February 3, 2011
05. Photoautomat x Mister Mixup

Alex Kokott / Steve Howard a.k.a. Mister Mixup
London, UK / Nottingham, UK 

It is nearly six in the evening at the end of November, and central London is beset with the kind of cold that turns breath to frost and the gas bill into a Saudi prince’s ransom. Next to us, Steve Howard - sleeves up, wits out and about - is foraging. What cold? The clock closes in on yet another hour here at Rivington Street, but Steve (alias Mister Mixup) has already ploughed through an eclectic succession of scarves, and tea-candles, coffee cups, and is now moving on to a tree branch. He holds it aloft, like a prize - a particularly splintery, spidery specimen of a tree branch, courtesy of the unruly shrubbery that flank CARGO, the kicky live-music bar that also serves as a stage of choice for today’s theatrics.

“I’ve got an idea,” he announces. Alex Kokott doesn’t miss a beat. “Tree branch is good,” he agrees casually from where he is seated a few feet away, basking in the warmth of a roaring outdoor heater. Mister Mixup grabs the tree branch, fishes among the sunglasses, and disappears behind a little blue curtain. He reappears six minutes later as he is, offering all but one tangible indication of having undergone the slightest metamorphosis whatsoever. He lays it flat on the table for us to see. “Excellent!” Alex crows, clearly pleased with the results. “That’s really cool.”

                                                                                                   On site at CARGO.

Hamburg-born Kokott is the owner of Photoautomat - a strip-shaking merry-making rarity that happens to be the only one of its kind left in the whole of the United Kingdom. Its varicoloured exterior can still pass as ordinary against London’s fashionable backdrop – a healthy splotch of kitschy blues, greens, and reds; a cross between a Shell Beach hot dog stand and an ABBA marquee. Inside, however, it’s as authentic as it gets. The Photoautomat uses the same chemicals, developing process, and paper as that of its then-ubiquitous predecessors. Despite being a good three decades younger, its output is no more sophisticated than those yielded in the time of Andre Breton or Fred Astaire - a single black-and-white strip comprising of four frames, each taken 20 seconds apart. And all for the low, low price of three pounds - nearly half of what regular digital photobooths charge today.

Mixup doesn’t waste a single second – he Is already busy curating a second set of materials for his next appointment with the Photoautomat. Mixup’s sessions with Alex are short-lived and therefore precious – Alex is based in London, Mixup in Nottingham; their schedules only acquiesce to converging only twice or thrice a year. But that certainly didn’t stop them from rising to the occasion each time, and today’s was no exception. The table in front of us is a cornucopia of Stuff, all Mixup and Alex’s. There are, in addition to the aforementioned scarves and tea-candles, homemade paper masks (cut-out shapes tacked onto old sunglasses), jaunty berets, sheets of swirled wallpaper (frenetic lines screaming towards all four corners; laboriously coloured in with a black marker). Some of these items are bulkier than others, and require a bit more footwork and wristwatch coordination on the duo’s part – they have anything between ten and 15 seconds to ensure each transition is effectively captured on film.

For that is really what the photobooth is about - an exercise in time. The images occur in phases that span nearly a minute-and-a-half in total – there is no telling what will amass between or from any of them; we know only that we are to begin with the first and end invariably with the fourth. One things leads to another – that is the only form of logic that governs the chaos. The original Photoautomat project began six years ago in Berlin, where some of Alex’s old friends decided to track down every photobooth in the country, restore them to tip-top condition, and release them back into their original habitats for a new lease on life. The public was where these photobooths truly belonged, and Alex jumped at the chance at adopting one of these idiosyncratic vessels and taking it with him to London, where he has been living for nearly a decade. Two years on, it has been colonized by everyone from Henry Holland to renowned Tate artist Fiona Banner, even landing itself a coveted spot at the Rankin Live Exhibition. The most recent Photoautomat event comprised of an open house where guests were invited to have their pictures taken and the final products exhibited all over CARGO. Despite the bar’s understated location (far from the monolithic shopping arcades and tourist centres of Oxford Street) word about the Photoautomat spread quickly, and within a matter of months Alex’s well-wishers included people from as far as Singapore and Thailand, all of whom were eager for a Photoautomat to call their own.

                      The Photoautomat calls the shots on the many faces of designer Henry Holland. 
                                                                      (Image courtesy of Henry Holland.)

While the Photoautomat’s most loyal visitors are those whose dates of birth far surpass the extinction of public photobooths, history has never had much catching up to do in this respect. The photobooth’s cultural relevance never truly waned. Hilhaven Lodge, Japanese purikuras, more Andy Warhol paraphernalia than roadside touts can bear - these were the IVs through which the photobooth was able to beat out its legacy and cling to life just long enough to witness its own triumphant revival. How else could one explain the popular paradox of smartphone applications that replicate the fuzzy effects of lo-fi photography – or how, when given the choice, its consumers are only more than happy to toss their iPhones aside and trip up and down Old Street in search for Alex’s machine?

When Mister Mixup first heard of the Photoautomat, he wrote to Alex from his home in Nottingham, 205 km north of London, and proposed a visit. “I knew I had to come along [to see it]. It’s like a new start – a rebirth.” A keen collector and creator of photobooth art for thirty years (“Well – it’s my 31st anniversary actually, if you count this one”), Mixup saw the photobooth as an emblem by which small, stolen moments have equal, if not greater, importance as the proverbial “big picture”. He has committed the best memories of all his friends and family to these monochromatic mosaics, espousing how they ought to be continually circulate, be returned to, inspire every time. Mixup’s son, for instance, is able to tell of how his father had taken him for weekly trips to a local photobooth in order to document his growth as a newborn – with a 10–by-15 cm flipbook to illustrate his story. Mixup’s unusual hobby eventually gave rise to the world’s first photobooth convention, which has since made its rounds in places like Belgrade and Chicago. His work even inspired the popular Photobooth.net website, an online gallery that also offers a wealth of photobooth-related tips and information. “It’s a more than just nostalgic really. It’s a good technique.”

Over the past two years the duo put this hypothesis of Mixup’s to the test, and the findings have always proved more than favourable. Their goal is to both maximize and manipulate the creative possibilities offered by the medium, to transgress the limitations of both the single frame and the chronographic strip in order to create unconventional portraits. But there is no planning, no elaborate philosophizing. Photobooth images are by no means a polished or even quality form of picture-making – so why pretend? It was, and still is plain pop, pure grit, a surprise. Alex recalls a particularly memorable episode - “A guy called me once, all in a panic, because his picture had gotten stuck inside the machine. I was out of town and I promised him I would have a good search when I got home and mail the picture to him right away. But he was making a really big deal out of it – ‘YOU HAVE TO COME HERE NOW!’ he was screaming. It turns out he was with his girlfriend, and his girlfriend had gotten naked inside the photobooth.”

“Spontaneity, this is what the Photoautomat is about,” Mixup chimes in earnestly as we watch Alex rummage through the props next. “It doesn’t always have to be about ‘Art’. Sometimes you’ve just got to have a bit of fun.” And so armed with an arsenal of bits and bobs – wigs are a perennial favorite, and the sunglasses – Mixup and Alex scamper in and out of the photobooth in between conversations and cups of steaming coffee. The entire business is operated solely on instinct. Mixup insists I join in. Over the course of the afternoon, his tree branch will become a flag (unfurled only in the final frame), a hanging vine, a leaning post. The hand-made masks, too, go a long way. Through some nifty illusory magic of Mixup and Alex’s, these flimsy paper pieces have successfully fashioned black-and-white dioramas out of perfectly ordinary 2-D images. They lend the impression of fat candy lips superimposed over human faces, everything leapfrogging and duck-diving against the psychedelic seismogram of Mixup’s wallpaper.

Mixup has a seven-thirty train to catch, and the final strip of the day is percolating slowly inside the Photoautomat. The now is nearly past and there is the great big future to think about - Alex hopes to increase the number of Photoautomats in London, particularly in and around the more popular museums, but admits that issues of costs and sticky bureaucracy present barriers to expansion. He stresses the importance of keeping prices at a minimum - “[Ultimately] it’s something that gives people the opportunity to go inside, be a little silly, and still get a proper photograph out of it. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it certainly should not be expensive.” As for whom he’d like to see shaking up the Photoautomat next – “Chloe Moretz,” he says with a grin. “Hit Girl in a photobooth – that’d be cool, wouldn’t it?”

Somewhere inside CARGO, someone is messing about with a drum set, his final cymbal crash just coinciding with the dry slither our brand-new picture makes as it pops out of the chute and into the world. Mixup plucks it up and holds it to the light, shaking beads of residual dampness off the gleaming surface. He places it carefully onto the table, as always. The image is seeping slowly into focus. We wait and see.

Photoautomat is located at CARGO, 29 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3AY. [Map]

Photoautomat (UK site)
Photoautomat (German site)
Mister Mixup

Images courtesy of Alex Kokott and Mister Mixup unless otherwise stated.

February 3, 2011
04. Lawrence James Bailey

Lawrence James Bailey
Amsterdam, NL 

Lawrence James Bailey is a wary one where interviews are concerned. Not weary - even though it’s mid-morning and he had stayed up the night before to work on a series of drawings - wary. “It’s very tricky because you just think you’re having a friendly conversation,” he recalls, describing a phone call that had transpired with a journalist some time back. “It didn’t seem like an interview you’d expect - I don’t know if they even asked what my name was.” What he’d thought would be an ordinary exposition on his artwork turned into an excitable account about a possible haunting at his studio - the ornately decrepit shell of the Cineac in Reguliersbreestraat, Amsterdam. (He’s since had to relocate, to make room for a casino that no one is sure the city really needs). “You have to be careful when you talk to people!” 

A quick survey of Lawrence’s work, surprisingly, appears to trounce the view that this is someone who has any misgivings whatsoever about the business of misrepresentation. One would be hard-pressed to argue Lawrence’s place in the naturalist school of thought (whatever that may mean), and when he shows us the series of landscape drawings he has been working on, it is a series that appeals not so much to the real as to the phantasmagoria. One could trace the recognizable anatomy of a sprawling meadow - the bubbling ridges of distant hills; a full moon plump and pale against an ink-black sky. But the way in which these have been rendered - monochromatic, apocalyptic, yet strangely and calculatedly geometric - is what ultimately topples this commonplace scene into unchartered territory. As in the case of most pieces of art, the drawings look as though they are perfectly capable of issuing some grandiose statement about solitude or death. But Lawrence has no such ideals. When asked to name his key inspiration, he furrows his brow. He scratches his chin. This may take awhile.

'Hunters in the Snow' by Pieter Bruegel (the Elder), 1565. Oil on Wood. Image courtesy of ABC Gallery.

                                        ’Untitled’ by Lawrence James Bailey, 2008. Fineliner on paper.

The Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, Lawrence offers tentatively, as though he’s not sure he’s getting it exactly right. There is a printout of the Renaissance artist’s most famous painting, Hunters in the Snow, stashed somewhere in his shelf of supplies. Bruegel’s pieces have been better classified as genre paintings, but ones that actually has the makings of a full narrative - with a beginning, middle, and end - as opposed to a short-lived moment. One could easily divine the entire history of a figure just from his position on the canvas or the varied contortions of his facial expression. “[Bruegel’s art] is a combination of landscapes and events - he’s a landscape painter but his paintings never fail to tell stories of people, rather than just the landscape.” Incidentally, Hunters in the Snow also serves as the title of a chilling Tobias Wolff story about a double-crossing triumvirate of old friends. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how these macabre themes - both Bruegel’s and Wolff’s - can wedge themselves into the framework of Lawrence’s haunting creations. Just don’t look to him for a gold star. This is a man who still, on occasions, finds it difficult to allude to himself as an ‘artist’. (“I’m getting more used to it now - ‘I work as an artist.’ I don’t know what I used to say back then - ‘I make sculptures’ or something like that. Or better yet - ‘I draw. I’m a drawer.’”) Despite his fascination with Bruegel, there is nothing in the latter’s work that visually parallels Lawrence’s drawings - which are themselves still and bleached and completely devoid of human presence. “I don’t really sit down and decide to make a painting or drawing about death. Of course,” Lawrence adds, “people are more than welcome to interpret them as such if they wish, but really I’d look at Bruegel’s stuff and think, ‘That’s a nice pose,’ or ‘I really like the way the landscape sits in this one’. I’m also a big fan of Peter Greenaway and Werner Herzog's films. But it's never, 'Oh I'm going to use that image from Bruegel, or from Herzog'- it's more about their eccentric styles than anything else.  Or the tone - black, comic.” 

                                             ‘Hippos in the Ij’ (detail) by Lawrence James Bailey, 2008.

These are trying times for artists - even more so than usual. The Netherlands - possibly Europe’s most generous public patron of the arts - has seen a dramatic slash in funding under the decree of a right-wing coalition government led by the PVV (Party for Freedom) and VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy). Museums and schools have suffered cuts across the board (a pattern that is likely to persist in the future) and although reports have shown that the value of scholarships and grants has increased in monetary terms, far fewer people were receiving them than in the years before. “It’s a bad thing for museums, of course,” says Lawrence. “I read about it and I thought, ‘God, this is just terrible,’ because I also know people who make very good work and the only way they could have carried on with it is if they had funding.” If the situation should become as precarious as that - that one would be forced into staking his livelihood on a certificate - would the age-old clash between marketability and integrity add to the contention?

Quite the contrary. Lawrence remains optimistic that the high standard of art generated from within the Netherlands will be maintained - if not, enhanced - in spite of the cuts. “I remember when I first came to the Netherlands [from England] I was very surprised by the extent of how much people expected to get funded. I’d never say no to funding myself, of course, but I’d already spent a year outside of art school working [without governmental support] when I was still in England. So while I disagree very much with the cuts, I do think that perhaps it’s a good thing for creativity not to be so spoilt. You don’t see the level of desperation here that you do in large, expensive cities like New York or London. It may turn one into a complacent artist. Of course, the Dutch have always been very accepting of artists and artwork - that isn’t going to change. People always have their windows open - especially in the neighbourhood where I live, and you can always walk past and notice that they have a lot of original artwork in their homes - rather than just Ikea prints, the usual pebbles-on-the-beach photo. A lot of that work is very abstract, and everyone seems to have one of their own - something different.”

                                                                           Hard at work in the Cineac.

Ironically, the freedom of experimentation that permeates Lawrence’s craft was derived from an unwavering, almost dogmatic desire to “draw and build…I used to always draw at home. If it was a rainy day or something I’d just get pens and papers out, or build something with Lego. I was really into making model kits too, and if I didn’t have the pieces I wanted I’d just make them out of cardboard. I was about 7 or 8.” He dabbled in art all through primary and secondary school, dodging - somewhat unsuccessfully - the perennial question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I was raised in two sort of industrial towns where being an artist wasn’t really considered a real job. Mostly people would say things like ‘Maybe you could be an art teacher!’ So for awhile I wanted to be an architect because it seemed like a ‘proper’ job. And it was still, sort of, about drawing or building.” These justifications were every bit as flimsy as they sounded, and Lawrence knew that he was settling. He decided to throw caution to the wind and so enrolled in Humberside University in Hull, majoring in painting and sculpture. 

Six semesters at the Hull School of Art flew by, and for a year after graduating Lawrence worked part-time as a museum security guard, devoting the rest of his free hours to his canvas and paints. A meeting with one of his former teachers set the cogs in motion. “She told me about this school in Amsterdam - a very small school, called de Ateliers. I sent off some slides and an A4 piece of paper and they sent me letter inviting me to come to Amsterdam for an interview. It was all a bit last-minute - I worked three hours a day, five day a week [at the museum], plus it cost quite a bit of money to travel to a different country just for an interview. But I’ve never been to Amsterdam - I thought that even if I didn’t get in it’d be a bit of an adventure.” 

It was all that, and a touch more. A week and a half later Lawrence returned to his apartment in Hull to find his flat-mate waiting for him. ‘“How was the interview?’ he’d asked. And I just said, ‘Yeah…I’m…moving to Amsterdam.’ I think I was 24 then.” He laughed. “So that - that was good.”

                                          ’Traveling Stage Show’ (detail) by Lawrence James Bailey.

When asked about his favorite project, Lawrence hands me yet another photograph. Unlike the landscape painting, this one is purely conceptual - distended spirals and spheres; dark and glossy in some places, a pearlescent mustard-color in others; a faint rainbow tint collapsing under a denser expanse of black. Another photograph showed the same surface scythed by the dim outlines of a several winged objects that were haphazardly scattered within its perimeters. It is something that Lawrence describes as being simultaneously “microscopic and cosmic”. The date hails roughly back to his time at de Ateliers. “A big pool of oil,” Lawrence says. “Part of it, anyway. A pool… of water and vegetable oil and black oil paint. [The idea] actually came from a part-time job I had when I was 17. I worked in a factory and I came across this large pool of dirty oil. I loved how you couldn’t tell how deep it was; it was so incredibly dark. It could have been very vast - or very shallow, either at any one time. It was a big bucket of mess. But I always wanted to recreate it, because it seemed so eerie and strange.”

                                   ‘Traveling Stage Show’ (contact sheet) by Lawrence James Bailey.

The oil-and-paint mixture was poured into a square container - the size of a small children’s pool - and placed in the middle of Lawrence’s studio at de Ateliers. For six months it remained in the room - if only in a state of active transmogrification. “I was always doing things with it. Put objects in to see what was going to happen. Once I just hung model airplanes over the oil - it’s like a pool, so it’s incredibly reflective - and when the airplanes are hanging over it seemed as though they were captured in mid-motion. At this point I was very interested in staging - that line where reality stops and the fiction starts. Like when you first walk onto a film set and you’re…unsure  of the border where the real world begins. The oil tank was the star, the ‘main show’, but then everything around it - the light in the room, the airplanes, et cetera - became part of it as well. So one becomes unsure about which was part of it originally - what was staged, which was my doing - and which was ‘reality’.”

This perspective seeped quickly into other mediums of Lawrence’s art. “I started off sculpting [life-like figures] before I realized that it was too much of a ‘pretend’ person. It seemed very dead and useless, almost like a doll or a statue. Any attempts at realism are always going to fall short of the real thing. But if you have pieces or shells that suggest a figure - something that isn’t seen as itself, but rather as something outside itself…I try to have the emphasis more on the separate composites of the figure - not classical type of sculpture of a person where attention is given to the form of the body and the muscles. With my sculptures, you can’t tell if they’re meant to be realistic or not. Here I have one reading a newspaper, another smoking a cigarette, and…one with the big dinosaur head.” Most recently, his obsession with staging has manifested itself on a more literal basis - Lawrence now volunteers as a props-maker with the local theatre group the InPlayers, which has just wrapped up an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Mort. “[Props-making] is secondary [to my art] but it’s also very good because it gives me a chance to experiment a lot, and to make things I won’t normally make using materials I wouldn’t normally think about using. It’s very nice to be able to sit and down and make something without having to think about it too much about it. When the director goes, ‘Can you make a bag of chips?’ that’s all you think about - how to go about cutting up these pieces of foam, how to make paint look like ketchup. With props, you can really let yourself go a little and just concentrate on the materials rather than on the concept.”

              ’Nostalgiaholic; or Sixteen Objects to Represent What’s Not There Anymore’ (detail), 2010.                                                                 Mixed media installation at Huize Frankendael, Amsterdam.

He has been in the Netherlands for nearly a decade now - long enough to pass for a bona fide Amsterdammer - but the truth is, Lawrence is far from being settled down. He hopes to find himself a gallerist in the near future, but admits that it is mostly because “networking is not my strong point. Not at all. And with some projects you just have to be in the right place at the right time.” His work relies not on the implementation of a systematic routine but on its very absence - there isn’t even any intention on his part to begin specializing in a particular medium, a truly rare course of action for professional artists. “When I came to Amsterdam, I remember starting on some sculptures, and thinking ‘This isn’t me’, and throwing them away. My teachers were coming in and asking, ‘When are you going to start doing real work?’ I was so lost. And then I made the oil thing and then it started to come together.”

We’ve been on the receiving end of these rebukes far too often, usually in our youth - a ‘lack of direction’, ‘the inability to focus’; behavioral contagions that ought to be rounded up, tempered, and finally eliminated. But what some may perceive as a liability could only mean for Lawrence an indubitable onward approach. The capacity for change is his mete, and he sees no end to the number of different routes he can take. “Right now, I’m focusing on drawing. I’m quite tired of sculpture of the moment. I’d return to it eventually, I’m sure, but I’ve actually got myself a sketchbook now. I’m planning to go to out into the countryside and do some sketches. Very traditional,” he laughs. “Maybe I’d never need to bring the figures back! Even though the starting point for [the landscapes] was the figures…”

Lawrence sees me out of his studio. Before I make the crossing at Muntplein I ask if he ever did coin a name for that oil pool installation. “Yeah,” he says, smiling. “I did. I called it ‘Traveling Stage Show’.”

lawrencejamesbailey.com

Header image by Very Likely. Remaining images courtesy of Lawrence James Bailey unless otherwise stated.

November 27, 2010
So where the bloody hell are we?

Not in Australia, though we sincerely wished we were.

Ah - “dead”, you say? Not Very Likely. We’ve been on the move. We’ve broken down our coordinates and simmered up new ones. Somewhere along the way a few of us moved into new apartments, fell in and out of love, got our learner’s permits. The others got some young, grew up and old, had litters - of children, of cats, whatevs - we were LIVING! But we have sorely missed this space too, and now we’re back and ready to share what we have experienced.

1. A new extension of Very Likely is in the making - you will mark that this announcement coincides with the tail-end of the National Short Story Week in the UK - and for the next couple of months until its big launch, the site will play host to a lively pantheon of cross-media literary collaborations, extracts of original writing from up-and-coming authors, transnational calendars of literary events nadonadonado (as the Japanese say “et ceteraetceteraetcetera”). If you’re a reader or a writer of short, long, or simply very very good fiction, be sure to stick around. We think you’d be very pleased with what we have in store for you. And do drop us a note to say hello - it’s been lonely here in our part of town, what with the children moving out and all.

2. To thank you for the patience and support you’ve extended to us since our previous post, our next interview has been made a Very Likely double-bill. Yep, we have dipped our hands into two of Europe’s liveliest cities to sieve out our newest VL subjects and their titillating encounters with crude oil and…Photobooth nudity. And that’s just what we’ve taken out of their transcripts so far. To find out just how our new friends have hauled their (rather bulky and unwieldy) vocations across borders and lived to tell the tale, check back this time next week - or simply Follow us to receive an alert.

3. We are finally on Twitter! Join the conga line for first-hand updates and a growing stockpile of interesting things we’ve pilfered off the Web.

Until then!

May 10, 2010
03. Johnathon Kelso

Johnathon Kelso
Atlanta, GA

“People in Memphis don’t take no guff,” declares Johnathon Kelso on the hardy town that has over the course of the past century successfully weaned a motley crew of prolific artist-types - Elvis, Johnny Cash, Tennessee Williams, and one enigmatic little strawberry-blonde named Mary – on a tried-and-tested diet of Carnivals and Sunday pork barbeques. It’s not hard to imagine that the heartbreaking hardiness in Cash’s guttural bass, or the steely delusion of Blanche Dubois are both bound by the soil from which they both stemmed. It’s not so much the specific geography or demography of the place, but from some uncanny bit of common voodoo that the city’s band of mavericks have roused, eager to live beyond their means, to see the world a little bit more, which – luckily or unluckily – usually means having to toe on the wild side. It is, as Johnathon succinctly puts it - “an adventure.”

                                                   Piano; Georgia. Photographed in 2008.

                                                            Andy, photographed in 2009.

It is in Memphis where John cut his teeth on this concept and in Memphis where “I’ve never gotten into more fights about anything than I did while…having a camera in my hand.” He recounts his favorite photography experience, one that really did culminate in a full-blown - if rather comical - good-guy-versus-bad-guy tussle. “While taking a picture of some shipping freights once I had a rather large man ask me to relinquish my camera over to him.” Knowing that the fella clearly meant business, John acted on the first (and only) impulse that could possibly save his camera from certain ruin - he ran. “Only I accidentally dropped my camera in the process. By the time I realized it had fallen…I turned around [to] see him holding my camera with a shit-eating grin on his face.” Never mind that his opponent had about 400 pounds on him – John decided that was only “good and right” that he “run full speed at him [and] put up the best fight I could,” with Cash or some other Southern deity doubtless hooting over his pluck from a box seat up above. Then the match was over, and Attila emerged victorious, but “that memory always does it for me.”

John’s pursuit of photography promptly set him roaming (as far as preferences go, it reads “photography – Tennessee, living – Georgia”), stockpiling as he did, similarly outrageous anecdotes along with his mounting collection of 4x6es. But its origins – and its many, many subjects - were ultimately born from the ordinary folds of everyday life. It began (as such tales usually do) with a girl. Over a string of months the two held hands, mucked around in diners, and liked each other so much they spent an inordinate amount of time “snapping pictures of each other with a little digital point-and-shoot.” This muse-figure in question was a photographer and collagist named Mary Carmack, who in addition to fuelling inspiration provided the bonus of actually “telling you what sucks and what doesn’t”. When the heat petered out he and Mary stayed good friends, and John continued to make photographs on his own. It was an impetus that changed “the entire direction” of his photography, and as it turns out, the course of his life. “I went off…and saw things in my own world. And I liked the way things looked.”

                                                  Mary Carmack, photographed in 2008.

                                        Mary, photographed in 2008.

The photographs are proof that John does not so much ‘look’ at ‘things’ as pilots them into incessant motion – turning inanimate objects into living ones, and animate objects into divinity, freeze-framing the unknown, catalytic gap that separates one banal moment from the next, until all banality seeps from the equation and you can’t look away. A portrait of his friend Andy, fetal under an old blanket, blinking sun out of his eye. In another, feckless Mary, hands and skirt aloft, slipping into the shadow of a pirouette across an empty running track. A double-exposure of another friend, Michael Mccraw, that John subsequently submitted for a nation-wide competition. In it we see Michael, ferociously helmeted with a chaotic corsage of straw and flowers, the lone pale yellow eye of a rue anemone where his own left one had been. There is a common consciousness that binds this hypnotic slideshow of faces – some looking wry, some betraying laugh lines with their crinkled eyes but all testifying their great affinity to the person behind the camera. “I don’t want people to simply be subjects of a photograph, I want to be their friend. I want to know about them and I want them to know about me. It’s a healthy exchange.”

                         Michael Mccraw, photographed in 2008.

                    Second-floor corridor of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis. Photographed in 2008.

                              Dustin Hinson, photographed in 2009.

                                        Tyler Lyle, photographed in 2010.

A remarkably similar observation was made of John’s idol, the Memphis-born photographer William Eggleston, by New York Times critic Holland Cotter in 2008. “By his own account, unless he is working on commission [Eggleston’s] choice of subjects for pictures is happenstantial,” Cotter writes, “And compositions that at first seemed bland and random proved not to be on a 2nd, 3rd and 20th look…[They] take us through that life, or what the pictures reveal of it, on a tour that is a combination joy ride, funeral march and bad-trip bender.” Like Eggleston’s, John’s photographs can be approximated as realist, but it is still the kind that is rarely seen today. Namely, they do not betray the photojournalistic obsession with uncovering grotesqueness for the purposes of overt politicizing – neither are they akin to the artfully-maneuvered coffee-table ‘candids’ that appear to collectively aspire towards a bohemian aesthetic that has somehow become fashionable again in recent years. John’s images, and those who wander within the frame, are so frank and simple as to appear almost staged - in a sense, it is an idealized fiction for those who spend a lot of time and money striving for this sort of Kerouac-ish existence yet somehow always missing the mark. (As a result, the photographs may also rouse in skeptics the difficulty of recognizing them for what they truly are – just kids having a good time.) While portrait shots constitute the bulk of his collection, John hesitates to identify himself as a portrait photographer per se. “I’ve always just shot what was in front of me, and if people happen to be there…then it would happen.” For John, photography is by no means simulacra, a mere representation of his lifestyle - it was life itself. He pounds the pavement with his friends, has “all the fun” one possibly can, and happens to take a camera with him. And the result is extraordinary.

                                        Hannah, photographed in 2009.

For all the kismet and thunderclaps that characterized John’s early experiences with photography, even the intrepid would be hard-pressed to deny that venturing – or in John’s case, plowing - off the beaten path with only a ubiquitous gadget as a collateral almost certainly spells hard times for its punter. Yet, “even after developing the first of rolls I had taken, I very quickly felt like this was something I should be investing almost all my time in…it’s become a part of how identify myself.” Three-and-half years on, those piecemeal scrapbook captures with Mary have come to encompass not only the days they spent in private anonymity, but those that may potentially make John very well-known to the rest of the world, and in the very near future. He has since made photography his sole livelihood, engaging actively in freelance or assistant work in addition to documenting his daily goings-on. Admittedly, trading a cubicle for canvas is no longer the revolutionary undertaking it used to be – for who isn’t an artist these days? – but if there is anything that filters the real McCoys from the to-and-fro knock-offs, it is time. While John approaches his work and his subjects with easy humour, it is a challenging (sometimes even tedious) type of fun that he needs to take extremely seriously. “I…tend to stick to things real well,” he says, casually understating the very pertinent fact that 48 months of consistently hard work is proof enough that his road less taken is no beatnik impulse. Nor does he harbour any illusions about his chosen line of work. As spiritually rewarding the reprieve from the corporate environment may, paying through your nose every time the electricity bill comes in remains a very real, unabating concern. “I’ve definitely seen both my fair share of high points and ruts along the way,” admits John. Part of his fixation with 35mm film stems from the fact that a “really nice digital camera” is a luxury that most roving photographers are still unable to afford – especially for those who have long ceased to live off dad’s dime. Yet, when the going gets tough, “put all the practical stuff to the side” and it becomes undeniable that “photography has altered my life in a very positive way.”

John’s strong inclination for film photography (yet another trait he shares with Eggleston) is manifested in his enviable collection of analog cameras, of which he has amassed “well over 60…I just started collecting. Right now I primarily shoot with a Hasselblad 500c, a Mamiya Super 23, and various point-and-shoot cameras like the Olympus XA.” Although the Hasselblad is his primary workhorse, “I’d say my favorite out of all those are the point and shoots…you just can’t beat how fun it is to be able to make a photograph as easily as you can with the cheaper cameras…If I could afford to shoot anything [I want],” he adds, “it would be the large 8x10 cameras…Digital photography is great and all but you will never be able to recreate the feeling of how complex it is to set up a ten-minute shot on these large pieces of film and simply shoot light onto it. In a matter of milliseconds.”

                              Stone Mountain, Georgia. Photographed in 2009.

And then there are those stories. To have these passages of lived experience encapsulated in tangible prints, rather than reduced to mere zeroes and ones on a computer chip, bolsters the belief that they must still exist in some perceptible, if tiny, form - even if one no longer knows where they may have went. When asked where the most interesting place any of his photographs could be right now, John answers - “In the trunk of my old Volvo that was towed and never heard from again.” But this faith in the longevity of photographic matter – in all sense of the last word – can only be loyally matched with the promise of transmission, so that one can easily imagine how John’s photographs may have been pulled from the dark belly of the runaway Volvo, and is presently passing from one unknown circle to the next. And so they traveled, with each new turn bearing the sediments of stories and surmises previously made about their contents, transforming always into the sum of their many makers until they are no longer rendered myth, but bona fide legend. Those photographs have yet to return to him- are indeed unlikely to do so in the near future, given the general enigma that is the auto-repair industry - and the next person can only hasten a clumsy guess at their whereabouts. In the meantime, they will be survived by a very good paradox – John’s own - that is more epistle than epithet : “Gone forever…somewhere.”

johnathonkelso.com
John Kelso’s Flickr page.

Header image courtesy of Mary Carmack. All other images courtesy of Johnathon Kelso.

February 23, 2010
02. Shini Park

Shini Park
London, UK

To use the trendy idiom that the fashion world has practically patented in describing the process of displacement - “Fashion blogger” is the new “freelance writer”. As in, the ubiquitous, if slightly vague job title that, thanks to the laissez-faire policy of the World Wide Web, everyone and anyone can now wield.

Indeed, Park & Cube reads, first and foremost, like an astutely-documented fashion newsfeed. The prerequisites are all there – big, glossy images (check) of everything from the Blogger’s favorite editorials (check) to the contents of her very enviable wardrobe (check). And then there are, of course, the comments. After cataloging her life on the Web for the past 12 months, Korean-born, London-based Shini Park has since amassed a large following of devoted readers, including a couple of publishing bigwigs who went on to proffer page space in the very magazines Shini herself had pored over, not too long ago. While the inundation of a Blogger’s Gmail inbox is a good means of measuring her popularity (as Shini’s probably is), it’s not too hard to imagine why people would want to write. Lush pictorials and lengthy comments box aside, Park & Cube’s appeal lies in the very quality that few would note in a community that is powered more by visual eye candy more than anything else – that Shini-ness of Shini Park that ricochets so identifiably and endearingly through her writing.

First of all, the girl is funny. Really. Unpretentious, witty, and charmingly self-deprecating at times, her day-to-day chronicles are akin to having a phone conversation with your best friend. You know, the kind that makes you want to flop on your futon and yak about Hanson (okay…the Backstreet Boys) and school for hours on end. Probably while eating cookies. “Today : Wrote one lame paragraph for my dissertation (aimed for 15, oh well.)” Also - “Ellen and I ploughed through the thick rain and dodged ominous black puddles to arrive at the showroom looking like dogs that tried to drink from a lawn sprinkler. Typical Park & Cube grande entrance.

Shini, hotfooting it in Londontown while showcasing her outfit for the day.

Getting to know Shini Park seems easy. She gripes about school. And about TV (“I find myself frequently hurling PG13 insults at the slow-running storyline and end up skipping a few episodes in the middle”). She shares her clothes (well, kind of. Check out her DIY instructionals and foolproof guide to shopping on G. Market). In fact, these all seem pretty darn ordinary. Only, of course, with 2,500 hits daily, Park & Cube is anything but. Paradoxically, what gives Shini an edge over her cooler-than-thou counterparts is the fact that she – in her typically self-deprecating fashion – doesn’t seem to think that she is very cool at all. “I thought I had an…original style when I was in Poland, but when I… got to mingle with all these artyfarty types [I] realised I looked like something plucked out of the set of ‘Little House on the Prairie’, or like a door-to-door dictionary salesman.” And sometimes, it seems, she can’t help but stand out – the idea of patent-yellow Chloe booties may leave most Poles unfazed, but the petite Asian clomping around in them, on the other hand, hardly registers as a typical sighting. “I still get stared at in the streets of Warsaw,” Shini admits, “and not because of what I wear. I do know that I’m a weird fusion dish, a dish you’d hesitate to order at a restaurant and, once you do, [either] love…or absolutely hate it.” For now, it seems, the votes are unanimously in favour of the former, and, to Shini, it’s a win-win situation. She agrees that “the fact that I have an Asian face will draw Asian readers’ interests,” but feels that growing up in Poland has also made it easier for readers from the West to relate “to how I appear to think and understand the world.”

One of Shini’s many DIY tutorials.

Breaking down the basics - a regular Zara cardigan that doubles up as a skirt.

While we’re on the subject of Shini’s sartorial inclinations prior to her stint at Central Saint Martins (where she is majoring in graphic design), let’s steer this hypothetical phone conversation back to its original tack for a bit. “What do I wear?” is a good starter, mostly because it pays to have a best friend who’d tell you exactly why or why not you ought to buy something. (Even if the reason is something along the lines of, “That sweater makes you look like a sperm whale,” you could still laugh about it afterward.) Instead of sporting achingly hip accoutrements from head to heel, a move which almost always borders on costume rather than comfort, Shini is more selective with her trendspotting. While she certainly has a knack for identifying the season’s most coveted looks (animal rings, it seems, and bejeweled neckpieces), her current aesthetic still manages to retain a stylish pragmatism. “Just because you’re a fashion Blogger, people think that you must be on par…with the current trends and high fashion - and they’ll soon refer to you as the ‘fashion expert’. A fashion Blogger can know no more than the ordinary woman.” Shini is quick to emphasize that it is one’s individuality as a discerning consumer, and “not a study of the history of fashion” that “gives a voice to the clothes that someone wears or shows interest in.” As a result, her personal snapshots often feature creative variations on well-cut blazers, a lot of knits (for countering London’s blustery weather), and wedge-heeled booties which lets her “breathe the 5’8 air” from her usual “5’5(?)” height. These are then accented with big dollops of color – yellow is a favorite – or weirdly wonderful items from her large collection of DIY projects. She does, however, admit to overdosing on shoe-shopping, specifically from the Korean-based apparel bazaar, G. Market. Oh yeah, you think. I’ve been there. I know what you mean. You reach for another cookie, and read on.

The self-proclaimed “fusion dish” in an East-West medley of G. Market and Christopher Kane for Topshop.

Shooting a feature for the British publication, Company.

When I first encountered Park & Cube – a little belatedly, I regret to admit, in September 2009 - she had already bagged feature space in several reputable Polish publications, such as Piana Magazine. Since then, her work has traversed some 6,000 miles halfway across the globe and straight into the manicured pages of Vogue Girl Korea, and Way Magazine China (January 2010 marks her second appearance in the latter). Bam, fashion Blogger score! The possibilities are endless. Her own column! Make that – her own magazine, and (maybe) a date with Karl? But for Shini, “it marked the moment that my mother stopped thinking of the Blog as a nuisance to my studies and [saw] it as something to be proud of. I believe she still shows the magazine to her regular customers at her shop.” Contrary to popular belief, a glitzy career in fashion is not on the cards for Shini, who counts “settling down at a design agency, and maybe getting married” as more ideal options for the near future. As to the reasons why, she offers yet another culinary analogy - there lies, arguably, an inevitable descent into pure “materialism” when one starts putting “food on my table…with my clothes on back.” As a design student, she harbors some pretty firm principles about the notion of artistic integrity and the age-old adage of ‘staying true’ to one’s craft, which is also why Park & Cube has remained – and will remain - “personal, and in saying that I [also] mean advert-free”. Despite all the razzle-dazzle of the industry and the perks which may have appeared to spill into the bandwidth of its Blogger-ambassadors, Park & Cube, Shini emphasizes, is ultimately a production over which she has full control - and fame a “privilege” that happened to wander onset. “I’ll be keeping at Park & Cube as long as it’s relevant to my lifestyle, in which case even if it becomes irrelevant, I’ll change the contents so it does.” Even if that means a voluntary exile from the luminous terra firma of the fashion world? Absolutely, says Shini.

For now, though, it looks like she’ll be staying put. Writing on the evolution of vintage clothing, Shini muses, “It’s hard to find a one-of-a-kind piece without having to go through piles of clothes that were mass manufactured years ago as a part of trend then…The pieces aren’t necessarily unique or strictly compatible with current trends, but they edge closer to classic and timeless.” Clearly, the fickle whim of public opinion doesn’t seem to faze Shini Park, and why should it? Despite its familiarity, Park & Cube is still very much about the individualist, and it is its unique characterization of the supergirl-next door that would undoubtedly make fans want to keep reading, even after the dubious longevity of the “fashion Blogger” - like most trends - has come and gone.

Park & Cube

Images courtesy of Park & Cube.

February 14, 2010
01. Allison O’Connor

allison1

Allison O’Connor, 22
Vancouver, WA

It’s a funny story. The first time I met Allison O’Connor, we were both struggling with our phonetics. Involving, specifically the rigorous demands of the dialogue pattern, “Is the door open?”/”No, it is closed.” In hindsight, it probably sounded like the worst ever attempt at small talk, but the truth was we were in the middle of a third-period Japanese language class and the problem of expression was something we were only all too painfully familiar with.

It goes without saying that the door topic soon fizzled out, and Allison and I quickly fell to talking about other things (furtively, and in English) – namely the large camera she was using, almost defiantly, as an oversized paperweight for those Japanese conversation worksheets which had held us prisoner for the past hour or so. I told her I had a similar one in my knapsack, only it was a Nikon instead of a Canon, and that it used film. “So does mine.” She flips it over – indeed, no digital back. “Ooh, onaji.” By the time the end of the period rolled around, we were photographing each other at the back of the emptied-out classroom, and a couple of days later, a portrait of me was being surveyed – along with a score of others that Allison had made – by over 10,000 people on the World Wide Web.

allison3

Tokyo Bike Lot; 2008.

Even though this particular encounter with Allison and her camera was no doubt, somewhat serendipitous, it wasn’t the first I’ve heard of her. A couple of weeks before, I was sitting with my friend Ben at a McDonald’s in Hiyoshi, a bustling student town in Tokyo, and he had been trying to sneak a picture of me unbecomingly stuffing French fries into my mouth. In return, I snapped a couple of quick shots of him with a straw in his mouth, half-joking, half-lamenting that those pictures weren’t likely to “make it anywhere beyond the four walls of Facebook.” “Dude,” he said. “You should meet Allison. She has a Blog.”

I didn’t know who Allison was, or why exactly he said “Blog” the same way one would upon meeting an American Idol in the flesh (“Awweeesooome”), but according to Ben I was one of the rare few who didn’t. Allison started her web journal, Urban Research, just before she first arrived in Japan in September 2008. Then, its readership comprised of just a handful of friends, family members, and “customers at the coffee stand where I worked [back in Vancouver, Washington]. They told me I should so they could follow along with my adventures in Japan - I’m not sure many of them actually read it though.” Allison’s initial plan was to keep a travel log of sorts – documenting her day-to-day trips through Tokyo’s teeming warrens, making notes on charming hole-in-the-wall cafes (she’s a vegetarian), shops, and museums as a little window into her life abroad for those she knew back home. (See - 1 December 2008. A musing comparison of Café Zoka’s Seattle and Akasaka-mitsuke outlets.)

allison2

L. Ploy and her Bike; 2009.

allison5

On-the-go Graffiti - Park Avenue, NYC; 2009

allison4

Street Art - Seattle; 2009.

The attention, then, was clearly unprecedented. It was barely two months into the Blog’s quiet launch before passers-by began to take notice – many stopped in simply to comment on how beautiful her pictures were. And although communicability was something we tussled with everyday during those grammar classes, it seemed to come across effortlessly in Allison’s photos. Urban Research is now being accessed by readers as far as Thailand, and Allison credits the surge of interest in part to her recently-discovered love for film photography. “I started it kind of haphazardly and put up a lot of lame pictures at first, but got a lot more into photography as I went along.” A well-timed thrift purchase on EBay gave Allison her first film SLR – the Canon that she now shoots almost exclusively with – which in turn led to an equally well-received series of creative projects, including a self-published photobook entitled 24:00 (for “24 hours,” she explains). Her personal Website, allisonoconnor.com, is an “online portfolio” containing various photo sets ranging from cityscapes to candid portraits. (Rather reminiscent of the styles of Martin Parr and John Loengard is the short set, “L. Ploy and her Bike”, a cute no-holds-barred homage to the sweat stains and high-contrast purple bruises of summer bike rides.) While the ticket to emerging from Blogger obscurity these days usually involves a hefty amount of artful Photoshopping, Allison’s images are personal, “pretty, but not pretentious” (as noted by one approving stranger). Her mom, her brother Ben, and her boyfriend Paul are regular fixtures in her posts, as are the vestiges of Seattle’s many roving street artists. She covers the issue of street graffiti extensively on Urban Research as well as on The PBLKS, a design and culture site produced by former Vice contributor Douglas Haddow. “When you walk around a city you’re just inundated by advertisements. Artists who spend time creating artworks for the public that are likely to be removed seem to have a particular dedication to their work. Instead of flooding people with messages of consumerism, street artists are making social statements and posting art for art’s sake. Street art is ephemeral in nature - it almost always gets removed – so I like to capture it on film when I can.”

It may interest you to know Allison and I did eventually pass the class, despite our misadventures in verb conjugations. Not that it mattered exactly - like Vancouver’s urban muralists, she much prefers showing stories to telling them. December 2, 2009. “Alas,” Allison quips one after finding herself – as many of us often have - quite unable to articulate her sublime love for chocolate. “I am no poet – and if you are here I assume it’s more because you like my pictures than my words.”

Urban Research
allisonoconnor.com
Allison O’Connor @ The PBLKS
24:00 by Allison O’Connor [Buy]

Images courtesy of Allison O’Connor.

Liked posts on Tumblr: More liked posts »