Cover Songs

Music, Pictures, Text

The Beatles feeling Buddy Holly-esque in “I’ll Be On My Way”

Picking up the bass guitar again has brought back a lot of not-so-distant memories of playing music with a band in high school. It was an escape of sorts to sit around with friends, play our parts to make it sound whole, and take on roles from the band whose songs we were playing. Getting to be loud was always fun, as well. I often go back and listen to those songs my friends and I recorded crudely over cassettes. I listen for nuances within the songs that mark our personalities, cohesiveness, and endless hours of practicing to get to the final product.

During my last two years of college, I was struggling with my own influences as a photographer. Instead of creating work that looked like my own, it was looking like some of my forebears’ like Bill Eggleston or Bill Christenberry. I was playing my part too well, with no style and very little individual voice or nuances that were a part of me. It’s a happy struggle that visual and performing artists contend with quite a bit. When there’s large and looming figures from the past, it’s nearly impossible to escape them. I don’t know if those influences ever go away. Do they need to?

Mark Steinmetz‘s books (“South Central”, “Greater Atlanta”, and “South East”) struck a chord with me within the library at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The three books are big and beautifully printed and I could hardly crane my eyes away from their pages. I was struck with how contemporary his photographs felt. I heard a little bit of my own voice within them as some of the portraits of teenagers felt closer in age to me, whereas other Southern places and people felt so distant to me and a bit caked on with nostalgia. Bill Eggleston’s pictures come to mind as a not-so-stark contrast. If there was a so-called New South, it might exist in Mark Steinmetz’s portraits. Flipping through “South Central” I saw vivid characters from Flannery O’Connor like a Mr. Tom T. Shiflet from Tarwater, Tennessee (or was it Singleberry, Georgia?) or a Hazel Motes, or a crooked bible salesman not even from a place but near a place.

The people in Steinmetz’s pictures feel the same way to me. Not really from a place, but near a place I recognize. As in a bit suburban, rural, and urban all at once. A place and person that feels immediately identifiable and altogether estranged. Steinmetz remarks in an interview with Ahorn Magazine about all this:

I’m not so sure my work has any single specific emotional effect – so much depends on the eyes of the beholder and where he or she might be at in their life or in their cultivation. The work is open to interpretation. I think my psyche is just wired a certain way and that I’m pretty much helpless to photograph things the way I do. It’s my nature. I should note a correction – I don’t just photograph the suburban world but rather a range that moves from the rural to the inner city.

In my eyes, a lot of South is like this. It’s not as much rural as it is suburban and not as much urban as it is rural in places. Especially in the late 20th and 21st century, it feels a lot easier to float in and out of all three realms. This sort of grey area becomes apparent in the sort of lost faces of Steinmetz’s portraits, especially some of the teenagers and young people. This is not a particularly Southern trait, but a kind of sweeping feeling of ennui among a generation. That lasting feeling of unrest, that gaze, stuck with me for a while.

I’m often intimidated when taking portraits but I think anything that scares you as a photographer somehow draws you to make its picture and find out what that thing is. For me it’s talking to people. It’s a rush and quite exciting sometimes getting to know another person and share in the picture-making process. Sometimes it’s fruitful, other times not so much. Mark Steinmetz’s own approach, in an interview with Joerg Colberg, to portraiture milled about in my head whenever I had my camera in hand.

I want to show something of people’s inner lives. I think for portraiture you have to be completely certain that you are interested in photographing this or that person. You can’t be wishy-washy in your motivation. You just have to know that you want to photograph this person and it’s a kind of knowing that eradicates any asking of “why?” My approach is fairly low-key. I don’t want to make waves. I’ll just ask something like “Can I photograph you as you are?” Sometimes I’ll give a little direction like “look over that way” but it’s never elaborate. Having an ability to focus and concentrate is necessary for making good portraits.

Sometimes my heart got to beating too much as I approached a person to make their picture, with fear of rejection also milling around in my head. Concentration was almost secondary to my cause. I just received a lot of film back from the lab and I wanted to share some of the portraits I made. I found myself this time around feeling a little more brazen and talkative with people as I built my confidence up. I certainly had more people included on the rolls of film than any other set so far.

After examining the scans, I acknowledge a decidedly Steinmetz influence. What felt strongest to me out of the photographer’s pictures was the inclusion of teenagers, kids, and young adults. Those pictures interested me the most and I subconsciously took it to heart. I started photographing couples, teenagers at homecoming football games, street preachers, and kids giving away puppies outside department stores. I’ve been carrying around a camera more and more with me, as well as my manners and thick skin for a “no.” I didn’t really receive any of the latter, possibly due to the former.

Since graduating, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to grow even more as a photographer from month to month or season to season. For me, that was making pictures of people. And while thinking about growth, I thought about a quote attributed to photographer Jerry Spagnoli on a bulletin board at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina. “If it scares you, I want you out there doing it.” It stuck with me for a long time, as well as a lot of faces in Mark Steinmetz’s portraits. While scanning the negatives, I noticed some of the striking similarities between some of my favorite pictures of his and my own images.

I came back to the overarching and overpowering influences again. I think it comes down to what you know and what you envision of as an artist. Figuring that out takes a little time, but maybe in three years or so I’ve learned a little more about what that means and how to contend with my influences like Mark Steinmetz. I used to avoid it because it seemed nearly impossible to make any sort of photographic voice my own. Is everything a copy of a copy? I begrudgingly refuse to take up that notion despite some of the obvious artistic influences and influencees out there. Something has to beget something else and that’s what makes for progress in a medium. In a small way I feel I’ve started to do that because what my work looks like now will be a bit different in another few years and that’s how you cultivate a voice and signature. Maybe influences aren’t so bad to emulate now and again, even subconsciously. If anything, change comes from it, it’s got to, and it helps to know where your ideas began in the first place. It makes you a better artist in the end, I think. Like going from making two minute songs to whole album and portfolios of profound work on its own level. That’s what we strive for, anyway.

Saturday Fight Night

Books, New Zine, Pictures, Shop, Text

Biblical narratives drive a lot of my photographic work as well as its long and rich history in the arts. I took a Bible history class during my sophomore year of high school and got an in-depth look into stories from the Old Testament and more than a few of them were new to me. One in particular was a story from Genesis, where Jacob, while traveling on the road to Canaan, encounters an angel and wrestles with the angel until daybreak. Through this struggle, Jacob becomes a much more spiritual person and finds peace with God.

This seemed like such an odd occurrence to me. The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel has been depicted through art history for centuries and years later when I saw Paul Gauguin’s “Vision After the Sermon” in college, my interest in the biblical story was renewed.

“Vision after the Sermon”, Paul Gauguin, 1888

Meanwhile in my hometown of Hickory, I kept seeing these advertisements crop up on the side of the road for wrestling matches at the local National Guard Armory buildings. I was sort of interested what went on at these matches as they always seemed to hype up some of the personalities and weaponry being used. Now that my long-term undergraduate thesis project was completed, I decided to start a short project involving photographing these wrestling matches while thinking about them in a Biblical framework.

I went to a few matches over the summer, incessantly taking pictures ringside in the giant concrete Armory building. The lack of air conditioning made me feel like I was one of the wrestlers because I was sweating more than usual. It being summer and all made it that much worse. There was nothing short of fun to be had at the matches and at $8 a ticket, it was more entertaining and less expensive than a movie ticket. Girls running the merchandise table defending themselves with pizza cutters, wrestlers breaking open Diet Pepsi cans with their teeth, throwing it on the ground, and dog collar matches where two opponents duke it out while being held together by a long, chain link.

The spectacle of it all fascinated me and made it exciting for me to make pictures. Maneuvering wasn’t that easy and predicting where the match would go kept me on my toes. What resulted in this project is a new zine called “Saturday Fight Night” — Gauguin’s painting seemed a lot more important to me, and the dots of harsh stage lights in the background of the pictures felt Divine in a small way. Through the elaborate drama of the wrestlers, the same lessons Jacob learned in the wilderness about humility, masculinity, stubbornness, and ultimately, inner peace and victory were exacerbated in the wrestler’s actions and faces.

“Saturday Fight Night” is a new 26-page, color laser printed zine, signed and in an edition of 25. The cover is 67 lb. grey card stock with Gustave Doré’s 1855 depiction of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel on the cover in inkjet. The book is pamphlet-stitched with waxed linen thread and measures 7.5″ x 8.5″. Pick one up at the Empty Stretch store for $10!

Never Say Die

Events, News, Pictures, Projects in Progress, Spotlight, Text, Travel

I don’t know when it hit me, but I am glad it did. Somewhere in southern Ohio a plan was hatched to make it to Chicago & hitch a ride back east & luckily for me I had time to think about this plan & how much I hated it. It may have been the drunk text that read “Goonies Never Say Die,” the whiskey conversations, or the thought of friends on the left coast, but I am doing this. I’m all in at this point, eyes toward the westward sky, legs pumping away. I want you to be able to follow me, so I am offering a postcard sale. Roughly every 3 days I will be sending out a batch of postcards of photos of my trip so far, with stories or poems on the reverse. They will be 2 dollars each & are available here in the Empty Stretch store. If you would like more than one, please just change the quantity. Below are the first two postcards that will be going out.

Postcards can be purchased here.

Lancaster, OH
Richwood, WV

Years Not Lost

Pictures, Text

It sat in my top drawer in my bedroom for a few years. A roll of 800 ISO Fuji Superia 24-exposure 35mm film. It sat in a box with a few coins in it, it sat in a box to through half of high school and all of college and sat in a moving box and later a drawer in a closet used for storage. And there it sat. Searching for some 35mm negative sleeves, I found this roll of film with the leader sticking out, thinking it unused. So I shot it. I took my film to a locally-owned film processors’/dry cleaners’ in town and when I got the film back, “Double Exposed” was written on the outside sleeve, containing the 4″ x 6″ glossy prints.

And double exposed it was. Every 24 frames were exposed nearly directly on top of each other. The two pictures in one frame are separated by six years. I took these pictures back in 2006, I believe. Or maybe 2005. I don’t recall what’s happening in them, why I was taking them and the fact that pictures I took a week ago sit on top of them, make the reasons harder to uncover. I was astounded for a number of reasons. Not just in how some of the pictures directly correlate like the two cameras or the ever-present self portrait in a reflected object, but in the separation of themselves by time. Time is of course a major factor in photography, but, more importantly (especially in film photography) there’s luck. It’s true I wanted some of the recent pictures on this roll to turn out, but the gift I was given in forgetting outweighed the expected; the luck of happenstance made me appreciate the act of photographing even more. It got me to notice how my vision was and still is evolving, yet my mind’s eye hasn’t changed much in six or seven years and may not ever. That, I think, is innate.

I don’t know how I got away with it. Carrying that little Canon AE-1 camera around during high school — which I got at the flea market. Much like today when I go photographing, I think most of my peers and teachers wrote it off as just me doing my thing and let me about my way. There’s some pictures I could see me taking now, beneath the expected and posed ones. There’s some pictures where I don’t know what is happening, or who I was photographing at the time, where I’m at, or what season it is. I’m even fuzzy on the exact year. Why was I photographing at the time? Why was I doing it last week? Because we have to.

This unexpected lesson in the traits of photography as a medium, what it represents, got me thinking about its importance in regards to memory. Since some aspects of photography are memories, what happens when we don’t remember them? I’m slightly nostalgic, but it’s in a dense fog of layers, transposed with current images, their reasons, and reasons I took pictures six or seven years ago. I like to remember, but I can’t with these. What does this nostalgia mean? This grey area is very enticing.

A Bit About Bill

Feature, News, Pictures, Spotlight, Text
"Untitled, 1973" by William Eggleston

I feel as if many photographers working today owe a lot to Bill Eggleston. Or perhaps not. Either way, his influence among the art world has been sort of delayed about 40 years. Like many art students, I learned about him in an introductory photography course during my freshmen year in college. I was ignorant to any photographer shooting seriously in this “snapshot aesthetic” — the only photographers I knew about were Man Ray and Ansel Adams. And I no idea one could make art about one’s home — his hometown in Memphis, Tennessee. The South. Ah, I thought, something I identify with readily that many of my classmates didn’t. I understood it. His pictures felt like home, my home. I ended up going home over Thanksgiving break and making pictures around the countryside with which I was duly familiar. The landscape I spent most of my grade school years attempting to escape. Now, here I was, stopping my car on the side of the road with my camera out, taking in appraising stares from strangers bypassing in their cars. I’ve done this every time I’ve gone home.

I owe a bit to ol’ Bill Eggleston. What he did for art and color photography and more importantly, what he made me realize about southern imagery. Even though he claims his pictures aren’t necessarily southern (and I don’t think they are either), but that art could be made about whatever is around you.

Naturally, I wasn’t at all surprised that the above image is expected to gross a quarter of a million dollars at Christie’s this March. But I am a little surprised it took this long. (And, by the way, doesn’t it look a bit like the St. Andrew’s Cross?)

What I Mean When I Talk About the South

Pictures, Projects in Progress, Text, Thesis

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” — William Faulkner, “Light in August”

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my pictures regarding my senior thesis. So here’s an update. Since my crusade of shooting 100 sheets of 4×5 film during the summer, I’ve dabbled here and there in Northern Virginia, much closer to DC than North Carolina, shooting only a little bit. Thanksgiving break saw a 90-sheet increase in my shooting and later at Christmas, 140 sheets down. I took my first picture within the bounds of thesis during the first week of July 2011. It’s a portrait of my father on the beach. The last image I took for this project (for now) was of a red out building out in the community of Vale, North Carolina. The sun had just set and the landscape had sort of a blue sameness to it, except for this pale red barn out near my great aunt’s house. I’m not one to take pictures of barns, but with one last sheet left, I couldn’t resist the visual symmetry on this clear, winter’s evening. Sometimes you have to take those kind of pictures to get to the next ones. Both of these images I described were taken in extreme circumstances, 100+ degree temperatures on a windy beach, the other, nearly below freezing temperatures out in the foothills. As of now, neither one of these pictures made it into the final edit.

A lot of things have come up when talking and photographing this project regarding growing up in the South, that is say, Southern memory, personal and historic. I’m not so sure “what’s Southern” can even be described in words without mentioning some of the stereotypes of the culture. The South I grew up is nothing like the South Bill Christenberry or Bill Eggelston photographed. It remains a part of American mythology. To me, what’s Southern is something much more simple than old storefronts, sweet tea, or NASCAR, although I have photographed those things to get to the next things. Coming closer, but never quite being able to define Southern heritage. It’s almost like living in a photographic paradox, separating what’s Southern from what’s actually American, or more importantly, what’s personal from what’s global. Of course I think it begins with the Civil War, but, writer Walker Percy puts it more eloquently. It’s a statement of his I still stand by.

“There is a Southern heritage, and it has nothing to do with the colonel in the whiskey ad. It has to do with the conservative tradition of a predominately agrarian society, a tradition which at its best enshrined the humane aspects of living for rich and poor, black and white. It gave first place to a stable family life, sensitivity and good manners between men, chivalry toward women, an honor code, and individual integrity. If one wishes to sneer at such values, let him; but I can’t help wondering if the sneer does not conceal a contempt for all traditions.”

I think that’s what my thesis is all about. Here are some new images from that body of work.

Great-Great-Great Grandfather J.V. Ozmint's Confederate Calvary Saber, 2011
Summertime Tomatoes, 2011
My grandpa Ed used to carry a buckeye in his right front pocket for good luck, 2011
Dove, 2011
Lutheran Men's Fish Fry, 2012
Near Icard, NC
She grew up in rural Iva, South Carolina during the Great Depression, 2011
Little boy blue come blow your horn, 2012
Opie's Rival, The Andy Griffith Show, 2012
Near Cat Square, NC
Momma under the hair dryer, 2012