] will get a “serious death stare” and that’s how Dean knows he likes it.

MILLER: I’d love to read that. It’s in Pitchfork?

LEHRER: Yep, yesterday.

MILLER: I’ll have to check that out. He has a new album in production that’s being released this weekend, actually. I’m anxious to get ahold of that.

LEHRER: I’m just rabidly waiting for the next season of Twin Peaks. In your videos, I love seeing John in there repeat this dialogue and playing up the camp of it. I thought it really amplified the humor in David Lynch’s work, which is something that is often missing in his critical analysis. Is that all intentional?

MILLER: Well, it’s funny because we really did it as a serious homage to David. Have you seen the whole film?

LEHRER: I’ve only watched them as individual clips.

MILLER: I look forward to when you get to see the whole film which really uses John as David Lynch as the thread. It wasn’t meant to be comical. When you pay homage to someone, (I mean David is a master) you want to recreate it in his honor. Even though it might come off slightly as a parody or a little comical, both John and I wanted to go in and tilt this thing into perfection. John put so much into each one of his characters and the amount of research and detail we put into every single shot, every set, every stitch of clothing was so that we could pay a great homage to David. Really to say, ‘thank you for what you have given all of us.’ 
 

LEHRER: When you were creating this, were you in contact with David or any of the people that worked with David? Was John in contact with Kyle McLachlan, for instance?

MILLER: I sent the script to David thirteen times for his approval on all the dialogue, the sets that we were using, and the characters. We got on the phone with David just once, and one time, with Kyle. David wouldn’t have given me direction. He had a lot of trust. David had seen my homage series and was really blown away by it and when he offered me to do this film, he knew I was going to do it justice. After he gave me the approval on the dialogue, David let me run with it.

LEHRER: I can imagine him being quite curious in another great artist’s take on his work.

MILLER: David was working seven days a week, fourteen, sixteen hours a day on Twin Peaks while we were shooting. So he was so wrapped up with Twin Peaks schedule. He really didn’t have the time to obsess about our project. He loved everything though.

LEHRER: That’s great. I want to say congratulations. It’s a great series.

MILLER: Thank you so much. I really look forward to you seeing the whole piece. When you see the David Lynch part that really intertwines everything together, it’ll really come together. There’s a great story there. When John delivered the “Lord is my Shepherd” Elephant Man Speech, the crew was crying.It was such a beautiful delivery. I mean you really felt John’s heart.

LEHRER: John is such a terrific, dextrous actor. Especially in his facial expressions. What was that movie that was kind of an action movie, but better? With Clint Eastwood?

MILLER: In the Line of Fire.

LEHRER: That movie is so emblematic of how good he is. It’d be terrible without him, but he brings it this eccentric element that makes it a ‘90s action classic.

MILLER: John brings a dynamic presence regardless of the size of the role. He plays characters you don’t forget.

LEHRER: I was discussing with a friend whether Being John Malkovich could have been Being someone else, you know like Being Billy Bob Thornton. And there’s no way. It wouldn’t have worked.

MILLER: He’s got an incredible presence.

LEHRER: While I have you, I wanted to ask you about a couple other of my favorite projects of yours. I’m really into The Blood Brothers project and also the project you did with the bikers and I really feel like those series and more of your projects are almost Freudian in their ability to use imagery to examine what makes these characters tick. Like in the bikers project, we find that these guys like Harley Davidsons not because they’re the fastest or the easiest, but almost because they’re the most obnoxious and the most masculine. Are you always trying to examine how someone thinks and what makes them tick?

MILLER: Most of my projects like that explore a culture I long to be a part of: I would have loved to be a biker or a great boxer. I did another book on a bullfighter: I’ve always fantasized about being a bullfighter.

LEHRER: By that reasoning, does a part of you want to be David Lynch?

MILLER: Uhh, no I don’t think I want to be David Lynch. I think he goes non-stop. I mean I think he just turned seventy and what he just did with Twin Peaks, putting in almost 3-4 months, seven days a week. I don’t know where he finds that stamina to be able to keep on going.

LEHRER: That’s interesting though, because a lot of contemporary fine art photographers shoot people in their own lives. A lot of people are very good at it, but I really feel like that classic photographer, the one who maintains a healthy distance between him/her and his/her subjects, is missing.

MILLER: Thank you so much. It’s been a great 40 years of being able to explore the world. It has been an unbelievable way of life.


Click here to explore Playing David Lynch – each download will help support The David Lynch Foundation. text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Chaos Theory: An Interview With Multifaceted and Legendary Artist Nick Waplington

Talking with photographer and painter Nick Waplington is akin to viewing and pondering his work. There is a lot of information to sort through. But if you can find some order in the onslaught of ideas, or the “chaos” as he likes to call it, you will find a perspective wildly and almost enviably unique. The subjects of his conversation are as varied as those within his photographs and his paintings. While Waplington’s work has dealt with environmental concerns, rave culture, the creative processes and inner struggles of the late Alexander McQueen, and (as in his paintings) his own inner monologue, a 40-minute conversation with Waplington darts around discussions about his creative process, international politics, the contemporary art world and the business surrounding it, and even skateboarding.

It’s sometimes difficult, as a journalist, to dilineate between being a journalist and a fan. And I am a super fan of Nick Waplington. He was one of the photographers that radically altered my perceptions of the form, and it was difficult to not lean all my questions towards his photographic practice even when now his paintings are a large part of his artistic output, especially with his incredible exhibition of recent paintings at These Days gallery in Los Angeles entitled, ‘A Display of Panic in a Moment of Absolute Certainty.’ In that, it’s important to note that Waplington is not simply, “Nick Waplington the painter,” or “Nick Waplington the photographer,” but that he is “Nick Waplington the artist.” All the mediums he works in (also including video, computer-generated imagery, sculpture, and found material) become part of a cohesive, if almost manically diverse, body of work. While his photos reveal an almost poetically chaotic point of view on Waplington’s external world, his paintings offer the viewer a look inside his internal world allowing us to examine his beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. “I’ve been making art daily since I was 15-years-old.” Now, I’m nearly 51,” says Waplington. Ultimately, what you get is this large body of work that progresses. A lot of artists, especially photographers, have a short phase. To stay fresh, and to not make the same work over and over, is a challenge.”

The These Days exhibition is a result of Waplington living in Los Angeles for the past year and devoting his entire practice to painting. As with his photography, the paintings are sensitive to the environment that Waplington created them in. They are exploding in color and contrast, mimicking the city’s consistently beautiful weather in the face of global climate challenge. There is a glorious randomness to the imagery, almost as if Waplington finds himself searching for beauty amidst cultural marginalization Waplington and I caught up via Skype while he was at a skate park in England with his son.
 

NICK WAPLINGTON: This is the only spot where I can get Wifi in the skate park.

LEHRER: Are you skating right now?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah, I’m skating with my son.

LEHRER: That’s fantastic. I wish my dad skateboarded with me.  He was always trying to get me to golf, and then would get frustrated when I couldn’t make the shot.

WAPLINGTON: [Laughs.] It’s a nice day here.

LEHRER: I’ve been looking at your paintings, and they’re beautiful. First, I was really curious, do you feel like you artwork is reflective of the environment you created it in? I ask because I felt like your early photographs had this chilly, muted feel to them. While your paintings, which were primarily done in Los Angeles, were more bright, exploding in color and contrast. Is that at all accurate?

WAPLINGTON: Well, these are not the first paintings I made, but I can’t help but be affected by [the LA] kind of environment. The light really influenced my time in LA. I have an outdoor studio that I enjoy painting in. I’ve been immersed in painting since I’ve been in LA. There’s a flow [to my paintings]. Ideas move from one painting to the next. Everything is a progression like that.

LEHRER: And you like Los Angeles?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah, yeah. I’ve lived there before, so for me, it’s very easy to get back to where I left off.

LEHRER: Do you feel like you’re the type who can find something to love about every type of place you go?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. I find everything interesting. Being in different places for long periods of time - I really feed off that. In my life, I’ve spent extensive periods in Sao Paolo, Zurich, Los Angeles, Sydney, London, New York… I’ve used that as a catalyst for making work. It’s always good to throw everything up in the air every once in a while, you know?

LEHRER: Absolutely. One thing I’ve found most compelling in your work is that there always seems to be, at least to me, a central conflict driving it. With the McQueen photos, there was this contrast between this masterful artisan at work and a guy struggling with exhaustion and massive expectations. With West Bank, there were obvious political conflicts inherent in that region. Are you purposefully looking for these conflicts?

WAPLINGTON: I have all sorts of problems. I certainly wouldn’t want to do therapy to straighten myself out. I deal with my own personal edginess. Often, within my work, there’s a kind of autobiographical stream to it. All the projects – including McQueen, to a certain degree – were characters similar [to me] in some respects. The title of the McQueen book refers to my working process as much as his.

LEHRER: I feel like that’s why you’ve been so successful. Your subjects are so varied, in painting and photography. But they all feel a part of one, definitive vision. Is that something that you strive for?

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. I’m always trying to order out some chaos. I’m not an artist that has one thing. I can’t really understand that limited scope. “I’m a geometric artist… I’m a body artist…” You know? I’m always looking for the next thing – reading, meeting people and finding new things to make work about.

LEHRER: I feel like it’s almost implemented by the industry. Even on the media side of things, I like to write about everything – music, art, news, fashion, whatever. But I have editors that will tell me to stay in my lane, to pick one thing and focus on that. I can’t imagine ever writing about one thing.

WAPLINGTON: That’s the problem with the galleries. They want artists who are known for a type of work. Collectors want to collect a type of work. There’s a narrowing of perspective. It makes it harder to sell work. But in the long term, it makes the work much more interesting. I haven’t allowed my work to be defined by people other than myself.If people like it, they like it. If not, it’s okay.



LEHRER: So it’s not Nick Waplington, the Photographer AND Nick Waplington, the Painter? It’s just Nick Waplington, the Artist?

WAPLINGTON: I just see it all as my work. I don’t need to separate things.

LEHRER: I feel like These Days was an appropriate gallery choice in that way because they do anti-establishment stuff. Your work’s core has a sense of, “I’m going to do what I want.”

WAPLINGTON: It’s not a gallery that’s functioning in the art world, as such. It’s basically a space where they put on shows that they like. It It was interesting to take over the space and use the space as functioning for the art world, even though it’s not known for having art world shows. We like that. I like that side of Downtown. I’ve been interested in Downtown [Los Angeles] since the late 90s when I was living in Eaglerock. I was going to a lot of rave parties down there at that point. 

LEHRER: Yeah, for sure. LA, at that time, was really defined by skateboarding and surf culture.

WAPLINGTON: That’s changing too. But all these new concrete skateparks are popping up. I try to get to Glendale skatepark whenever I get a moment. At my age, if you want to keep skating, you have to skate. 

LEHRER: I see some of these guys, like Andrew Reynolds, frontside flipping twenty stairs at age 38. How are his knees not collapsing right now?

WAPLINGTON: I saw a video of a 55 year old Lance Mountain kickflipping a table. It’s crazy. 

LEHRER: I don’t want to get too off on a tangent, but I remember when I was really into skateboarding in the early 2000s, and the first Flip video came out. I remember thinking, “This is the best that skateboarding is ever going to be.” I watch a video now, and the kids who are skating now are sorcerers. 

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. But you have a generation of kids who are growing up with concrete skateparks. My son is 11, and he’s here every day he can be here. Obviously, they’re going to be doing all sorts of shit that wasn’t possible 10 or 15 years ago. 

LEHRER: I wanted to talk to you about the chaos you refer to in your work. Is this chaos an internal or external chaos?

WAPLINGTON: I am dyslexic and left handed, so everything is slightly chaotic with me. I’m drawn to the fringes of society, in the world in general, but especially in LA. Republican states have been sending all their homeless people on buses to California. I’ve been quite influenced by these very large tent cities that have been growing along the freeways, as you go down towards Long Beach. I’ve been hanging out there and vibeing off that a little bit. I’ve been thinking about how these things compare with the 1940s when people were moving from Oklahoma and Tennessee to California, and they were living in the LA River in tents instead. Somehow, it seems like America is in need of a New Deal again, as you were lucky enough to get with Roosevelt. There’s a strangulation of the economy right now. It doesn’t transpose itself directly into the work, but there’s a psycho-geographical feel to some of the paintings. 

LEHRER: It is an interesting time to live in the US. It feels like the US it at a huge crossroads. A good portion of the country wants to move forward – vote for Bernie Sanders, get universal free healthcare, raise the minimum wage. And then there’s this other half that is completely reactionary and places all the blame of minorities and immigrants.

WAPLINGTON: There’s a contradiction in the GOP point of view. They want to bring down the trade barriers that exist between America and the rest of the world, so there is a mobile free trade area. But then they want America to be separatist from the rest of the world and still have the higher stander of living. They don’t want to engage with the rest of the world; they want to use the rest of the world as a production facility. If they’re going to remove the trade barriers, they’re going to have to engage with everyone else. They can’t have it both ways, but they don’t really understand that. It’s interesting times, definitely. 

LEHRER: What feels more at peace for you in art? Is it photography or painting?

WAPLINGTON: I like doing both, I really do. Maybe as I get older, I might be out there taking pictures less than I am in the studio. But I’m still taking pictures all the time. I had this book a couple of years ago, the Patriarch’s Wardrobe, in which I combined photograph and painting. Now, I’m making a new body of work that includes some of the paintings in the show. I’m going to combine photos and paintings again. I might add text, too. I’m very much a solo worker. I don’t have a team of people working with me. Everything that’s made by me is really made by me.

LEHRER: I really loved the Brooklyn Museum exhibit you were featured in, ‘This Place.’ I included it an article for Forbes about the best exhibitions of the winter. I got a weird email about it from a publicist. I wrote something about it being political, and she said, “No, no, can you take that out? It’s not political.” I was thinking, “How can anything about the West Bank be not political?” I want to know what your take was on that experience, and if you think politics can be removed from a discussion about The West Bank.

WAPLINGTON: I don’t think politics can be removed, but I tried to make work that wasn’t dealing directly with politics. I wanted to make work that had connectivity and time to it. I wanted my work to be a catalyst for dialogue about the West Bank. I want to make work about Jews in the West Bank that wasn’t about conflict with the Palestinians. It was, “Here is the landscape. Here are the Jewish people. What do you think about that?” The sculptural element was adding the Palestinians into the equation in a hidden way. It reminded me of being in South Africa during apartheid, when they managed to hide black people away somehow. I know that it’s very contentious to compare the West Bank to South Africa, especially amongst Jewish people, but the parallels are there, unfortunately. I am Jewish, you know that?

LEHRER: Yeah, I’m Jewish too. I don’t think, from a moral standpoint, that I can totally condone the hiding of an entire group of people who have lived there forever.

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. It’s just not fair, this collective punishment. I really believe that it would be possible to make a kind of deal that was to everyone’s advantage. I think it’s really doable and possible. There’s this idea that the other group will just go away at some point. It’s ridiculous.

LEHRER: It’s insane to me that Bernie Sanders is our first Jewish presidential candidate. He just said that he would support a two-state deal, and he was called anti-Israel by every publication in the country.

WAPLINGTON: Yeah. Well, the West Bank is the biblical land of Israel. They’re not going to give it up. Let’s be honest about that. I think the two-state solution looks great on paper, but it seems impossible. It’s not going to be split, so it’s about finding a solution with both groups of people within one state, in my opinion.

LEHRER: It does seem like that. The optimist in me wants to think anything is possible, but I haven’t been there.

WAPLINGTON: 25% of the people in Israel are Arab. I just believe that if it’s one state, they might as well incorporate the West Bank, give everyone the vote, and have a constitution that gives people their rights. They can be called Israel and Palestine. Why not? We already have a country with two different populations. Half of Malaysia is Chinese and secular, whereas the other half is Muslim. And they make it work. I think if they do it, after a few years, they’ll be wondering what all the fuss as about.

LEHRER: Once peace is actually achieved, people start to realize, what was the fighting for? This is so much better.

WAPLINGTON: I believe it can be worked out. People think I’m crazy for believing that. 


Nick Waplington "A Display of Panic at a Moment of Absolute Certainty" will be on view at These Days LA until June 5, 2016. Text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Photographs by Flo Kohl. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


What Will Become of Us: An Interview With The Bonnie Parker of Photography Julia Fox

text by Mike Krim

 

I first met Julia Fox two years ago in Manhattan. As I scanned the floor trying to figure out how much longer I felt like subjecting myself to $20 drinks and if “operation get rich girlfriend” was going to become an actual reality, I noticed from the corner of my eye a gorgeous brunette with an hour glass figure draped in sparkly diamonds, controlling her little corner of the room. As I thought to myself, “who the hell is this chic,” I immediately noticed her Man Ray tribute tattoo, inspired by his photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse with a violin grill superimposed on her back. I walked over, introduced myself, and immediately she informed me she was in the company of an African Prince. She filled my glass with expensive champagne and for whatever reason we discussed abortions, which offered an amazing and entertaining five minutes. Operation "get rich girlfriend" was a Benghazi-like failure, but at least walked out with a new number searing a hole in my pocket. Moving forward, Julia has been nothing short of controversy and success over the last couple years. She has been featured on various fashion sites featuring her clothing line Franziska Fox with co owner Briana Andalore, she has made Page 6 multiple times, and self published her acclaimed photo book Symptomatic of a Relationship Gone Sour: Heartburn/Nausea, which chronicles three relationships that have had a significant impact on Fox’s life; both of which have became instant cult classics amongst the zine world and collectors. With all this going on, Julia packed up her bags and left New York City to go to Louisiana for the last six months where she has been playing outlaw in the blue bayous with Salem's John Holland and Jack Donoghue, only to return with a new solo photography show curated by Richie Shazam and a new book titled PTSD, which will open and release May 1st at Magic Gallery in Manhattan. Below, I got a chance to ask Fox about the dangerousness of her work, drug use, gun play and PTSD. 

Autre: Let’s first start out with what made you leave NYC?

Julia Fox: I wanted to be scared. I forgot what that felt like. I hadn’t been lost in so long. I hadn’t tried anything new.  

Autre: It seems like you’ve lived many lives and you’ve explored a lot of these lives through your photography, why do you think the camera has been such an important tool for documentation?  

Fox: It definitely has. A camera tells the truth. It's such an honest tool and so very humbling. 

Autre: You explore sex, prostitution and drug use, why do you think these things are so fetishized in culture?  

Fox: Because people are attracted to things that are forbidden. 

Autre: Sexual images these days are being repressed and exploited on social media daily and porn is becoming more violent each year and considered the norm. Your work tends to showcase both worlds. What effect do you think this is having on young adults learning and exploring sexuality?

Fox: A woman is taught to be silent and to sweep things under the rug when things get messy. When she does speak up she is labeled a "drama queen" or a "crazy bitch.”  I think there comes an immense sense of power in expressing the truth about violence in love and during sex….exposing ones vulnerabilities and creating a dialogue surrounding different sexual and emotional experiences….women have urges. Women have fetishes. Women don't always have to be the sweet innocent ones who only have sex when they're in love. Women can exploit men as well as the other way around.  In my new book I explore my sexuality with a few prostitutes, male and female, gay and straight. 

Autre: What is it about you that allows people to feel comfortable having their most intimate and dark moments documented in your photography?

Fox: I'm an active player in the game so when I'm taking pictures, the camera is being passed around and I just want people to have fun.  I also know when not to take pictures. Some things shouldn't be documented, they're too special or sensitive. It’s gonna sound corny but it's more about the memories than it is about the pictures. The book [PTSD] is more for me, Jack, John and Harmony. So we can look back at it 20 years from now. It's just a scrapbook, really. 

Autre: Most photographers stay behind the lens, which gives them a safety net, especially when it comes to being judged, they can conclude that they are “simply documenting”. You on the other hand, are participating within your photos; may it be sex, drug use, or anything else for that matter. What are you trying to convey or is it simply “this is take it or leave it”?

Fox: My main concern isn't how I'm being perceived. My main concern is being transparent. I'm a huge part of my own creative process. Most of it couldn’t have happened if I wasn't actively participating and I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I was “simply documenting”.  I would feel like a fraud and coward if I hid from the viewer and I never ever lie. 



Autre: You have stated recently that you do not want to be grouped into the “feminist” art sub-culture that is trending these days, or for any group for that matter. Can you explain the importance of creating your own lane? 

Fox: I want my work speak for itself. I don’t want to label myself as anything; I feel like, in doing so, I would be limiting the impact that my work might have regarding other issues. I would rather leave it open to interpretation. Some may find what I do empowering, others have told me its demeaning. I’m not sure and I don’t have a right answer. 

Autre: Your previous book Symptomatic of a Relationship Gone Sour: Heartburn/Nausea was really successful, what was it about that book that really hit home with people? 

Fox: In today's culture, dysfunctional/abusive relationships are so frequent (with friends and lovers), that people minimize the significance of these major traumas. Truth is, it's agonizing and a lot of times the people going through it feel alone and helpless. Sometimes you begin to question if you will ever be the same again. Anyone that picks up that book isn't alone anymore. I ripped my guts out on that book so that they wouldn't be. 

Autre: It seems like you were always drawn to the darker side of culture, what about this dark side is so tempting and was it a panacea for your own psychic torment? 

Fox: I'm just drawn to what I know. I find comfort in chaos and I feel at ease around drug addicts. I'm not sure why this is. I tend to really adore people who are suffering. They are so beautifully broken and poetic. I think I just like to find beauty in unsuspecting places. That's how I survive, by taking something awful and turning it into something spectacular. 

Autre: You post a lot of pictures of you and your gun, do you use your gun for protection? 

Fox: I like to say that my gun is my dick. In that it's so phallic in both its appearance and its significance. When I had it on me, I felt the same security that a man must feel. As women when we are born we are given this diamond and then taught to defend and protect it for the rest of our lives. When I have the gun, all that goes out the window. I'll just kill anyone that comes for it. In Louisiana it's customary to have a gun. Most people have one on them or in their car at all times. I didn't really have a choice. I'm not bringing a knife to a gunfight [laughs].

Autre: Tell us about PTSD and what you want people to walk away with after viewing your show?

Fox: I would love if I could inspire at least one person... Maybe inspire them to speak up. I would love if I could inspire someone to take something awful that they always hide and expose it under a beautiful light Or maybe just inspire someone to pick up a camera. Or inspire someone to travel with no real destination. Inspire someone to become friends with someone they wouldn't normally. I just want to inspire someone to try something new, really. 

Autre: How did you meet Richie Shazam and what was the curation process like for your new show? 

Fox: I met Richie in high school. We met at a party. I was in a fight with this guy and he threw an ashtray at me and I lost it. Richie always recalls that moment as the moment he realized he wanted to be my friend.  Richie is so professional and the most thorough. He never disappoints and has never half ass'd anything. When he told me he wanted to do this with me, I didn't think twice. I think anyone would be dumb to pass up anything with him. 

Autre: What’s your favorite saying in Italian? 

Fox: It's not really a saying but this one phrase pops up in my head all the time: "Che ne sará di noi?" Which means "what will become of us?" I ask myself this referencing my generation and the young people. We are so fucked! 


Julia Fox's show PTSD opens May 1st 6pm to 9pm, at Magic Gallery, 175 Canal Street, 5th floor May 1st. Text, interview and photographs by Mike Krim. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Viva Africa: Five Questions For Legendary Photographer Malick Sidibé On The Occasion Of His Collaboration With Designer Zainab Sumu

photograph by Olivier Sultan

In a way, you could say that Malick Sidibé was the ultimate nightlife and street life photographer. His images of a postcolonial Africa – namely in Bamako (the capital of Mali) – captured a zeitgeist full of joie de vivre and desperate to reclaim its identity after French rule. Some of his most iconic images were taken at concerts and youth clubs, like the Christmas Eve, Happy Club. It was in this club where one his most famous images was taken: a couple dressed to the nines, dancing barefoot under the night sky. Indeed, his images ooze with a delicious sense of style and swagger. At eighty years of age, Sidibé has put his camera down, but has recently teamed up with Boston-based designer Zainab Sumu for a limited edition mens and womens t-shirt collection. It is the photographer’s first ever collaboration.  Sumu, who started her brand Primitive Modern just last fall, has chosen four photographs from Sidibé’s extensive archive from the 60s and 70s to place on t-shirts printed with designs using indigenous Malian printing techniques. The collection of tees, in an edition of 140, is a natural evolution from the designer’s capsule collection of silk scarves inspired by artisanal Northern and West African dyeing techniques. Autre was lucky enough to ask the legendary Malick Sidibé some questions, through his son Karim, about his collaboration with Zainab Sumu and what the photographer’s archive says about the future of Africa.

How did you team up with Zainab Sumu?

We have always been on the lookout for interesting partners who first and foremost appreciate the work of my father. In Zainab we found someone not only passionate about his work aesthetic (which of course is so important), but we especially appreciated this quest she’s on in regards to helping strengthen the economic situation for us in Mali. She’s all about a positive representation of Africa and that was a vital part of my Dad’s legacy.

What was the collaboration process like?

The collaboration was most definitely a collaborative effort between Mody (my older brother) and Zainab. When we initially discussed the project she had very clearly pinpointed select images from the archive that reflected my Dad’s sense of fun and beauty and style, you could say. I remember Zainab making a lot of notes when she visited the studio in Bamako in 2015.

You are a major representative for Africa, and you have become a major part of dissolving a lot of myths about Africa's place in the world, what is the current atmosphere like and what would you like people to know about Africa in the 21st century?

Dad’s photographs were taken in post-colonial Mali, when self-expression was vital and raw and fresh, a response to the political regime. So most certainly Dad was lucky to have captured images during such a pivotal time in our country’s history. When many people think of African portraiture they immediately think of Malick Sidibé. His work was always about embracing individuality and essentially, during that time young people had a reason to be rebellious. 

What do your father’s images say about the future of Mali and Africa? 

In a way those images from his archive all represent hope for a better day. Today the people of Africa continue to be hopeful yet there is an overwhelming sense of disillusionment among our communities. We’re trying to change that. 

Do you want to continue collaborating with younger artists?

We try to stay open-minded but it’s very much an instinctive connection for us and we try to guard our father’s legacy with great care. By producing these t-shirts with my father’s photographs, it is way for everyone have to access to art. Importantly, also, it’s about presenting these works as a kind of object d’art, therefore my father’s work can be seen not just on the walls of museum’s or galleries but also on the bodies of many from the next generation.


Visit Zainab Sumu's website to purchase t-shirts from the Malick Sidibé collection. Click here to get a rare glimpse inside Sidibé's studio and click here to check out Sume's photographic travel diary through Mali. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


The Substance of Ideas: An Interview with Photographer Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen captures an almost unimaginable world and is a legend in the world of photography. For the last thirty years, Ballen has extensively photographed the fascinating and sometimes violent existence of people living in small villages, or ‘dorps,’ which are found in clusters throughout rural South Africa. With a doctorate in geology, the photographer oscillates between a poet and an anthropologist, exploring a deeper, stranger, and darker side of the human condition. Upon leaving New York in the early 1970s, Ballen expatriated himself to South Africa. To date, he has exhibited his photographs internationally and some of his images have become iconic in the photographic canon. Back in March, Phaidon released the second edition of his seminal book "Outland," which brings together nearly thirty years of the photographer’s work. An exhibition of Ballen’s current series entitled “Asylum of the Birds” is now on view at Galerie Karstan Greve in Cologne, Germany. The new series is pushing even further into the metaphorical from the more literal portrait work of the photographer’s early career. In the late 1990s you can see a clear shift beginning to emerge. In the following interview, Ballen discusses the strange world he captures with his camera, the importance of substance in ideas, and his new photographic series. 

Autre: So, I guess my first question – to dive right in – is when did you pick up a camera and decide to venture into the subject matter you have been exploring for roughly twenty years? 

Roger Ballen: I got interested in photography as an adolescent. My first attempt to try to express myself with a camera came in 1968. When I graduated from high school, my family gave me a Nikon camera. I remember taking that camera and going out like a bullet out of a gun, trying to find a way to make pictures. I was trying to emulate some of the Magnum people who influenced me, created a basic foundation for my work—Kertész wasn’t a part of Magnum, but Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwit. It’s been a gradual, step-by-step process. I guess I’ve been doing pictures now for fifty years. It’s one step leading to the next step. But sometimes the steps are bigger and some are smaller. The crucial time probably came in about ’96, ’97 when I was doing the Outland book. I started to see myself as an artist as much as a photographer, expressing my aesthetic rather than necessarily expressing the aesthetic of the subject matter itself.

OK: Speaking of big steps, what prompted your move to South Africa?

RB: In 1973, my mother died, and I was quite restless. I liked traveling.  But life in ’73 isn’t what it is now. I’d been in a plane a few times in my life, so people did travel in the same way, but you lived a much more sedentary existence. So I was going to go away for three months and I ended up going for five years. I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town in ’74. I got here, I found it interesting, I met my future wife, and a few other things. Then, I ended up doing a trip from Istanbul to New Guinea by land. Then, I went back to the United States in ’77 to do a Ph. D. in the geological field at the Colorado School of Mines. I graduated there in ’81, and then I came back here. I found the country interesting, and my wife was from here. From the point of view of geology, the thing in which I had a profession, it was a great place to work.

OK: Discovering these areas where you shoot, were they difficult to stumble upon?

RB: From 1982-84 I worked exclusively in the countryside here. It wasn’t easy—the people in the towns here weren’t very well populated. You drove around trying to find subjects and peoples and places. Then, you’d have to get out of the car and talk to somebody. The key moment, and one of the most important moments in my career, came during the early ‘80s. It had a lot to do with these places not being very well-frequented by other people, and being haunting and cloudless. I used to drive around—I was in these places doing geology and photography at the same time. It was getting pretty boring sitting in the car with such a bright sun. You can probably find it in parts of California in the summertime. I then decided to knock on people’s doors, and I started to go inside. That was metaphorically and physically a big step. I found the motifs. I started using a flash. I found the subject matters. I started using a square format then. So this was the big step that happened in ’83, ’84 that created the foundation for the later work in so many ways.

OK: I’ve been a major fan of your work for a long time. Before I did this magazine, I studied photography. I remember growing up and looking at your books.

RB: That’s terrific. It’s always good to hear this. I’m on the bottom of the planet, here. One of the reasons I feel I’ve created a unique aesthetic is that I never really got that involved in the art world. I know the history of photography super well, art too. But it was really just a matter of myself relating to myself. I didn’t go to exhibitions. I was basically isolated.

OK: It reminds me a bit of William Eggleston. He wasn’t part of the art world. He wasn’t part of this world that was so ready to accept his work. He was from the South. So it seems when you’re too insular in that world, it’s difficult to develop a voice.

RB: It’s gotten more and more difficult, when there are trillions of pictures taken. I had a foot in two worlds. I had the pre-Internet world that I grew up in, the film world, and I developed that. I still use the same camera from 1982. I’m still using film—the same camera, the same format, everything. I go back to when I was younger—I travelled the world. Now, I go back to the same nail on the wall and try to knock it in deeper. People don’t have any patience. They want instantaneous results. The photograph itself is an instantaneous process—it’s not like chiseling away at a marble rock to make a sculpture. People don’t have a concentration.

OK: I think, eventually, it’s going to become a situation where there’s a direct delineation between everyone being a photographer and real photography. I think there’s going to be more of delineation between those two things. It’s going to be less saturated.

RB: Unfortunately, the problem is who judges. A lot of people in this business grew up in the newer generation and they tend to try to find new angles and edges that are basically technological, that are focused on just the idea rather than the substance of the idea. The substance of the idea, to me, is crucial to good art. You don’t hear about that too much. You don’t hear about metaphor, depth, indescribably parts of the psyche. It’s gimmick of the gimmick. That’s the problem—how we judge this stuff. How does something good in this situation, in this imagery, rise to the surface? It’s a real battle. I wouldn’t want to suggest to a friend of mine or my children to go into this battle without another profession.

OK: It’s a really interesting battle. And speaking of metaphor, I want to talk about how your work, in the beginning, was very literal, very portrait-oriented. In the ‘90s, it became much more poetic and metaphorical. What prompted that shift?

RB: It’s very hard to say. Maybe it was confidence. Maybe it was a step forward—one picture would build on the next picture would build on the next picture. I started to find my aim. It wasn’t that I saw some pictures and said, “I want to be like that.” It was really a step-by-step process. You can see that in the Outland book. If you look at the early Outland work in ’95, ’96, there’s less of a link to the plot of that work. It’s a lot more documentary and portraiture. And then beginning in ’97, there seems to be a “fear of the absurd” taking place. That’s where that break started to happen. I don’t know what lead to that break. I started to ask different questions. The central question was, is chaos more prominent in the human condition? I was asking a philosophical question, to myself in some way. Also, I guess if I had to say who influenced me—people always get it wrong. They think people like Diane Arbus or somebody like this. But it was actually Beckett. Beckett in the Outland period had the most influence in terms of what I was trying to achieve. I was trying to understand something absurd, trying to probe into the human condition, not necessarily probe into the social and political condition of poor whites in South Africa. 

OK: There’s a direct difference between what Arbus is doing and what you’re doing. It seems like there’s more of a vision; it’s less exploitative. What do you say to people that say your work is similar?

RB: If there is any link to Arbus at all, it stopped in ’97. And then beginning in early 2002, 2003, there’s zero. This word exploitative is pathetic. It’s actually pathetic. It shows an inability to understand anything about photography. What does anybody know about being the subjects? They could have gotten on their hands and knees and begged me to take their picture. They could have paid me to take their picture. What does anybody know about these subjects? You’re looking at a visual statement. You’re not watching a TV program on somebody talking about their life. It’s an instantaneous moment. Nobody else could have taken pictures like me. It’s transformative. You’re looking at a two-dimensional object on a piece of paper, and it’s giving you some insight into your own psyche, maybe some sort of insight into the deeper issues of human experience. Bringing up the word exploitative… I’ve always told people who ask me this question that the people who say are actually the most affected. Psychologically, in a deeper way, the pictures break through their repressions, and they come at me with a projection or some sort of defensive mechanism to blame me for the crack in their psyche.

OK: I love that. You’re creating a document that’s really important. Edward Curtis, that 30-year document of Native Americans—we wouldn’t have that if it wasn’t for someone setting up their camera and spending that time to explore that subject matter. 

RB: I agree. People basically drop their pants when they talk like that. I think you know what I mean. They see, on the front of the newspaper, somebody dead on the street and the mother lying over the dead person crying—on TV, CNN, or in the newspaper. Is that great? What are you talking about? It’s hopeless. The pictures I take get into their head—that’s the difference. They’re blanked out about it. Just like going into the supermarket—four hundred dead chickens sitting there, nobody blinks an eye. But someone sees my Asylum of the Birds movie, that’s horrible. Look at the chickens’ heads being chopped off. This is what we live in. We could go on and on about predictions. It’s not even worth talking about.

OK: Speaking of your new series, “Asylum of the Birds.” I want to talk about that exhibition. What can we expect from those photographs? What can we experience with those photographs? 

RB: With Asylum of the Birds, it’s a much more abstract way of seeing the world. They’re layered, multi-dimensional photographs. They have opposite meanings. There’s the relationship with the birds, which have metaphoric symbols—it has basically the archetypal metaphoric symbol to it. And then there are a lot of drawings, which are hard to put a finger on what each drawing means, how each drawing relates to another drawing, how the drawings relate to the animals and the objects in the pictures. They’re very hard photographs to put words to. They have multiple metaphors. They’re very visual in nature. They’re hard to condense into any one way of deciphering. For myself, I wouldn’t want to say this or that. I commonly say that the best pictures don’t have words. If I do have words, the picture is not a good picture. I’m quite sure about that. People want to put a meaning of something into a package. If they can’t put it into a package, they get insecure.

OK: A lot of people are afraid of their own psyche. It’s really difficult for people to step outside of that. 

RB: Very difficult.

OK: And maybe the world would be a better place if people did.

RB: I say that the only way we’ll have an improvement in this world—this goes back to what I learned at Berkeley 40 years ago—people have to break their own repression, come to terms with their own interior, and become more integrated in their identity. Important art helps people do this in some way. But I don’t think art is the seer of the problem. It’s such a worldwide epidemic problem, and perhaps always has been. We can’t say that the chances for peace are any greater now than they were one hundred years ago. We live in a dangerous world, basically. 

OK: Is there anything else you’re working on now? 

RB: I’m working on two projects right now. One is a project that I refer to as “Apparitions.” Have you seen the Asylum of the Birds book. Look at the last couple of pages, you’ll see some of those photos. They’re two-dimensional photographs. They look like drawings, but they’re taken with black and white photography.

 OK: I love the Die Antwoord music video, by the way. I love that they were able to bring your work to a younger audience. Do you think was successful?

RB: It’s hard to believe, we got like 65 million hits. It’s incredible. I can’t believe it sometimes. It really got in people’s heads. I think it really worked well because most music videos are mono-dimensional in meaning. I think this had a multiple-level meaning that was accessible to people. There’s something deeper in it, but also something humorous in it. And the music fit the visual. It just came together. Some things just work out that way and sometimes they don’t. 

OK: It’s not the heyday for music videos.

RB: It’s terrible; it’s like photographs.

OK: It’s disposable. It’s consumable, and then that’s it. 

RB: That’s what I’m saying. People’s attention span is much different than it used to be. I don’t know. At age 65, I stopped guessing about the future. I don’t know one day from the next. I just take it as it comes and do my best and focus on what I’m doing. I can do my best to produce interesting art. The work has to have its own life. One doesn’t know what’s effective in all sorts of ways. I’m really satisfied that I’ve followed this career all those years. It’s quite fulfilling to see the work evolving over time. It’s like a diary.

OK: It’s a very rare, unique, and beautiful body of work. I really appreciate it. 

RB: Thank you. I really appreciate your time and interest. Be well.


Roger Ballen "Asylum of the Birds" will be on view at Galerie Karsten Greve Köln until August 29, 2015. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper