Monday, July 6, 2015

Q & A with Steven B. Smith

Steven B. Smith by Mary Ellen Hawkins
Steven B. Smith is a photographer based in Providence and Utah. His current Utah work can be seen on Tumblr.




When did you arrive in Utah? Do you go there most summers to photograph?

A few weeks ago. I love living on the east coast but need to be out west for at least a few months of each year. I have been trying to make work on the east coast but having grown up in Utah and then lived in LA and the east coast for long time I find that I see so much when I go back there. I am drawn there but can't live there because of the culture and politics.

What don't you like about the culture and politics?

I grew up there and found it stifling. Between the Mormon culture that runs the state and the rednecks there was not a lot to relate to. I love the mountains and all of my family is there. When I go back to make work I get to be a critic from both the inside and out. The politics are crazy. I can't read the newspaper when I am there. The local state legislature makes Ted Cruz look like a wimp.

Where in Utah did you grow up?

I grew up in Springville, the town just south of Provo. The population is still upwards of 85% Mormon. I have lived in Salt Lake City for a few years and found it to be great. A small island of Democrats and mostly very cool folks. It is the areas just outside Salt Lake City that are still very one dimensional. Growing up there it seemed like no one I knew questioned anything or thought differently. My peers and the folks I knew seemed like the were in a race to think the same. I knew from an early age that I wanted to get away to a place where everything was not forbidden or repressed. I was not a rebel but just wanted to be somewhat normal.

When you say "we" leave next Tuesday, is that you and your wife? Does she come along on your photo trips? Is she from Utah also?

I dated my wife in high school for two years. We broke up because she was religious and I was not. After twenty five years and a string of artist girl friends I bumped into her and we just knew that we should get married. We had both been with partners that made us appreciate what we had when we where young. I know her family and they are great and that helped get me over the fear of getting married for the first time at 45. We have two kids who are 22 and 18, and since 2008 we have been driving out to Utah from Rhode Island, usually twice a year to hang with our family. Hanging with family is great incentive to shoot for long hours. She is great. She was raised in a cultured family of thinking Democratic folks. Her parents were both music professors. Her dad was also a photographer and this is so great because she understands what I do in a deep way and she has music as her art. She understand the effort it takes to try be be artistic. We  can relate and don’t directly overlap or compete. We are both much more patient and generous to each other now that we are older. I am very lucky.


Ivins, Utah, 2008, #7

Wow, what a great story. That's like a movie script. It's funny that you wound up marrying someone you knew as a younger person. And you travel back to your childhood home each year. Some unconscious (or maybe conscious?) sense of primal yearning at work there. My armchair psychiatrist take.

Great observation. One could argue that everything is projection to some degree. Being older and living away helps clarify how I feel about the place I grew up. Now when I visit Utah I know how the outside world might view the place. I see everything here as familiar and exotic. 

So you all drive out, the four of you? Do any of them accompany you during the process of making photos?

All four of us and a big standard poodle drive out each summer. We fly out sometimes but we can't stand to leave the dog for long stretches. The drive is too long but is a great way to change gears. I have taken my wife shooting with me. She is and avid knitter and I thought working together could be great but what I do is too boring for her. My dad was always curious as to why I only had one hobby. He used to say I was too serious about this photography thing. He would master something and then move on. Finally he had to go out with me one day to see what I actually did. He could only take three hours before he made me take him home.

He thinks of photography as a hobby for you? Even at this point.

My dad started to get it after a lot of years. I would have to go golfing or shoot guns to be able to have conversations with him. He was a modest but gifted and would become bored after he mastered something. But golf stuck with him because it is so hard to stay on top of your game. I told him that this was the reason I was smitten with photography.

You might be onto something. A way to generate more interest in photography by appealing directly to millions in the golf crowd. When does photography become a respectable trade? If ever?

I have accepted that it is disreputable. I try to sell my students on the fact that it is so hard and that this is a great challenge but not many folks buy into that.

You mean your students consider photography to be easy? As a career path? Or just the making of good photos?

I feel like many don’t get to explore photography in depth before they feel pressure to move on to other media or areas of image making and are missing out on a lot of the interesting complexity of working within the restriction of trying to make good photos. That is a bit harsh. There are a lot of really amazing things happening in the photo / art world and not everything fits into nice boxes. But I am still interested in lens based photography and try to share that passion. I am lucky to have a lot of really smart, interested and hard working students. They are under a lot of pressure to find jobs that are precious and few, and to have art careers right out of school. All of which are strange values but this is what a fancy art school is supposed to supply.  


Herriman, Utah, 7-2-15

It's just like mastering any skill. You can't learn anything worthwhile in a heartbeat. It takes years. Your dad can probably relate to that, as can most people. But photography is tricky because everyone has a camera and thinks of themselves as a picture taker. And the difference between a museum photo and a snapshot is not always readily apparent. It's a field full of evaluative pitfalls

So how did your "hobby" start?

I took a few photo classes in high school but mostly looked down on it as a second tier art for photo journalist. I went to USU to study drawing and painting and took another photo class for an easy course to fill out my schedule. I was lucky to study with Craig Law and he was the first person that showed me how seemingly simple photos could be amazingly complicated. That you're sort of in control and out of control and that this is a deep area to explore and that one should try to be thoughtful and conceptual in your approach but also be present and use your intuition. Once I got that I was hooked.

What does "in control and out of control" mean? Do you feel like your photographs have some out of control element? To me they seem very controlled.

There is an idea that John Szarkowski gets at in The Photographer's Eye about how smart photographers know that they can only control or realistically  convey a portion of their intention when making a photograph and that this lack of control is something to pay attention to and use. Being able to break your work down into potential interpretations of what you want the photo to mean, knowing what it might mean to others and then being aware of other open ended possibilities is a useful skill. Embracing the factually descriptive and contextually confounding nature of a photograph is a way of being in control and out of control.

Was there some photographer in particular at that point that really hooked you?

I shamefully was not aware of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. When I saw their work I was blown away. I really identified with Winogrand's take on the world. He seemed like he was caring, hurt and pissed and that really resonated with me. I happened to read this great article by John Brumfield in a 1980 Afterimage. It was about The Americans and he diagramed what he called the three chapters and how Frank crafted his own language through sequencing and repetition. I have been in a big fan ever since. It is boring to talk about it now but I am still awed by the ambition and realized achievement of the book.

Everything always comes back to The Americans. Damn. It's like the Ur-tablet of photography. But your photos don't look very much like Robert Frank's. I mean your style is quite different in the Utah suburban work. Actually the new book is more in Frank's vein. We'll get to that...So not aware of Frank or Winogrand. Who was the person back then for you?

I ended up making what could be called street work in Utah. I felt like I had something to say about the culture that I grew up in and that was the majority of my work as an undergrad. I took a few landscapes but was very aware of not making pretty work or including the mountain horizon. I ended up going to Yale for grad school and the first crit there was really harsh. I showed my street photos and promptly moved on to other work. Being in New Haven made me want to start studying the New Topographics folks. I spent lots of time in the library looking at Adams, Baltz, and Deal. They really worked for me. I don't think I completely got Robert Adams until his book What We Bought came out. Then it all fell into place. I am a slow learner.


Alpine, Utah, #1

One way of interpreting that sequence is that you arrived at Yale with an interest in a certain method. That method was perceived as a dead end. I mean, street photos? At Yale? Yuck. So they steered you in another direction. Which may have worked. But which direction was really you? This loops back to the new book. Why are those photographs, which I'll call street photos, surfacing now?

That is a great question and part of the reason why I had to pick up street shooting again. I felt like a baby for giving up at Yale so easily. I figured out that street photography was dead in the late eighties and  but after years of shooting landscape and trying to make pictures of our culture without people I realized I could do both. People started showing up in a some of my landscapes. I realized that it expanded the landscapes and eventually my work started to look like street photos in the suburban sprawl. I realized that all of the photographs were pictures of our culture and that it was great to have them together. I don't really consider myself a landscape photographer but I see how the new book is a bit of jump from the first.

When did you shoot most of those pictures?

Most of the pic in Waiting Out The Latter Days were done as an undergrad from 85-87. I shot a lot in the year I had off before I went to grad school. I was a slightly older undergrad as I had to keep dropping out of school to work construction to pay for school. I was actually working in some of the same subdivisions when Lewis Baltz made his book, Park City. There are 14 photo from the past two summers, and the rest from 85-57.

You worked construction. And construction scenes appear in many of your suburban landscape photos. Is that conscious?

The Weather And A Place To Live,
Duke Press, 2005
After I graduated I taught for a few years part time. I realized that I was never going to make serious work if I did not change the way I was living. I decided to take a break from teaching. I had a plan to move to Los Angeles to be with my girlfriend who was in her last year of film school. I would start my own contracting business and pay off my student loans as quickly as I could and then set up the business to work half of each year and then shoot for half a year. I was not happy working construction as I missed my artist community but I made a lot of work. Most of the photographs in The Weather and a Place to Live were made near jobs that I was working. 

You said earlier that those early "street work" photos "had something to say about the culture I grew up in." What did they say?

I saw this sad defeatism in they way many of my elders grouped the cold war and the impending nucular war with Jesus coming back to take us home. We were constantly being chided to clean up and prepare for the end. My dad used to be very critical of the Mormon culture. He grew up there too and said that the mormons were bad stewards of the earth because they could not wait to get to heaven. So I was trying not to be to accusatory but I wanted to make work that dealt with a culture that I viewed as secure but brain dead.

That's funny. I don't read them as being so critical of the culture. I think your suburban landscapes are much more politically opinionated. 

The landscape work grew out of my time in LA. Working construction in LA opened my eyes to this building process of prepping the land to keep it from washing away before it could be developed. I knew I was in Joe Deal and Lewis Baltz's backyard but I thought I saw something and really went after it. There was element of Baltz's New Industrial Parks that worked for me. I saw a minimalist treatment of minimalist architecture and thought that was a smart combination for dealing with ugly landscapes. Rarify them into art by excessive formal design. His work takes the idea of a pretty landscape and uses it against its subject. I was always troubled about not making pretty landscapes. 


Bloomington, Utah, 2010

What looks "pretty" to you? And why is it bad?

I wanted the work to be smart and not just formally interesting. There are a number of folks who are members in the dirt pile school of photography. Dirt piles are hard to resist and I was worried about making sappy propaganda: "Look what man has done to the landscape." I love the formal qualities in the work of Toshio Shibata but I wanted my formal decisions to animate the erosion control systems, to transform them into earth sculpture and ridiculous public art of suburban expansion.

You mentioned an the impending nuke war with Jesus. What was that about? It seems like two fantasy ideas colliding. Do two negatives make a positive?

In this case, yes. In the early part of the book there is a baton twirler next to a wagon that was converted into an atomic bomb cloud. A big light went on inside my head when I found that scene. It is not as prevalent as I might like but that idea of the nuclear war being the end of days started me looking. It seemed scary to me to put a calm face on nuclear war.

What about the Weather book? Do you view those photos as political? 

Water and development are very political topics especially now. The restraint of land and control of water are threads that run through out. The work is political but I hope also funny in a satirical way. The last thing I wanted to do was make man-against-nature, or look-what-man-has-done-to-the-earth photos. It is hard for them not exist on that level to some degree but I wanted to use humor to rarify the absurdness of this situation and  to provide a cathartic release.

What about the recent series Irrational Exuberance, which seems more critical of the culture, at least to me. Do you think it's a step in the direction of direct commentary?

This project deals with desire to live close to nature. This desire is often expressed by building dream homes that destroy nature. Many home owners and planned communities adopt decorating and landscape design themes that are inspired by nature and seek to blend this new development into the adjoining natural areas. Being able to afford a sculpted landscape effigy or a small scale replica of nature is the highest form of patriotism. I see a sincere yearning on the part of consumers to express their love for nature with the process they know best.  I am also trying to get at a class element by showing folks of a certain class who are working in the landscape and others who are recreating. 

Was your dad a Mormon? Or you growing up?

My mom is still sort of Mormon. My dad stopped going when he was a teenager. When I was 13 I stopped going. My mom wasn’t going and she tried to make me go but I told her that she couldn’t make me if she did not go her self. My dad did not like growing up mormon in Utah either. He planted thoughts that allowed me to feel that it was ok to question things.

One thing which jumps out at me as a subtext is how white and middle class the culture is. It's like a Leave It To Beaver world, with no other races or disabilities or (visibly) sexual variance or outside ideas. Just a nice little bubble.

It is a time capsule in many ways. It reminded me of how people used to describe the 50s and 60s under McCarthyism. I thought it was still going on there. It is a very white place as a lot of the decedents from mormon pioneers were Scandinavian, lot of blondes. Every one who is not blonde is sort of suspect. No mention of sexual difference, everything was repressed or not spoken of. When I was young there were no people of color.  Once in a great while you might see a non white person. It sounds backward but I always felt bad for anyone non white in Utah. I knew how I felt and could not imagine looking dramatically different in this culture.

Salt Lake City, Utah, #11

I'm not sure I understand. You felt bad being different yourself?

Yes. I felt like an outsider after I rejected Mormonism. In my town there were no other social groups to bond with. The Mormons were backward but accepting of other races as long as they eventually converted to Mormonism. So I was projecting, trying to empathize with folks that were seen by the cultural majority as even more outside the Mormon norm. 

The Weather book has photos from both California (where you were living) and Utah. Do you think Utah and CA are similar in some ways?

Great question. There are a lot of Mormons in CA and growing up in small town Utah there would be a few new kids in school who moved to Utah from California. They were always the cool kids. They had real culture. Utah has long looked to California as model for things good and bad. Later I felt like I needed to live there at least for a while to get to know that place. The main subject of the Weather book was sprawl and typically along mountain benches and foothills.  This elevated view provided a better vantage point to deal with the sedimentary layers of development. California had much more sprawl to mine and Utah has more epic mountain horizons and some tacky down home touches while aping what was going on in California.

I understand how they looked similar in development patterns. But it seems odd for Mormons to look to CA as a cultural model. But it all connects too to the Latter Days photos. It's all commenting on a certain outlook or mode of lifestyle. You're like the prodigal son returning to the promised land to explore with eyes open.

Now that have lived on the east coast for 18 years I feel like a prodigal son in both areas. I think California and Utah have a lot in common. California has more culture but more sin. A lot of CA folks move to Utah to be in the rarified air of mormon totality. Some move back right away as they can't handle the backwardness. Some love it. There is something that is said a lot about the difference between California Mormons and Utah Mormons. In Utah they are the large majority in most places and because they run the show Utah Mormons are more uptight. There is a more rigid moral standard to uphold and people are less forgiving. There is a competition in Utah to be the most pure. CA mormons are typically normal nice folks who have a funky religion and try to live a good clean life with in a larger culture. They tend not to be as tyrannically zealous.

Whoah. Competition for purity. That's wacky! Tell me more.

When you have a culture or religion where folks that know they are going to the highest level of heaven they can't help but look or talk down to non Mormon folks or even each other. They have a surety about the after life that gives comfort and creates a weird elitism. They are like most groups in that they feel sorry, take pity and look down on folks that are not them. They are not interested in gray. When I was a young boy I was constantly ratted out by my neighbors. They were trying to help and they knew best. This is how a lot of folks there feel about free thought and free will. They know best and they are not afraid to help you.

Why are you drawn back there?

Yes, good question. I go back a lot to see how I was shaped by that place and to try get over the anger and I had at being repressed. I also came to see being repressed as an artistic gift - an axe to grind. I am mostly interested in the landscape nowadays. These folks claim to adore it and yet need to control and consume it. I am interested in how those compromises get worked out. But this happens everywhere. In Utah I know where and how to look for it in.

You express strong negative feelings about Utah and Mormonism. Do you think your photographs are therapeutic for you? Do they help you come to terms with Utah, Mormonism, and your childhood there? And do you want your photographs to provide a cultural critique of that lifestyle?

I am a little weirded out by the therapy word but that is a sign that you are on to something. I did feel a great sense of relief when the book was published. When putting the first sequences for the book together I made a very biting edit. I had to get that out of my system. The book that we published is a critique of mormon culture but it is also look back at my childhood. There are a lot photos of boys. When I was making this work I was living away from home and my youngest brother was still living with my mom and our third step father. I knew he was going through a really bad time and I tried to help but there was not a lot I could do. Now I see these photos as projections or surrogates for me and my brothers. There are a lot of subtle Mormon jokes that some folks might not get. 

I'm curious about your annual road trips to Utah. Do you just drive straight there? Or slow down for photos along the way? You could probably find similar development scenes along the way. So are you interested in exploring those scenes? Or more interested in Utah?

St. George, Utah, 2002

I do bee line it for Utah. I want to start taking more time and exploring more widely but it takes a lot of money to raise a family and make work. So we mostly get to Utah quick to stay with relatives and keep costs low. But we stay for a month or two so it is not cheap. We are lucky right now because both my wife Heather and I teach school and have summers off. 

It might be cheaper to stay in Rhode Island and make photos. Do you ever shoot there?

I have been working slowly on a few projects on the east coast. I want to be shooting all the time but school has a way of sucking up all your time if you let it. It kills me going back and forth or making most of the work in the two shittiest light months of the year.  One of the things that is great about being out West is you just have to drive over the freeway or along the foot hills and you get a grand view of what to go explore. The green canopy here makes my progress a bit slower.

I spend a few weeks in Maine every summer and that's one thing that always hits me about the east coast. The perspectives are capped at such a short distance. You see a mile or two and that's it. In the west in the right spots you can see 30 or 50 miles at a time. It's a different spatial reality. I probably shouldn't say this but I think the spatial dynamics are reflected also in east coast culture, with myopic perspective applied to life path, career, and general sense of possibility.

Yes, I have a built in GPS  out west with all the mountains running north/south. Any time I can just look up and know where I am relative to the horizon and here (in RI) I have to know where the major freeways or streets are but I get lost a bit still. Living in Rhode Island for a number of years I have run into a good number of myopic folks. I live 15 minutes outside of Providence and there are neighbors who have told me I am crazy to drive that far.

I think anyone who spends a long time somewhere develops built in GPS. East or west coast or wherever. But the physical presence of the landscape out west is so much more expansive. 

Yes, I'm starting to put it together a sense of place with the shorelines but that changes so much in RI. It is one of the most compelling things that I miss about being out west. You can see the extended world and there is something calming about seeing more. Probably just what I am used to. I like the forests here very much but I always feel good when leaving for open space.

I just took a little road trip to eastern Oregon. I've been there before. But even so I am still blown away by the sweeping vistas out to the horizon. You don't get that very often in the east. I think the folks in your Weather book are trying to tap into that. But in a very artificial way.

The horizon line was something I avoided like the plague early on when I first started to study photography in college. Now that it is a decorating element. I see horizons everywhere.

I'm curious about the new book with TIS. You said that publishing house was put together by some of your students? What's the story there?

Waiting Out The Latter Days,
TIS Books, 2015
This book project came about in a fun way. I was giving a lecture on my work and one of my former students was in the audience. I was showing some of my early street work as an example of when I actually made work with people. He liked the work a great deal and told me that he wanted to publish the early work some day. I was like, thanks and sure, just let me know when. Thinking him's sweet but a bit odd. A few years later he mentioned that he and his good friends were going to create their own imprint and that they would like to publish my early work. I was kind of taken aback that they were serious and started to edit the early work. I had a great time going through contact sheets that were 22-25 years old. I am a much better editor of my work now that I have had a nice long digestion period. 

Right place, right time, right student. The book turned out really well. For a new publisher they have the production issues dialed in. 

We got together and I thought maybe we could do a small book and that is when I got the fire to go back and shoot in Utah again. People were showing up in my landscape photos so I went for it. I was having a blast visiting my youth and exploring what may have changed since the Berlin Wall has come down. Were people still afraid that the apocalypse was around the corner? Did they live in that same fear or dread? I know that these issues would be hard to see in the work but that was what piqued my new interest. I was not sure that the new pictures would work with the old but I had to check back in.

Wait. There are new photos in the book? I thought it was all older stuff.

There are 14 photos that I took over the summer in 2013 and 2014. I bought a Zeiss Ikon and some Tri-X and jumped in.

They blend pretty well, especially with no captions. Now I have to look harder.

I tried to edit the photos in sections of old and new but it made more sense to just edit them together for the best overall sequence and let the time stamp of the various eras provide more mystery.

Were you deliberately trying to fake readers out by mixing the two eras? I mean, even now as I look through the book, you have to look pretty hard to separate the new photos from the old ones.

I wanted to address the issue of old and new photographs in titles and captions at the end of  the book but after thinking about it for a while I just wanted to stay out of the way of the sequence that I had going. I felt like we were at a great level of having flow but not too much of a linear story and I felt like the captions would have made folks go back and take that apart. I'm not trying to pull a fast one. It is a timeless place to me in some ways. The title grew out of my early need to get out of Utah and live before the end of days. It is also my reference that the saints were waiting out their last day before being called home. When I was young I would imagine how cool Utah would be if had not been discovered by the Mormons. Then I look at Denver or California and try to find a way to like my home warts and all. There is a great Robert Adams quote from the book To Make it Home. It has to do with the process of learning to live with what you can not accept. There will constantly be folks in Utah who will tell you that these are the latter days and you better prepare.

Was it just former one student involved in the publishing or was the whole crew former students?

I feel really fortunate that the great guys at TIS thought so much of the work. The three principals are Nelson Chan, Cary Wooly, and Tim Carpenter. They were all students in the first year of the Hartford Low Residency Grad Photo program. I taught a digital photo class there in the summer and got to know them. I was a bit worried when I first started working there thinking that there would be some students who were not so great. 

Why did you expect not great students? From personal experience with grad students? Or some other reason?

I just did not know what to expect and was surprised at how good they were. I think that one would naturally wonder about the type of student who wanted to put in part time effort. The great thing about grad school is that you totally immerse yourself. I was expecting working professional students who were good at compartmentalizing their various roles in life but all of the Hartford students were truly passionate and wholly committed. The program was really well run with great faculty. There was a pent up need for this type of program. Their grads are continuing to make really great work after grad school and a lot of them are getting attention. I still teach there and I love working with them. 

I have a few friends who went through that program and gave it a positive nod.

TIS01, 2015
The principals at TIS were part of the first class at Hartford. They were all located around NY and they grew into being close friends.  They are crafting their own idea of what a publisher can be in this fast changing photo world. They are trying to take the freedom and quality of printing via indigo press and make something good and lasting from it. I feel very fortunate to have been part of their launch. They have some lofty and interesting ideas and are just getting started. The TIS website has some great writing and commentary.

It's indigo press? Does that mean the book is printed digitally? The quality looks as good as any offset book I've seen.

The first imprint was TIS 01, a set of four books by Carl Wolley, J Carrier, Nelson Chan and Tim Carpenter. The TIS 01 were printed in Indigo and Waiting Out the Latter Days was printed in quad tone offset, all books were printed at Brilliant Graphics in Exton, PA. The quality of both projects was great and I was amazed that we were able to print the BW work on the press. All of the TIS lads are highly skilled, especially in taking film scans to digital output. There was a learning curve but Bob Tursack the CEO of Brilliant was very hands on and super helpful. I was surprised to learn that the number of indigo printers have forced domestic printers to lower their prices on offset.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Q & A with Mike Slack

Mike Slack by Ron Jude, 2008
Mike Slack is a photographer based in Los Angeles. He also performs occasionally on drums, backup vocals, and cowbell.



Mike Slack: Apropos of nothing (or everything?) this has been stuck in my head for the last week.

Blake Andrews: I can't tell you why that song has been stuck in your head. But The Long Run was one of the first cassettes I ever bought way back in... 1979? Probably still in my basement somewhere. 

I categorically hate the Eagles, but the last 90 seconds of the song are sublime. Maybe one of the best "easy listening" tracks ever recorded. Saw this outside my hotel in Santa Barbara last week: 


video

That drummer is pretty smooth. What you say about the Eagles is sort of funny. I think everyone categorically hates them but secretly adores at least one of their songs. I have a hard time judging them because I listened to them hard back in 6th grade and now all the lyrics are stuck in my brain forever, so I can't help hum along. Damn earworm.

The New Yorker, June 15th, 2015

Exactly. I never went out of my way to listen to the Eagles, but I can’t go anywhere without hearing them, for my entire life! I don’t even know if it qualifies as "guilty pleasure" to know every lyric to most of their songs. It’s just a condition of modern life.

I think the Eagles situation may be more acute for you since you live in LA. I mean, that's ground zero for their music. Up here in the Northwest, Nirvana serves a similar role. Their music is drilled into everyone from birth. Yay, regionalism! The last bastion of non-web powered aesthetics.

The Nirvana thing is certainly more of a regional effect, but the Eagles’ oppression extends far beyond LA. I guess it may be more pronounced down here, and it’s my own fault that I only listen to classic rock (or my karaoke playlist) in the car. I went to a Christian high school in suburban Indianapolis, and you can imagine the lectures I had to sit through about the Satanic subtext of “Hotel California,” which of course only drove the earworm further into my psyche.

You went to a Christian high school where they lectured about the evils of "Hotel California"? Holy shit, that's interview pay-dirt.

Does it seem exotic? I seemed totally normal back then (I went to the school from 4th grade through high school). Conservative culture only seemed strange to me, increasingly so, later in life. Around the mid-1980s these guest speakers would come to the school give seminars the evils of rock-and-roll music, the practice of “backward masking” in heavy metal recordings, subliminal sex messages in advertising, that kind of thing. If you’re so inclined, you can pick apart the lyrics of “Hotel California” (which is already an openly dark song about the trappings of hedonism, etc) and read them as references to Satanism — the lines “in the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast, they stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast” still sound really creepy to me. At the time I was vaguely frightened by all that dark stuff, but also quite intrigued. 


from High Tide
Seems ridiculous to me now that grown adults were trying to teach us this stuff, or that they themselves really believed it and were afraid of it. Everything “secular” was some kind of trap set by Satan (or homosexuals). All it really did was make me love Ozzy and Dio and Accept and Iron Maiden, which I listened to obsessively throughout high school (along with all the “alternative” music of the 80s and then Brian Eno’s ambient records, which I discovered around 11th grade by way of Roxy Music — long story), and also made me look that much closer at print advertising, scrutinizing the CMYK dot patterns, hoping to detect some naked tits hiding in plain sight in a glass of whiskey, or a cock and balls hidden in the nose of Joe Camel… (John Darnielle, by the way, makes ingenious use of backward masking in his novel WOLF IN WHITE VAN, whose title comes from a “hidden” phrase in Larry Norman’s “666.”)

I could probably make a case that photographing the way I do — treating the “background” or secondary matter as the important stuff, generally ignoring the conventionally “beautiful,” making books that don’t really have a beginning or an end — is all some process of resisting the idea of a top-down hierarchy, reversing the kind of power structure the Church drilled into me in various ways…

Did you know you have a photographer Doppelgänger? In Berkeley.

Yes, I’ve come across this other Mike Slack (nature photographer?). There's also an illustrator (also in the Bay Area?) named Michael Slack... I work for his publisher and occasionally get emails from his editor about this children’s book illustrations. Very confusing. We should all have a show together.


New Orleans, 2015

I think it's kind of wonderful. I like the idea of someone looking you up or the other one and becoming confused. The Berkeley one is not much like you photographically.

Confusion is not a bad thing. And all these Mike Slacks are making visual art, which is odd.

I wrote a post about mixed up names a few years back.

Wait... you’re not the director of the Pink Panther films? What is this interview about? 

It's about how did you begin as a photographer?

I did have a Pentax K-1000 in high school and took a couple photo lessons back then (my dad was an enthusiast) but it was never really a thing for me — creatively I was more into playing drums, and then studied English in college, had an interest in language and linguistics. Moved to Southern California in the early 1990s and started making Polaroids with a 680SLR in the late 90s. That’s when the photo thing took root, and I had a kind of mania for making pictures but didn’t really think of myself as a “photographer” until later.

It says drummer on your Facebook profile. "Drums, Backup Vocals, Cowbell at The Ice Plant." It's amazing that a small publisher can find a niche for those roles in the budget. It seems only the major publishers can afford cowbell players anymore.

That's more of a metaphor at this point, and we don’t have much of a budget. Actually, my day job is with one of the major publishers (Macmillan). Definitely a lot of cowbell there.

What's your day job with Macmillan?

Traveling salesman. I sell their books to independent bookstores in southern California, Arizona, and Hawaii.

Do you use your travel as photo ops? Do you shoot while traveling?

Always. I take a lot of detours. Probably make more pictures when I’m traveling than when I’m home — although Los Angeles is so vast I can often end up an unfamiliar place in a matter of minutes. 

Do you have any other formal training in photography? In college or outside of school or anyplace?

None. I’m totally informal, and maybe untrainable.

Do you still play drums?

Not really — a lot of air-drumming, and the steering wheel of my car takes a pounding. I do still have my original snare drum on a stand in my office at home and have been playing it lately to clear my mind.

It's like meditation for you. Does photographing do that too? Or maybe it has the opposite effect? Filling the mind.

Playing the drums is definitely like meditation  I wouldn't mind being in a Krautrock band where I could just hammer out a 4/4 motorik indefinitely. Using a camera is also kind of meditative — I consider it a 'practice,’ a long-term practice without a goal, like yoga or karaoke (I think I'm quoting myself from another interview here). Roaming around with a camera clears the mind to a certain extent  shuts off a part of my thoughts, emphasizes other senses, heightens a certain kind of attention.  I like how Henry Wessel describes the process of making photographs in his short intro to California and the West: “…eyes open, receptive, sensing, and at some point connecting. It’s thrilling to be outside your mind, your eyes far ahead of your thoughts.” 


Ed Panar, Mike Slack, Ricardo Cases (photo by R. Cases)

What do you mean "without a goal." Isn't the resulting photograph the goal? Otherwise why put film in the camera?

What is this mysterious "film" you speak of?… Each photograph is a kind of destination, but as a personal practice or habit, the individual pictures aren’t really the point. It's an open-ended process, a headspace. I might nail a particular song in karaoke, or hold a perfect handstand or some crazy yoga pose, but have I arrived? In the long-term, I don’t know what the goal is, other than to keep doing it, to stay in practice, to stay engaged and see new things. There's a lot of repetition, and satisfaction, in the behavior. 

I guess asking someone about the goal is a loaded question. It varies for everyone. And I agree the process of looking and converting the world into photos is sort of a self-contained answer. But taken as a life activity, isn't there some goal? To improve one's vision? Or relationship with the world? Or to show others how you view things? I don't know and I'm just speculating, but I'm curious to hear your take.

Is there a goal to any life activity, or human history in general? I’m maybe taking too wide a perspective here, but the open-ended "meditative" aspect of photography is what I’m getting at, the aimless wandering. There doesn’t have to be a point. (“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot live without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” —John Gray, Straw Dogs

Sometimes a good picture or a good book comes out of it, but the pleasure is mostly in looking through the camera and seeing things, recording things, over and over, shooting first, asking questions later. Of course I want to be good at it but I don’t get too fixated on goals (probably to my financial detriment)… On the other hand, images are language, and even if I’m not sharing what I see with other people, there is an uncontrollable (prehistoric?) urge to create images that convey new information about reality, that record things in new ways. So maybe that is the essential goal, to create new information. The impulse to make pictures — to depict — is primordial, and led to the creation of alphabets and written language (maybe a topic for another interview). Sharing that visual information, communicating with others — maintaining and making sense of an archive, making books, posting pictures on Instagram, selling prints or whatever — is a whole other practice. 

On the subject of goals (from Pyramids) "The Devil's favorite word is tomorrow."

"Time and the Devil are identical.” VilĂ©m Flusser, The History of the Devil.

I gotta think about that one. I thought time was Jesus? I had it completely backwards. Which involves time of course. So that explains it. Going back in the Devil a minute to the subject of the mysterious "film", what was it about Polaroids that first drew you in?
from OK OK OK

I was attached to the Polaroid for a long time for a lot of reasons — the camera itself, and also the prints, all of it very physical, clunky, analog. I drifted away from it after Pyramids, but I kind of miss carrying it around, treating it like a recording device, working within its limitations, hearing its mechanical sounds. Part of what first drew me in was that the pictures often looked more like paintings than photographs, and this could be done without Photoshop and without much technical knowledge of how the camera and film functioned. There was an immediacy to it, a lot of surprises and happy accidents. Also a challenge in making a really precise picture using this relatively primitive apparatus. It’s entirely possible I could’ve gotten a similar satisfaction shooting negatives and making prints the traditional way, but the Polaroid worked for me back then and I stuck with it.

Part of Polaroid photography involves that short five minute window while you wait and watch the photograph slowly develop. Was that a meaningful time for you? Did you use it to pause or meditate or somehow satisfy expectations? For me using Instax, I find those short periods to be very contemplative. The world stops for five minutes.

Ah, so it’s not exactly “instant” photography! There’s still a time factor (the Devil is tenacious)… That five minute window is of course full of anticipation. The conclusion is often a letdown, but when a "perfect" image happens to coalesce from the nothingness of the emulsion, it’s like an abstract thought suddenly achieving clarity in the mind, or a memory suddenly being retrieved. 

I like photos that feel like they had to be made at a certain time and place to work. Two feet to the left or one minute later and the photo would fall apart. Your Polaroids seem to have that. They are very precise in framing and perspective. Good sense of edges, and also the subjects themselves. Not easy. I think it's hard to be the sort of photographer who pulls randomly from the real world while still injecting that sense of certainty.

The precision is a natural inclination. I love(d), and was maybe drawn to, playing drums for this reason — the mechanical mathematics of tempo, rhythm, polyrhythm, syncopation, etc — and I ascribe some of my sense of visual composition to that skill, zeroing in on something (even the most nondescript, random part of reality) and balancing it within the frame. Tricky to do this in-camera with the Polaroid of course… Part of the allure of photography is exactly what you’re saying — an unrepeatable split-second of light, color, texture, all mind-bogglingly specific to a location in space-time. Almost all my pictures are taken outdoors, and sunlight is a key factor, which may emphasize that feeling — no way to stop the rotation of the Earth and no way that shadow will ever look exactly the same. (“The Devil’s favorite word is tomorrow”?)

So you have precision built in. Were you a math/science guy in high school? Or were your parents engineers? Or where does that come from

None of the above. I have no explanation (“I can’t tell you why…”). While there’s precision in a lot of the images, or in the way they’re presented, the routine of making pictures is often deliberately imprecise and random. A lot of the locations and subjects of the pictures are determined somewhat by chance — stopping to shoot one thing, then discovering another thing around the corner or just to the left or right, or even forcing myself to stop at a random location (i.e. setting a timer to go off every 5 or 7 minutes). So maybe it balances out.

Do you still shoot Polaroids?

I’m not really shooting Polaroids at all now. A couple years ago I shot the "Alphabetography" Polaroids which appear in The Photographer's Playbook, which was strangely difficult and ate up most of my remaining film… Pyramids was published in 2009 around the time Polaroid went bankrupt, and I briefly played around with a few other instant formats (The Impossible Project films, etc) but the novelty of it had worn off somewhat, and all my good Polaroid cameras were falling apart and a hassle to maintain. I gradually found a digital camera I like and have been content with that for a few years now…


Alphabetography from The Photographer's Playbook

I've had fun with the Fuji Instant cameras. They're plastic and fall apart, but so cheap they're easily replaced. I know I could do the same photos with an iPhone but something about that physicality which you mentioned appeals to me.

Never say never. I might come back to instant cameras some point, but I'm happy at the moment with the NEX7. 

How would you compare Instagram to Polaroid?

Are they comparable? I use Instagram but I don’t use the app as a camera. My feed is a combination of stuff from my Sony NEX7 and my iPhone camera roll, often weeks or months old. I like the general flow of the whole thing. It’s good to have that channel open, to maintain a kind of casual gallery (as opposed to my website, which I rarely maintain).

from Mike Slack's Instagram

I think they're comparable in the type of material they turn up. Polaroids were closely associated with snapshots and daily ephemera. Instagram seems to have assumed that role now. When a photograph is released from the burden of showing "important" stuff, interesting material can fill that void. Both Instagram and Polaroid feed on that.

To some extent, though it depends on whose feed (or whose Polaroids) you’re talking about. Instagram has that personal/informal aspect, but there’s much more there than just snapshots and daily ephemera. Maybe the “instant” experience of making a Polaroid has evolved into the “instant” experience of sharing images? 

If you watch this amazing promotional film (by Charles & Ray Eames) about the SX-70 camera, it’s clear that Edwin Land’s mission with Polaroid was to give consumers (to give humanity) an easier, more direct means of making photo prints, “to remove the barrier between the photographer and his subject” with a device whose “thoughtful use could reveal meaning in the flood of images which makes up so much of human life.” This was a deep human need he was trying to address — our natural compulsion to make pictures of our surroundings and interact with them. I’d agree that the invention of the Polaroid was a huge step in democratizing photography, pushing it beyond the Instamatic point-and-shoot experience toward this crazy instantaneous photo-sharing situation we’re in now. If Land was trying to close the loop and remove technical steps from the process for the photographer, Instagram has closed the loop even tighter than he could have ever imagined.

How did your Polaroid books come into being?

I met Jason Fulford around the year 2000 and showed him all these pictures I'd been accumulating. I had tracked him down after finding a copy of his first book, Sunbird — it seemed self-published and I simply wanted to pick his brain about printing a book of my own, not realizing he was starting to publish other people’s work. He did the initial edit for OK OK OK (culled from the nearly 400 Polaroids I’d scanned and printed) and we built the book around those. I was fortunate to have his input on all that — he's a really good editor, and the book design was perfect. After the J & L Books edition sold out, Tricia Gabriel started The Ice Plant (which we now run together) and reprinted OK OK OK, and we kept the same basic design (with different colors) for Scorpio and Pyramids. It wasn't planned this way but the three books now feel to me like one single project, a 3-headed creature.

Pyramids, Scorpio, OK OK OK

They form a nice trilogy with the blue, yellow, and red covers. I thought they'd been conceived as a set of three. But apparently not. Was Jason Fulford's edit much different than your own?

Vastly different. I really didn't have much of an 'edit' back then. I'd been collecting the Polaroids into groupings of 4 and 8 in these big portfolios, combining them in various ways based on color, shapes, themes, but it was really a huge mess of pictures and I was too close to all of them. Jason cut out 90% of it and somehow pulled out just the essentials  the 5 or 6 basic picture-types and their variations, plus a couple wildcards. I was a little shocked when he first showed me an edit of around 35 pictures, each on its own spread. Hadn't occurred to me to look at them this way, or to present them to an audience in such a minimal layout. But it immediately made sense, and had a big impact on how I worked going forward.

What do you mean? It affected your shooting? Or your editing?

The editing, and thinking about how to juxtapose and sequence pictures. Which in turn may have affected the shooting.

What if you had boiled the 400 down into 35 photos before showing them to Jason? How different would your selection be?

I just wouldn’t have done that. At the time I was still discovering my own sensibility, seeing unintended connections between the pictures, finding patterns and recurring themes, enthralled by the whole thing, deciphering the language. If I had any idea about editing, it was to keep expanding the mass. It was good to have somebody come in and take the opposite approach, to strip it all down and give it some space.

from Pyramids
There is one set of buildings which appears in a photo in each of the three books. As far as I can tell it's the only subject which appears in all three. I'm curious if that's an intentional marker to tie them all together, or just an accident? And where are those buildings? Is it some LA landmark?

Those are the Pyramids in Indianapolis.

Ah. See, I was making up an LA story in my mind about them. And all the while they were in Indiana. I guess that's the beauty of non-captioned photos. They allow a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. Does that site have some personal meaning to you?

One of my earliest memories is seeing these buildings through the backseat car window on the drive to my grandmother's house.  When I was a kid they seemed like something from another planet, both futuristic and ancient, out there off the highway surrounded by nothing. My three main Polaroid books are kind of an echo of those three buildings — again, not something I planned consciously, but it now seems obvious.

And that was something Jason Fulford keyed on too? That's sort of remarkable considering he was sifting through 400 photos.

Jason only worked on OK OK OK, and the oddly cropped Pyramids picture there connects to some of the other architecture photos in the book, both compositionally and thematically. When I was putting Scorpio together I included a shot of the same buildings from a different angle. There are actually 2 shots of the Pyramids in Pyramids but you might never know it... The odd geometry of those buildings has been with me forever.

from Pyramids
I'll look for that second shot. I remember one photo of a pavement repair which had the same shape as the buildings. And I know there are many repeating forms throughout all three.

That pavement repair was actually on the sidewalk next to the Pyramids! Either a strange coincidence, or a clever construction worker... The other actual shot of the Pyramids is the triangular aperture shape toward the beginning of the book.

Were all three books pulled from the original body of 400 Polaroids? Or had you continued to make new work along the way?

I was making new work the whole time. There may be a picture or two in Scorpio from that original 400 but almost all of it was shot afterward, and Pyramids is all post-OK OK OK


Since you mentioned your memories of the buildings I'm curious how many other photos in those books have some close personal meaning for you. For me as an outside viewer they seem rather formal and objective.

Many of the pictures in all 3 books have a very personal significance. They books are not strictly 'autobiographical' but all the images trigger intense personal associations — my cat (now deceased) and my ex-wife are in OK OK OK, my dad is in Scorpio, and my mom is in Pyramids (as well as a Polaroid-of-a-Polaroid of Tricia). Even the more formal pictures are loaded with emotion and memory. For me the pictures are energized and held together by all that personal stuff, but people can read into them as much as they want to.

I think that's when you know you're on the right path. When you can create a photo (or any art) invested with personal feeling, but which also can be appreciated by Joe Schmo on the street for its purely aesthetic quality.

Joe Schmo is maybe my ideal audience. 

What about the recent book, Shrubs of Death? Is there some personal connection?

Those photographs were made at the cemetery in northeastern Indiana where my grandparents are buried. My parents (still living) already have headstones there too. I was there alone last summer and it was kind of intense, thinking about death, life, family, etc. The shrubs around the cemetery are unnervingly present and I had an urgent need to photograph all of them (and no intention of making a book). The phrase “drums of death” has always been on my short list of potential book titles, so…

from Shrubs of Death

Tell me more. What do you think about death?

Is this a James Lipton moment? When I say death, maybe I just mean loss, the inevitability of losing things you love and having to cope with that, anticipating it. When I photographed those alluring shrubs, I had in mind a typology, some reference to the New Topographics. But when I looked at the pictures a few months later, it occurred to me that they were about death, the idea of death, the inability to know anything about death — they seem to be saying something, to mean something, but they’re inaccessible, dark, silent, they give you absolutely nothing. Photography is of course always about death and loss in some sense (“All photographs are memento mori.” —Susan Sontag, On Photography), and photographs also only ever pretend to have meaning, they conceal more than they reveal. 

Here's a techie question about the books. I like the way the reproductions are actual size to resemble photos laid on a page. But the borders look fake to me. Were they photoshopped in? They don't have any stains or texture or anything.

The Polaroid border in all the books is simulated. It was important to me to present the Polaroids as objects on the page, but when Jason and I saw the proofs for OK OK OK all the borders looked inconsistent and murky, and they were going to get worse as we color-corrected on press. So we came up with this other solution, while at the printer in Korea, literally a couple days before the book was printed. It's a slight tint (maybe a small percentage of C, Y, K, I can't remember exactly) with a varnish over the whole Polaroid area.

Did you color correct to keep Polaroid's unique color palette? Or to correct its flaws?

The images were adjusted to be as close as possible to the originals -- not easy with offset printing but it's close enough.

I think the photos might've looked nice with inconsistent murky borders. Isn't that part of the Polaroid magic? Each photo is unique and not easily copied.

The texture of the borders was what we originally wanted, but the color adjusting (given our somewhat limited knowledge at the time) was really messing things up and it would have been a distraction. I actually prefer the clean look as it is — the emphasis is on the images but a ghost of the medium is still there.

New Orleans, 2015

Last question because we've been at this a while: What's the deal with you and cats? I'm thinking of the New Orleans photos you sent me. Plus some of your Instagram feed...

Non-human intelligence? I don’t know. If I could explain the deal with me and cats, I wouldn't need to photograph them so much. They're a necessary element.

All photos above by Mike Slack unless otherwise noted.